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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle