Britain’s tactical voting revolution

Dominic Hilton
10 May 2005

Beneath Britain's "first-past-the-post" electoral system, a quiet revolution is taking place. Tony Blair's governing Labour Party may have won a decisive parliamentary majority on 5 May, on the seriously shaky basis of 36% of the vote in a 61% turnout, but his country's citizens showed during the campaign that they were determined to turn the system to their own advantage.

The big question now is: did the dozens of grassroots initiatives across Britain actually make a difference to the result in any of its 646 constituencies?

Forget the Labour cabinet (and Conservative shadow cabinet) reshuffles for a moment. Ignore the post-mortem media piranha-feast around the various party leaderships. Put to the back of your mind the paranoidly-managed election campaign itself, its lifeless morning press conferences, the photo-ops, the baby-kissing, the faux-love-in between Blair and his long-term rival and ally, Gordon Brown.

Forget it all, and consider that underneath the formalities, British democracy is busy: organising, connecting, advocating, mastering statistics, thinking strategically. For enough evidence exists to suggest that the curious result of the election was indeed determined in part by some super-energised democrateering on the ground and across the web. The often-invisible, laser-guided campaigning of committed sections of the British electorate may have been as important a factor as the more media-friendly issue of “public trust” in Tony Blair.

Call them geeks. Call them nutters. Call them one-issue obsessives. Heck, call them revolutionaries. Whatever they are, these surprisingly sophisticated sorts have impacted on this election and helped shape the political geography of the United Kingdom.

They come from all ends of the spectrum – from pro-hunt to pro-peace to pro-hunt-and-pro-peace. They are the inevitable product of a first-past-the-post electoral system that produces the kind of skewed, unbalanced result that British citizens seemed once to take lying down – and are prepared to do no longer.

They are what happens when the electorate get mathematically and geographically savvy about the workings of their electoral system – a system which doesn’t represent each individual vote. Away from the traditional, well-oiled party machines, electionites start organising around issues, and support candidates who best represent those issues in different, often unpredictable ways.

Their names tell the story: Strategic Voter, Tactical Voter, Vote-OK, Vote 4 Peace, Save the Scottish Regiments, DitchBlair. They are a force to be reckoned with. Though no one, not even them, knows quite how much of a force.

Scalping the politicians

Vote-OK, a pro-hunting group affiliated with the Countryside Alliance, is coordinated from the attic of a cattle-shed in Gloucestershire, western England. It claims the scalps of some twenty-nine anti-hunting MPs – sorry, former MPs – and boasts of leaving twenty-one others with miniscule and barely defendable majorities. Charles Mann, former officer with the 14th/20th King’s Hussars and co-chief of the project with his wife Chipps, praises a “campaign on a substantial and hitherto unseen level in modern politics.” This conservative group is bandying around old-left phrases and talking of being “organised and committed”.

Chipps Mann talked to me about her and her husband’s surprise at how political they’d become. Vote-OK, she said, had helped people realise that politics is “not hallowed ground – we can do this too! We’ve suddenly woken up to the fact that anything is possible!” Hunting, she said, was not the issue at the election, but the issue that motivated people to get more widely involved in traditional politics.

Vote-OK targeted anti-hunting candidates in key marginal constituencies, delivering 3.4 million leaflets, 2.1 million hand-addressed envelopes, erecting 55,000 posters and, apparently, devoting some 170,000 campaigning hours to the cause. This was the old-school democracy of “leg men” (I was one of them). An issue, a livelihood, a lifestyle, a cause, became a democratic movement instead of a protest rally. Hunting itself was hardly mentioned. Newbury, Putney, The Wrekin, Hammersmith & Fulham, Peterborough, Enfield Southgate, Sittingbourne and Sheppey – turned over, all.

Meanwhile, as far north as Perth, Scotland, Keith Mothersson, a Buddhist and part-time gardener, mobilised “lovers of peace” across Britain to oust “warmongering” MPs who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Strategic Voter, Keith’s brainchild, encourages just that: strategic voting. It is superbly sophisticated, amazingly so given that Keith is a die-hard peacenik who talks of things like “men’s anti-sexism” and explains his operation thus: “I feel overwhelmed by a sense of how we all depend on Society and Mother Nature, so I hope to use whatever opportunity arises (not exactly voting) to express this gratitude and contribute as best I can – however inadequately – to defending and expressing our ‘Motherland’ of peaceful civilian life worldwide.”

Strategic Voter thinks Tony Blair’s New Labour is a Noble Lying neocon war-machine guilty of “institutionalised racism” and “Islamophobia”. Nevertheless, Strategic Voter encouraged some voters to vote for Conservative candidates – despite the fact that he believes Tories to be often “racist or classist or sexist or homophobic”, and even though the Conservative Party too backed the Iraq war.

It’s complicated. But all these groups do a phenomenal job of cutting through the logic of Britain’s electoral system. In a neat four-page leaflet – 10,000 of which were produced, many of which were handed out with the newspaper produced by homeless people, the Big Issue – London Strategic Voter lists how each London MP voted on the Iraq war, presents a breakdown of margins and percentages, and offers voting recommendations for each constituency under four categories; “principled”, “expressive”, “tactical” and “strategic”. A lot of their targets fell.

Then there’s Jason Buckley, who founded tacticalvoter.net in 2001. His big idea is anti-Tory “vote-swapping”. Voters come to his website and “swap” their votes with people in other constituencies – “I’ll cast your vote for the Liberal Democrats in my constituency, where the Lib Dems have a chance, if you cast my Labour vote in your constituency, where Labour can win.”

Tacticalvoter is a place where Stephen Roberts, a Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for New Forest East, who did everything he could to assist the campaign of his Liberal Democrat rival, is heralded for his “heroic inactivity”. Buckley’s literature was distributed in about sixty seats, and he reckons at least three seats may have swung thanks to his efforts – Lonsdale, Taunton and Broxtowe, where the winning candidate dedicated his victory to tacticalvoter.net.

“It’s been a bizarre election,” Buckley told me. “There’s been so much tactical voting. But it is so difficult to disentangle how much impact we had.”

Shifting the zeitgeist

This is the vital question. It’s impossible ever to know just who swung what, where and when. Some groups claim that they swung the whole election, others don’t want to claim anything. Save the Scottish Regiments claims victory in five seats. Vote4Peace, who supported anti-war candidates, claims twenty-one victories (out of thirty-five). “We have definitely made a difference to the composition of the next parliament,” they insist. Paul Hilder, one of the brains behind the operation (who admits also to joining Vote-OK “to do a bit of spying”), told me Vote4Peace “helped in its modest way to make the final week of the campaign a war-and-peace week.”

“British politics has become a politics of protest,” Hilder thinks. “We’ll see a lot more of this kind of activism in future. Quite a few people still can’t face voting tactically or strategically for the best candidate in their area, and the first-past-the-post electoral system therefore encourages protest, negativism or apathy.”

But some results inevitably overlap. Who won Enfield Southgate, for example, ousting iconic former schools minister Stephen Twigg? Was it the hunters of Vote-OK (particularly the Thurlow hunt) who poured into this London suburb from the neighbouring countryside? Or was it Strategic Voter, who also targeted the seat, thanks to Twigg’s support for the Iraq war? Or was it just the voters, who, nothing to do with Iraq or hunting, fancied electing a Tory?

Keith Mothersson of Strategic Voter tells me he thinks these campaigns have “helped to set a tactical ethos”. “Not a lot of influence,” he concedes, “but maybe a little in influencing the zeitgeist.”

What is certain is that the British electorate is becoming more clued-up thanks to the sophistication of these campaigns – and, arguably, despite the internationalism of an issue like Iraq, more localised as a consequence of this focus on the politics of each individual constituency. More importantly, votes are increasingly becoming separated from political beliefs, and this could have any number of implications, few of them healthy.

Jason Buckley, who helped produce this state of affairs, acknowledges the ambiguity of his creation: “It’s really something when, even after an election, you still don’t have a clue who supports who.”

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