Saturday, February 19, 2005

Strategic voting

In case you didn't know, there's an election coming up in the UK. And despite Tony Blair's best efforts - two official whitewashes and a non-apology in the House - the British public are refusing to "draw a line" under the Iraq war. Some are still so incensed that they have established a website, Backing Blair, urging people to do what they can under the UK's archaic simple plurality (first-past-the-post) electoral system to vote him out of office:

On election day, we want you to vote strategically. Ruthlessly. In 'safe' Labour seats and marginal seats we want you to vote for the candidate most likely to beat the Labour candidate.

Except this isn't strategic voting - it's mindless voting. Surely if you are trying to register a protest vote against the war in Iraq, a candidate's views on that war should be a consideration? Nick Barlow makes this point perfectly, using the example of a Labour MP who has consistently opposed both the war and the Blair government's overreaction to it:

And you think voting him out of the House of Commons will send a message to Tony Blair? I don’t know who his Tory opponent is, or what he or she may believe in, but what if you’re voting for someone like IDS who, in Matt’s words, would not only jump in a lake if asked to by George Bush, but would first drain it and then jump in head-first just to show much more committed he was than Blair?

Like Nick, I think the strategy expressed by John Harris in so now who do we vote for? (excerpt here)is far more effective: vote Labour where the candidate opposed the war or where the Conservatives have a serious chance of getting in - and not-Labour (and preferably one of the anti-war parties) everywhere else. The British Labour party needs to be punished for betraying its roots and supporting the unsupportable, and the best short-term strategy is to vote for the alternatives. The best long-term strategy, of course, is real electoral reform towards a proportional system - but that's not seriously on the UK radar at the moment.

A similar argument can be made about our own Labour government, of course. While their record on social, economic, and labour-market policy is good, on immigration and law and order (and human rights in general), it leaves much to be desired. But the answer to this is not to throw Labour out of office - the "alternative" is worse in every case - but to ensure that they pursue policies more in line with our preferences. Fortunately, MMP gives us a much easier time of this.

After the next election, Labour will almost certainly need the assistance of other parties to form a government. We must leave them in no doubt about our preference for forming a coalition on the left rather than in the centre (unless of course there is no other option). But more importantly, we must ensure that their left-wing partners have sufficient clout in internal negotiations to drag policy in the right direction. And the way to do this is to vote for the coalition partner rather than Labour. Both the Greens and Progressives have committed to backing Labour to form a government, so voting for them does not damage the left. But it will help shift the policy balance, both through internal coalition consultation and by making it clear to Labour that trying to outflank National on the right will be punished.

The electorate vote is another matter entirely. It's vitally important for small parties of course, but for the larger ones it is simply a way of selectively reordering the list. This leaves us free to express our displeasure for errant Labour MPs (such as Phil Goff for his hostile attitude towards human rights, David Benson-Pope for his outburst over Zaoui, or the traitors who voted against the Civil Union Bill) by voting for other candidates, assuming better alternatives can be found. It also leaves us free to vote for the most liberal credible candidate, so as to improve our chances on conscience votes. Neither of these will affect the overall outcome (that is ultimately decided by the party vote), but they may result in a Parliament which is more in line with our preferences.


"the traitors who voted against the Civil Union Bill"

Excuse me, but that was a vote based on conscience, not party lines. You may have decided that civil unions are the right way to go, but you can't mandate others to agree with you.

Posted by Muerk : 2/19/2005 05:50:00 PM

Absolutely it was a conscience vote. But that simply frees MPs from the whip - not from retribution from the voters.

I think many Labour voters will be quite displeased with the members of their party who voted for bigotry - and I will be encouraging them to act on that displeasure.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/19/2005 11:09:00 PM

I'd like to know why you regard those who voted against the C. U. Bill as traitors. Traitors to whom?

Posted by Muerk : 2/20/2005 01:10:00 PM

To the Labour party's stated values of "social justice and security and equality of opportunity", to their 2002 election manifesto, but above all, to their voters. The average Labour voter is far more tolerant and accepting of gay relationships than these MPs, and I don't think they should have to stomach their representatives voting for bigotry in their name.

One of my constant themes here has been that MMP gives us options. You can for example support a party while withholding your vote from an electorate candidate who does not share your values. And that is exactly what I am suggesting Labour voters in certain electorates do.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/20/2005 01:55:00 PM

strategic voting seems to me to be just a sort of subversion of democracy. In theory you should all vote for the party you want to win based on all of their policies. If everyone voted strategically the final result would be significantly inferior to them all voting rationally.
Anyway to vote strategically is to attempt to influence the government more than your fair share and at the same time probably give the government the wrong signals.
Of course the argument is more valid for hte electoral seat voting (although those people may also be in the list I guess) but presumably people currenly vote for candidates based on all of the issues to ask them to do so just on one issue would theoreticaly greatly decreaces the ampunt of information that vote carries.

Posted by Genius : 2/20/2005 04:17:00 PM

I have no problem with your idea that we use our voting options wisely, I agree wholeheartedly in fact.

What irritates me is your dismissive attitude of those who voted against the Bill as traitors, and bigots. Since they they weren't specifically either.

Posted by Muerk : 2/20/2005 04:20:00 PM

Muerk: So what words would you use to describe someone who voted for the exclusion of gays from society, contrary to election policies and values of the party they were elected to represent? "Traitor" and "bigot" seem perfectly appropriate in this case...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/20/2005 04:46:00 PM

Genius: Why am I not surprised that you consider sophistication in the expression of political preferences to be "subversion"....

Strategic voting is not about gaining "more than your fair share" of power; it's about using your voting power - equal with that of all other citizens - to maximum effect. MMP enshrines minority or coalition government, so voting for "the party you want to win based on all of their policies" is insufficient. No party has a realistic prospect of forming a government alone, so instead it is about voting for influence. And it is also about taking the (expected) preferences of other voters into account. "Against this background, what is the best way of getting what I want?" Only a fool or a solipsist thinks their preferences exist in a vaccuum.

What I am basically saying is that people should think a little about how they vote. And, frankly, anyone who doesn't do that has only themselves to blame.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/20/2005 05:12:00 PM

I think I'd call them people voting according to their conscience. Which was my initial point.

You are certain that Civil Unions are good(TM), but others don't have to feel that way. It's dependant on your view of what marriage is as an institution.

I didn't agree with the Civil Union Bill, but then neither am I a 'bigot'. I just have a specific concept of what marriage is.

Posted by Muerk : 2/20/2005 05:18:00 PM

Your argument is as long as everyone can do it then that is good for everyone eh? market forces and all that.

Many things benefit an individual and yet harm the system, If we accepted that that was always a good thing then we would be libitarian capitalists.

Maybe you are thinking of crossing over?

Posted by Genius : 2/20/2005 11:32:00 PM

On the subject of getting rid of Blair, I don't believe that the Lib Dems will make it from their current 50-odd seats to forming a government in one election. The only chance of a different government is if Labour loses seats to the Tories *and* the LDs leaving the latter holding the balance of power.

If I came from one of the Labour-Tory marginals (there aren't that many) I'd be voting Tory with my nose held. Fortunately I come from a Tory-LD marginal!

BTW, if anyone is from the UK and haven't registered as an overseas voter, then now would be an excellent time to send the form off. As I understand the rules, you need to be a British citizen and to have lived in the UK within the last 15 years.

Posted by Rich : 2/21/2005 09:35:00 AM

Genius: I'm not quite sure why you think that strategic voting harms the system. Preferences are expressed, and governments will be formed based on a rough amalgam of those expressed preferences. That is what the system is meant to do.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/21/2005 09:56:00 AM

Rich: which once again shows how badly the UK needs proportional representation. If they did, then people wouldn't need to do that...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/21/2005 10:00:00 AM

The UK does need PR, but neither the Tories or Labour are going to grant it unforced. Labour was marginally in favour in opposition, but changed it's mind once elected. (It also favoured an elected second chamber and changed its mind on that as well).

Posted by Rich : 2/21/2005 11:34:00 AM