Tactical Voting: Conscience v Outcome

One of the big downsides to a First Part The Post electoral system is that conscience often conflicts with outcome.

With much talk of tactical voting at an upcoming General Election (especially among opposition parties and remainers), we explain why this conflict is never simple.

Why FPTP Matters?

Under the present UK electoral system voters do not vote nationally in what is often framed as a national (general) election. Instead we vote for a local candidate so that one such local candidate (the one with most votes locally) becomes the member of parliament for our constituency.

This means that instead of a national election, we effectively have 650 local elections. And many many local areas are very different to the UK-wide picture.

In Northern Ireland the main British parties do not stand candidates – resulting in a unique Ulster outcome. In Scotland, while most British parties do stand candidates, the Scottish Nationalist Party makes each constituency very different to English constituencies. The same goes for Wales, where a smaller but still significant Plaid Cymru are equivalent.

“National issues dominate because all 650 local candidate elections take place on the same day.”

And even within England (where most constituencies are found) there are big local differences. If you vote in Tottenham you are involved in a very different election to people voting in Mid Sussex.

This can make the decisions of other voters with similar motivations to us appear confusing or even “wrong” when they are actually perfectly simple and “right” for those voters.

So Focus on Local Issues?

First Past The Post can lead to very specific local issues becoming relevant in a General Election campaign. However, national issues are clearly dominant for two reasons.

The first reason is that all 650 local candidate elections take place on the same day. This creates the feel of a national election and thus national issues and party policies tend to dominate – leading to many people voting in line with their national preference.

 “The conflict is not between voters, it is within voters – a conflict in how to serve their own motivation.”

The second reason is that even though it is 650 local votes, this is the only influence that the public has on the direction of the nation. Unlike elections for local government, the outcome of a General Election will set the national agenda for up to five years. So people naturally want to express their national outlook.

So What’s The Conflict?

Importantly, there is no conflict between those voting on local issues, and those voting on national issues. In many ways this is just an expression of voter motivation just like some people are motivated by the NHS while others are motivated by housing. Different people choosing to vote on different things is a good thing in a democracy and is not a mistake or failure on anyone’s part.

The conflict is not between voters, it is within voters. It comes where an individual is highly motivated by a subject but their local constituency creates a conflict in how to serve that motivation.

“First Past The Post pits motivation v outcome in a way that a good democracy just shouldn’t do to voters.”

For example, if a voter is highly motivated by the NHS and feels one candidate is absolutely the best candidate for the NHS, that should be a simple voting decision. However, if that canddiate cannot realistically win in the local vote, voting for that person achieves no outcome for the NHS.

In such cases, a second-best candidate on the NHS who might actually win and so can generate value for the NHS in the next five years, may be who that voter chooses to vote for instead.

That is a tough choice. Do they vote on their conscience for the best candidate, or on the outcome for the second best candidate.

Tactical Voting

We often call this tactical voting and such talk is particularly prevalent among opposition parties and supporters right now.

Against the backdrop of a Conservative Party supporting or accepting “no deal” brexit with all its consequences – even closing the UK’s Parliament in a remarkable (and ill-judged) move – opposition parties have rarely if ever co-operated as closely and successfully as they have this autumn.

“A vote should be a personal expression of the direction a person wants taken.”

But for many voters for those parties, there is now a major tension in how they vote. What matters here is that whatever side of the decision a voter comes down on, that decision is perfectly reasonable. It is a voter choice. It is just that it pits motivation v outcome in a way that will cause tensions with others and in a way that a good democracy just shouldn’t do to voters.

Which is a major issue across those motvitated by remain right now.

Remain Conscience

Starting with conscience, it is entirely natural and right that someone motivated by remain would seek to vote for a remain candidate. Indeed they might seek to vote for the “most remain” candidate if there is differentiation available.

This reflects a pretty simple voter motivation. A vote is a personal expression of the direction a person wants taken. That is a big part of the point of voting.

“The problem is that First Past The Post puts conscience through a grinder that creates unwanted outcomes.”

In practical terms it is thus entirely reasonable that a “remain-motivated voter” will vote only for a remain candidate, much as an NHS-motivated voter will only vote for a candidate seen as good for the NHS.

Remain Outcome

The problem with the above is that FPTP puts conscience through a grinder that creates unwanted outcomes. So another “remain-motivated voter” voter – even in the same constituency – will not vote for the best “remain” candidate but for a less preferable candidate in order to generate a remain outcome – which voting for a losing remain candidate cannot achieve.

With Conservative candidates likely to support “no deal” and oppose any path to remaining in the EU (such as revoking Article 50 or holding a referendum on doing so) – almost any other candidate that can win might seem like a vote well voted to a “remain-motivated voter”.

“Some remain-motivated voters will vote for non-remain Labour to achieve a remain outcome – an MP supporting a referendum on remain.”

Such voters will be putting the “outcome” of remain ahead of their remain “conscience”. And again, this is entirely reasonable. Such voters will be voting for an outcome they want, which is a perfectly reasonable motivation behind voting.

The Labour Conundrum

All of this personal voter conflict is particularly acute right now in regards to Labour. Labour is not a remain party. It continues to support (in theory) delivery of some sort of soft brexit to be put to the voters in a referendum. But it does also propose a referendum with an option to remain.

This means many “remain-motivated voters” will feel their conscience simply does not allow them to vote for a Labour candidate (unless perhaps said candidate is known to be a remainer individually). That risks letting a Conservative win their seat – making brexit more likely, but ultimately conscience is still important and should not be denigrated as a voter motivation.

“Pacts might bring the remain conscience voter and the remain outcome voter into sync.”

On the other hand, other “remain-motivated voters” will vote for a non-remain party (Labour), because although Labour is not “remain”, it does offer the only practical path in their constituency to a remain outcome – an MP who will support a referendum in which said voter can vote to remain in the EU.

This is also a perfectly reasonable personal choice and should not be denigrated as a voter motivation either.

So Pacts Matter

While remain will play its part in how “remain-motivated voters” trade off conscience and outcomes, other factors may make some of these decisions for them.

Firstly, with the success of a remain pact in Brecon and Radnorshire, some voters may face no conflict. This will happen if Plaid Cymru, Greens and Lib Dems stand down candidates in each others’ marginal constituencies – offering just one remain candidate.

“Never forget, motivation and preference are very different things.”

This brings the remain conscience voter and the remain outcome voter into sync, because the only remain candidate available will likely be one that can win too.

Other Issues

Secondly, and perhaps more relevant in most constituencies, general elections are never “single issue”. 2017 demonstrated this with Labour winning votes from remain and leave preferers by motivating them on other issues. Labour are already trying to do this again.

This is because motivation and preference are very different things.

“Remain-motivated voters” are motivated by remain. “Get the Tories Out” motivated voters are motivated by ousting Tories. But many voters who prefer either or both of those things are more motivated by other issues. From workers’ rights to the NHS, or even just a passionate like or dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, these voters will not likely vote tactically on “remain” (or ousting the Tories) if remain is less important to them than other issues.

Which is also perfectly reasonable.

Deciding whether remain conscience or remain outcome is more important is a personal choice, as are all other voter motivations.

And we should not confuse that fact.



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