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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.