This election has shown how first past the post poisons British politics

Despite Euro elections using proportional representation, debate has been dominated by questionable ideas about tactical voting imported from Britain's broken electoral system.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 May 2019, 1.13pm
Polling station, Edinburgh
Adam Ramsay, cc2.0

As I entered my Edinburgh polling station today, I walked past a forest of A boards from the different parties. The Conservative’s consisted entirely of a lie.

It said, “Only by voting for Ruth Davidson’s team can you stop the SNP winning a majority of seats”.

Scotland has six seats, and six parties in contention for them. If your main aim is to stop the SNP getting a majority, then a vote for any of the others would be an equally good way of achieving this aim.

But it’s not fair to single out the Tories. The Lib Dems have been equally guilty of lying in this election. And, in a sense, their lies are worse: partly because they are more persistent and more consistent. But also because they are actively trying to mislead people into thinking that this vote operates in roughly the same way as the UK’s first past the post electoral system, despite being advocates of proportional representation as used by the European Union.

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For example, the party delivered this leaflet in south-west England , declaring that a Green vote is “a wasted vote”. In the last election, the Greens won an MEP in the region , and the Lib Dems didn’t. Polls for this election show both have a chance of getting a seat (though, of course, either could miss out).

Screenshot 2019-05-23 at 14.08.49.png

And this isn’t just a one off. I’ve been shown examples of Lib Dem leaflets from this election which use bar charts from individual Westminster constituencies showing that “only” they can beat whichever other party in this election. This is, of course, a no-holds-barred , straight-down-the-line lie, carefully printed on thousands and thousands of leaflets, and intentionally designed to mislead voters about the system used in the election, and that people should perhaps consider the same questions as they might when voting for a constituency MP.

Even when parties aren’t lying, first-past-the-post culture infects so much of British politics. For example, the main Labour message in this election is that they are the only party that can “beat” the Brexit party: as though it’s some kind of sport, and what matters is which colour of rosette is on the highest number of elected EU candidates, rather than their actual politics. If the Brexit party gets three MEPs in a region with seven seats, is it more of a refutation of their politics if Labour get four, or if Labour also get three and the Greens get one?

Looked at from the perspective of how those MEPs will actually go and vote in the European parliament, the latter will certainly have as much impact on policy and politics as the former. The question of “who comes first” is really just about what the headlines say the day after the count – it’s about how the media will interpret the result. Which is, of course, politically significant, but we should at least be explicit about it.

Various leading Remainers have engaged in just this silliness, arguing that a vote for this Remain supporting party or that Remain supporting party in a given region is the best way to maximise the number of Remain supporting MEPs, with huge numbers of people seemingly willing to follow this advice.

It’s amusing that a community of people, many of whom swore blind after the referendum that they would never believe opinion polls again are, only three years later, willing to decide who to vote for based on the limited evidence of these polls – and, usually, unweighted subsamples of such polls in their regions.

There are very good reasons that pollsters struggle to predict modern politics: first, how do you get hold of anyone under the age of 40? I don’t answer our landline and am terrible at getting back to emails. I’m best accessed on WhatsApp and Facebook. Lots of my generation are similar. Second, predicting differential turnout in these votes is mighty hard. The different polling firms in these elections – all run by thoughtful experts – have very different assumptions about who is going to show up to vote today. None of us has any real clue about who is right.

Here’s the most anyone can sensibly say: north-east England only has three seats, and so you may want to vote tactically if you live there, for or against whatever you care about most. Wales only has four seats, and so, likewise.

In the rest of the UK, The Brexit Party, Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens (and SNP) are all in with a chance of getting a seat or, in some cases and places, a number of seats. No one has any real idea who is going to vote for whom, nor who will turn out at all. So tactical voting is a mug’s game.

It’s important not to discount the impact this culture has on our politics. While those who represent the interests of the powerful have access to much of the media to make their arguments, those who represent the interests of the rest of the country rely much more on ground and online campaigning.

But in this European election – as in most elections in the UK – the arguments made on leaflets and doorsteps – and in Tweets and Facebook posts – have largely been about how to game a complex voting system in order to stop someone you don’t like. They haven’t been about people’s lives. They haven’t been about how to transform society. They haven’t made a political argument that can persuade anyone of anything important, or - vitally, excite people to go and vote at all.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage is free to take to the airwaves and talk about actual issues, with his simple message: “defend democracy”. And so, while he won’t get a majority of votes, he’s already won.

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