Sunday, March 20, 2005


Protest Votes and Fringe Parties

A few ideas to bring together on dealing with a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Assuming you're not one of the few lucky people who have a major party that
shares your policies, you have several choices:
I would have thought the above list was exhaustive, but a new tactic has been introduced: The first five are working with the parties as they are — either making the best of what's
offered or attempting to change the voting system.

The next three attempt to change the political shape within the same system.

The only recent UK example of a minor party getting anywhere near becoming major is the SDP, which was formed by disaffected Labour MPs in the 1980s, won a few seats and eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the current Liberal Democratic Party. The last new major party before that was the Labour Party.

Current minor parties worthy of notice are UKIP, the Green Party, Veritas, the BNP and Respect.

The chances of any of those becoming major parties (i.e. capable of winning parliamentary seats) seem negligible. (Respect has a sitting MP through defection) I think all of them would claim that that is their aim, but a realist would only vote for them to influence the major parties.

Such influence is real, either on a single issue (see this Telegraph piece on the Tory response to UKIP), or attempting to bring a range of issues into the mainstream debate, as the Greens have done, but for an activist, the question is whether providing voters with the opportunity for a protest vote is worth more than attempting to influence a major party directly from within. This is the question which Randy Barnett raised recently in an American context, when he suggested that the creation of the Libertarian Party was a mistake.

As I suggested on Thursday, in today's parties, the influence of the traditional part-time activist is diminishing. If you really want to have an effect within a British party these days, you have to become a full-time politician and join someone's staff. That swings the issue decisively for the part-timer. You can have more impact on the Labour Party by putting Respect leaflets through letterboxes than you can with Labour leaflets.

The weakness of the minor-party strategy is that while it demonstrates the level of support for your position, it actually gives a misleadingly low figure for that support. Many voters are unwilling to "waste their vote" on a candidate or a party which has no chance of winning. This makes little sense, since for many people — anyone in a "safe" constituency — their vote is a waste in any case. You don't win anything by picking the winning candidate from the list; to me a vote made "with nose held" is doubly wasted: not only are you not communicating your policy view, but you giving the false impression that you are satisfied with the choice that the current electoral system gives you. You are also failing to give any incentive to "your" party to follow your wishes.

The incentive concept is the basis for the Backing Blair strategy, of voting tactically against Labour with the intention of moving them to the Left. It is not as silly as it sounds, because it gives Labour more incentive to respond to the pressure than voting for a fringe Left party like Respect would. The strategy has two weaknesses. The obvious one, that it increases the chance of a more Right government, is accepted by the organisers as a cost, but, as they accurately point out, the "danger" of a non-Labour government after the next election is comparable to that of being destroyed by a supervolcano. The less obvious weakness is that it will be very difficult to communicate the number of votes that have been made this way. They can put Labour in a position where it would gain electorally by moving to the Left, but they can't prove it. Even if everyone who casts a vote according to the strategy publicly announces that they have done so, the party may assume that some of them are bluffing, and are trying to influence Labour without "paying the cost" of voting Conservative.

But campaigns like that, and votes for fringe parties, perform the useful service of emphasising what a poor choice the first-past-the-post system gives us. I pointed out on Friday that the scope of government has increased immensely but no power has been given to the voter to speak on the multiple areas that government now affects. Still one vote, every four or five years, for one of two or maybe three parties.

That is the real point of the recent abortion controversy also. The major parties are based primarily on economic policy positions. There just isn't room in the system for campaigning on policy positions that are not at least strongly correlated with the main left-right axis. The parties therefore have traditionally left those issues alone, with the result is made by MPs — elected without reference to their views on the issues — voting "according to their individual consciences".

How (and whether) to put the whole of government under democratic control is a very difficult question. I have no doubt, however, that giving voters a wider choice — through a proportional voting system — would be a step in the right direction.

Related Items

A New Party
A New Party II
Electoral Metaphysics
Bypassing Grassroots
Where's the Pork
This is an interesting post.

I covered something similar but from a lightly different angle: as a conservative dismayed by the lack of conservatism displayed by the Conservative Party I wondered out loud whether the Conservative Party being truly trounced in May would be such a bad thing.

The point is that, faced with electoral humiliation for a third time they may just realise they're not very good at playing Labour at its own game and should therefore return to their roots.

I would not actively campaign against the Tories - quite the contrary actually - but I do see that another loss might move them more in the right (literally and metaphorically) direction...

My post is here, if you'd be interested to take a look:

Best wishes,

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