A straight swap: the Greens’ Natalie Bennett for Labour’s Ed Miliband. Images: Getty.
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Why I swapped my vote with a stranger

A "vote-swapping" website lets you get around the first past the post system.

Until last week, I knew exactly who I would be voting for. I live in Islington North, a safe Labour seat held by Jeremy Corbyn since 1983. I like him – his voting record aligns with most of my views – and I like Ed Miliband. (No, really. Even before anyone thought to Photoshop his face onto Robert Downey Jr’s.)

But on Friday, after a chance remark by a colleague, I completely changed my mind.

They’d mentioned, a site launched last week which links up voters who agree to vote on each other's behalf. Generally, each pairing is made up of someone, like me, who fears their vote will be wasted in a safe seat, and someone in a marginal who wants to cast a vote for an unwinnable candidate, often from a small party. So far, over 1,000 people have signed up.

According to the Voter Power Index (which is calculated based on how likely a seat is to change hands) my vote is only worth one twelfth of a vote, compared to a national average of about a third. According to our election site May2015, my constituency is in the top 20 safest Labour seats in the country. So off I went to find someone who could make my vote count.  

On arrival, the site asks you to choose a preferred party, and another you’d be willing to vote for. I entered Labour and the Greens respectively, plus my constituency, and the site threw up a range of options. I picked Bharat Malkani, a university lecturer in Bristol North West who wants to vote Green, but hopes Labour will boot out the sitting Tory MP.

A couple days later, Bharat messaged me on Facebook partly, I imagine, to be friendly, and partly because the site encourages you to make contact so you can make sure your swap partner is committed to the deal. I called him to discuss why he, too, was willing to vote against the grain come 7 May.

Bharat, like me, signed up for the site as soon as he heard about it, keen to escape what he calls a “rock and a hard place” in his constituency. He voted Liberal Democrat last time round (“I do feel guilty about that“), but as a lecturer was horrified by their move on tuition fees. Besides, the party's now dropped to third place locally. 

That left him with Labour – a party whose recent statements on immigration (not to mention that mug) left him feeling “a bit sick”. Ideally, he’d be voting Green – he likes their policies, though isn’t convinced they can implement them. Generally, he views himself as “one of those people disillusioned with all parties”, yet not quite disillusioned enough to cast a protest vote for the Greens in his marginal constituency. Thanks to the site, I'll cast his vote in Islington North, and he'll vote Labour to give Bristol North West the best chance of a Labour win. 

As you can imagine, the concept has its detractors. At best, it’s in a democratic grey area; at worst it’s a kind of backwards gerrymandering. The first entry on the site’s FAQs is “Is this legal?", to which the answer is broadly yes - informal vote swapping has been going on for centuries, apparently. 

Then there’s the issue of voteshare: as a Labour supporter, should I be concerned that in this scenario, only one vote for Labour will be cast, whereas without the website two probably would have been? A lower voteshare could work against Labour in coalition negotiations, though as Bharat points out to me, votes on paper don’t mean much if you don’t have enough seats to govern effectively.

Overall, though, I feel the system is far more honest than traditional tactical voting, as everyone, however indirectly, is voting for the party they support. And, while it’s circumventing the system, it’s circumventing a system which doesn’t work once you throw smaller parties into the mix, or, depending on your point of view, at all.

As Joe Cox, founder of VoteSwap, a similar site aimed directly at swapping Labour and Green votes, wrote in the The Independent:

There are tribal Labour and Green activists who will condemn us. Yet our success so far suggests that there are enough shared values for many voters to understand this is win-win for progressives. By swapping their vote, the Conservatives lose more seats, but tactical voters do not have to harm their favoured party. And until our system is fixed, what's not to like about that?

Bharat agrees that while he would have viewed voting Labour as tactical, he doesn’t put this in the same category: “I think it helps people vote the way they want to vote. It's nice that someone's acting on my conscience.”  

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.