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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue