Tactical Voting in Chesham

By Naomi Smith,
CEO, Best for Britain

The result of the Chesham and Amersham by-election will be welcome news to anyone who wishes to see the electoral stranglehold of this Government weakened. Sarah Green, the Liberal Democrat candidate, (and former Best for Britain staffer!) has won a Conservative seat, deep in their traditional heartlands.  

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, mirroring the Prime Minister’s bulldozering of a ‘gridlock’ wall in a JCB tractor back in 2019, broke down his own Blue Wall with a small mallet.  

But I believe it will take a much more delicate tool to break down the Blue behemoth. Electoral studies have time and again shown that voters with a culturally liberal outlook tend to be generally progressive , and holding a seat like this in the General Election could prove much more challenging than a by-election for a party like the Liberal Democrats. The only way internationalists can reliably win is by working around our archaic and unfair electoral system. So until we can change the system, opposition parties and internationalists within the Conservatives must work together. 

Tribal Resistance

Electoral pacts have historically been hard to pull off. A certain tribalism, along with justified concerns and questions, remain. But when electoral alliances do come together, they are usually very effective - as UKIP standing down for the Conservatives in 2017 and Brexit Party doing the same in 2019 surely proves

In the 2019 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Change UK stepped aside to allow the Lib Dems to claim this traditionally marginal seat back from the Conservatives. Best for Britain has been pushing for cooperation, or at least non-aggression, between opposition parties since the 2019 European elections. 

But with the exception of a few dozen seats in the General Election later that year, this wasn’t replicated and didn’t include Labour.Faced with a regressive alliance led by Nigel Farage, and a refusal by internationalists to collaborate in any meaningful way, Best for Britain launched the ‘Get Voting’ tactical votes engine during the 2019 General Election, designed to let voters take electoral cooperation into their own hands.

While there was no pact in Chesham and Amersham, voters were canny enough to identify the candidate with the best chance of winning. In proper, proportional systems, voters wouldn’t have to vote tactically to make sure their beliefs are represented.

The opposition refusal to match the tactics of the Government is tantamount to tying one hand behind our back. We must fight fire with fire.

A new landscape

As the polls stand, there is only one way to oust the current, nativist Government, and that is by opposition parties and internationalists within the Conservatives, working together. Each seat must be treated as the individual case it is. Each constituency party and group must be engaged with and won over if we are to make the case for working together. That work needs to start now – the next election may well be as early 2023. 

It’s therefore heartening to see Labour grassroots and Labour grandees beginning to recognise the uphill struggle of going it alone. Four Labour affiliated unions now supports implementing a democratically equitable voting system for public elections. One in four Constituency Labour Parties backs proportional representation, and MPs from John McDonnell to Clive Lewis have spoken out in favour, as have members of the left commentariat such as Polly Toynbee and Paul Mason. Labour has a proud legacy of introducing proportionate systems for the devolved parliaments and European elections - it must build on its heritage and ensure votes aren’t wasted in Westminster elections

The political and demographic landscape has shifted profoundly under our feet in the last few years. The current Government enjoys a seemingly unshakeable majority which, divided, we cannot hope to overcome. 

While the Boundary Commission has yet to finalise the redrawing of constituency lines, there seems to be little hope of anyone by the Conservatives  benefiting. It’s worth noting that this is after passing a law in 2020 that removed the right of Parliament to approve new boundaries, so MPs won’t get a say.

Opposition parties must recognise that old electoral tactics have had their day, and harsher realpolitik has emerged.

Victorian hangover 

Indeed, the impetus for cooperation has grown much more acute in the last few months. Smaller progressive parties have always struggled under First Past the Post, an anachronistic hangover from the past, only still afflicting the UK and Belarus in Europe. But now the Government has launched a raft of anti-democratic measures designed to make it even harder to have your vote matter. 

The Government made a disturbing reaffirmation yesterday, stating they are “taking forward a greater emphasis on the need to tackle and prevent electoral fraud”, despite no evidence of endemic voter misconduct. In practice, this means introducing discriminatory voter ID law which could prevent millions of people from exercising their right to vote.   

According to research put out by Best for Britain, fewer than two-fifths of people believe their vote has made a difference to the final result in an election. And almost a quarter say it hasn’t made a difference. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of Conservative 2019 voters (53%) do feel their vote has an impact, compared to just 37% of Labour voters and 25% of Lib Dems. The same polling found more than half of voters are ready for a new electoral system,

The message is clear. Internationalists  do not feel their vote is being recognised, and are increasingly engaging in tactical voting to make sure their beliefs are represented. 

In Chesham and Amersham, voters backed the candidate who had the best chance of beating the incumbent, and in doing so, revealed a chink in the Government’s seemingly impenetrable armour. 

A healthier kind of politics

Alliances on both sides may well  be crucial in deciding the result of the next general election. But we must not lose sight of the fact they are a means, rather than an end.  

We can’t pretend that support for all internationalist candidates is interchangeable – we recognise there are essential ideological distinctions between them. But only through these initial and hopefully unrepeated pacts, can we elect a government willing to meaningfully change the voting system.  

Then we can enjoy distinct and competing parties, representing the full range of voices in this country. Alliances are a step towards a healthier kind of politics. That is something I believe all the opposition parties, and most voters, want. 

If you’d like to help us urge opposition parties to work together ahead of the next General Election, resist the Government’s anti-democratic measures, and fight for a fair voting system, please consider donating to the Better Democracy Fund.  

Naomi Smith
CEO, Best for Britain