There are no wasted votes – only unused ones


By - Monday 13th April, 2015

 

Peter Underwood is tired of hearing about ‘wasted votes’ – in his view, there’s no such thing


Artwork by Lis Watkins for the Croydon Citizen.

I recently received an email from a south Croydon resident who said that he agreed with Green Party policies, but he was wondering whether voting Green would be a ‘wasted vote’. This topic of whether votes are ‘wasted’ will no doubt come up a lot over the coming weeks. So, I thought I’d share my thinking on why I don’t believe that any vote is wasted.

I will say up front that I am writing this from the perspective of the Green Party candidate in Croydon South. No doubt candidates from other parties will have a different view from me on how voters may end up voting but I would hope that they would agree with the principles of why everyone should vote.

A change to the electoral system

One of the main reasons people claim there are wasted votes is the first-past-the-post system used in general elections. Under this system, only the votes for the winner lead to someone being elected as an MP. All the other votes make no difference to who gets into parliament, so some claim that these are ‘wasted votes’. This election may change all that.

Based on current opinion polls, it looks like neither of the two largest parties will be able to claim much more than a third of the total vote. Following the election, it will be very difficult for either of the two largest parties to claim that they have the support of the people to form a government. It also looks like the Green Party and UKIP will get very few seats compared to the number of votes they get, so there will be a large section of the population who can see that they are not being properly represented in parliament.

Both of these situations will increase the calls for us to move to a proportional representation system in general elections, so that the final result is a better reflection of the will of the people.

So, rather than being a ‘wasted vote’, I would say that all of the votes for the smaller parties will strengthen the argument that we need to move to a fairer, proportional system of electing MPs so that in the future every vote counts.

Influence without winning seats

The influence a party has is not just down to how many seats they win. When the Green Party acheived 15% of the vote in the EU elections of 1989 they didn’t win a single seat but it did have an effect on politics. Prior to 1989 the environment, which was seen as the Green Party’s main issue, was largely ignored by the larger parties. But, ever since the 1989 result, all of the major parties have set out their environment policies with a view to winning over voters.

Similarly, UKIP are unlikely to win many seats at the upcoming election but they are expected to get over 10% of the vote and so their issues of immigration and the EU are skewing the current debates. This has changed the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives with talk of them trying to out-UKIP UKIP in order to win back voters.

So, even if your vote doesn’t lead to the election of a candidate it still adds to the overall picture of what people think are the important issues. This will affect how policies of all parties are decided in future.

There are no safe seats

It is important to remember that not a single vote has yet been cast. Every statement about who is likely to win any seat is just a prediction and – like all predictions – they can be wrong. This election is going to be very different. The general public are losing their ‘tribal loyalties’ to the parties and I think it would be unwise of any candidate to assume that they had a safe seat.

This means that in each seat there are thousands of people who might consider switching support to another party. The surge in Green Party membership has partly come from attracting many former Lib Dem voters, as well as many disaffected Labour voters who feel that their old party has gone too far to the right. We are even attracting some former Tory voters who feel that the Conservative party has gone too far on benefit cuts and abandoning human rights, and is failing to protect green spaces from developers. In the opposite direction, we know that many former Tory and Labour voters are switching to vote for UKIP, which will further weaken the traditional vote of the two larger parties.

In addition to the number of people switching parties, there are also thousands of people who didn’t vote at all at the last election. If the non-voters decided to vote, they could overturn even the largest of majorities. All of this means that even in supposed ‘safe seats’ the result could be a lot closer than it has been before, and there will be some surprises in the final results. So even in a supposedly safe seat your vote could end up deciding who is elected.

If not now, then later

Even if your candidate doesn’t win at this election, a good level of support now can lead to better things in the future. For example, Brighton Pavilion constituency used to be a very safe Tory seat through most of the twentieth century. In 1997, it went to Labour as part of the landslide in that election and at that time the Green Party got just 2.6% of the vote. By the 2001 election the Green vote had risen to nearly 10%; by 2005 it had gone up to over 20%; and in 2010 the Green Party won the seat with over 31% of the vote. Caroline Lucas is currently predicted to hold her seat with an even larger share of the vote this time.

Vote shares over the years in Brighton Pavilion, which the Greens eventually took control of in 2010.
Graph author’s own.

Each time the vote share rises more people will believe it is worth voting for that party. A recent poll found that over a quarter of people would consider voting Green if they thought the Green Party could win the seat. So, while your vote may not get your candidate elected this time it could add to the building momentum that leads to winning the seat in future elections.

What if I don’t want to vote for any of them?

Whether you are ideologically opposed to the voting/government system, or just don’t like any of the candidates on offer, I would still say you should turn up to vote. At every election there are some people who don’t vote. No one knows whether this is because of what they believe or because they just couldn’t be bother to go out and vote. The one certainty is that they are ignored.

At the 2012 elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, a record low of less than 15% of people turned out to vote. Questions were raised why the turnout was so low – but the PCCs were still elected, and the few people who did vote still got to decide who won!

If you wish to make a statement about the candidates or electoral system, then say so on your ballot paper. It will be counted as a spoiled ballot, but it will be counted. Each of the spoiled papers has to be individually checked by the returning officer and the candidate’s agents to confirm that it is a spoiled paper, so you will get your message across.

In the 2010 general election, the UK total spoiled votes was less than 1% of voters. Meanwhile, 34% of registered voters just didn’t vote. If those figures were reversed then everyone really would have to take notice.

In the end: vote for what you believe in

My final reason for voting is that I think you should always vote for what you believe in. There are no wasted votes, only wasted opportunities. Under the current system, we only get one chance every five years to have a direct say on who we think should represent us and what polices we think should be brought in. If we waste that chance by not voting, or voting for the least worst candidate, or voting for someone we don’t really agree with, then we will never get the government we want.

Quite rightly, none of us can control how others vote. We only have one vote. On 7th May I will walk out of the polling booth knowing that regardless of what everyone else has done, I have voted for the candidate and the polices that I believe in. I know it will make a difference.

So make sure that you are registered to vote by clicking here, and on 7th May go to the polling station and make your choice.

Peter Underwood

Peter Underwood

Peter has lived in Croydon for over fifteen years. Having previously worked in the civil service, he now works for the Conservation Volunteers – running their projects in and around Croydon and supporting local groups looking after our parks and green spaces. Peter is an active member of the Green Party and has stood as a candidate in national and local elections and in London Assembly elections.

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  • Sean Creighton

    I live in Croydon North. I am not a member of a political party. I am anti-Tory. So I am free to vote for whom I like. Voting for small parties is not a waste in Croydon South and North where a strong vote e.g. for the Greens sends a message to the assured victor (Tory in the former and Labour in the latter). In Croydon Central a vote can not only be wasted but destructive. Every vote for a small party makes it less likely that Gavin Barwell will be kicked out. Whatever the reservations about Labour if voters do not want to see a Tory minority or coalition government for the next 5 years, then Labour taking Croydon Central is critical. Voting therefore has to be seen a tactical.