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 Swapmyvote.com, 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 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 comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.