Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-elections: How proportional representation would end the scourge of tactical voting – Willie Sullivan

Last week’s by-elections, that saw the Conservatives lose two seats on the same night, were a huge blow for Boris Johnson, and both significant results for the opposition parties.

Many people who voted in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election appear to have don so tactically (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Many people who voted in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election appear to have don so tactically (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

The losses in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton, where the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000 Conservative majority, were both the result of declining support for Johnson’s government, but also it would appear, the result of widescale tactical voting.

No voter should have to vote tactically. But tactical voting is an inevitable symptom of our failing first-past-the-post system used for Westminster elections.

As voters are given just one preference and only one candidate can become the MP in each constituency, votes for all the other candidates go to waste. This all-or-nothing system means that voters have to choose between voting with their hearts or working around the system to get the best outcome in their area.

You can see this by the falling support for Labour in Tiverton and Honiton – the party, who came second in 2019, saw their vote drop 15 percentage points, while the Liberal Democrats saw a swing of 38 per cent on their result from the last election. A sure sign of tactical voting at play.

This kind of voter behaviour is not just reserved for by-elections but is sadly a symptom of our electoral system anytime votes head to the polls. The 2019 general election was the most recent example of a ‘hold your nose’ election – where millions of voters were forced to vote for the ‘least worst option’

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Polling by YouGov for the Electoral Reform Society found that almost a third of voters (32 per cent) said they voted tactically in the 2019 general election, up from around one in five two years earlier.

This means millions of voters voted for candidates who were not their first choice – forced to take tactics into the polling station to have any chance that their vote would count.

Here in Scotland, we’re not immune from attempts to game the system. The 2021 Scottish Parliament election saw much talk of tactical voting by parties seeking to maximise the pro-independence or unionist vote. But Scotland’s proportional voting system did what voting systems should do and represented the preferences of voters fairly.

Nobody in Scotland had to worry about their vote being wasted, and they could vote in full knowledge that even if their constituency preference failed to win, their list vote would ensure that their views were likely to be represented in the end result.

For many voters come election-time, tactical voting is often presented as the answer – a way to game the broken system and have any chance of seeing your vote count.

But the truth is it is just a symptom, and until we address the root cause voters will be forced to hold their nose at the ballot box. Until we see an end to Westminster’s broken first-past-the-post system, voters will continue to be forced to vote tactically or see their vote ignored.

Only proportional representation can end the scourge of tactical voting, and ditching first past the post will ensure that every voice is heard and every vote counts.

Willie Sullivan is senior director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland

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