Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

Listen To Me, Ed Balls

Friday, 7 May 2010

The most instructive result in the country?

In the run-up to yesterday’s General Election, schools secretary Ed Balls appeared to endorse tactical voting. He said he recognized there was an “issue” in Lib Dem / Tory marginals.

  The constituency where I live, Hampstead & Kilburn, was just such a marginal. The old constituency of Hampstead & Highgate was a pretty safe Labour seat for Glenda Jackson, but a boundary change had chopped off a vital area for her, and merged with a new one; all the literature through the door, from the Tories and LibDems, emphasized the close race between them. Friends of mine who live in the same district, people I like and respect, who might otherwise be Labour voters, were choosing (some even urging) the Lib Dem vote to “keep the Tories out”.

  Whichever way I vote myself (and I feel oddly old-fashioned about saying; as a journalist I like to make my opinions pretty clear, sometimes, about specific issues, but think the actual vote is essentially private) I don’t like tactical voting under any circumstances. I was shocked that Ed Balls - who should surely have more party-political conviction than any of us, given his job - would endorse such a thing. I think people should vote for the party they most believe in, not against the one they don’t, then give way to the majority decision: that’s what democracy is. I felt more conviction than ever, this year, about the party I wanted to win - and could never have voted other than for them - but I also wanted the election to be won by whichever party was most wanted by the country. If it wasn’t my own choice, well, fine. But I’d vote for my choice, hoping everyone else would vote for theirs and that the result would be, at least, democratic. The debate about electoral reform and PR… well, that’s a different question. Dealing with what we have now, there were plenty of reasons for voting Liberal Democrat but “keeping the Tories out” shouldn’t, in my opinion, be one of them.

  Nevertheless, Ed Balls advocated what he advocated; the Lib Dems actually appear to have had disappointing results but I’m sure plenty of people in the Hampstead & Kilburn constituency (and others) voted for them “against the Tories” in the belief that it was the better option in a two-horse race.

  Be warned, Ed Balls and tactical voters. In Hampstead & Kilburn, the Liberal Democrats finished decisively third. The seat was won by the Labour party, pushing the Conservatives into second place - by 42 votes.


  Never fail to use your vote in an election, and always vote with your heart. Sometimes it matters even more than you realize.



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Karen Redman at 10:03 pm on May 7th, 2010

Hear, hear to that. Too much stuff & nonsense about tactical voting. What’s the point in having a vote if it’s used to keep people who you don’t want out of power?

Wildride at 10:14 pm on May 7th, 2010

If you vote for what you want, you may not get it, but if you vote against what you don’t want, there’s one thing that’s assured: You won’t get what you do want—And you don’t deserve it.

Oh, and the question you’re asked is which person you want as your local representative, so that’s the question you should answer.

Dominic Newbould at 10:15 pm on May 7th, 2010

“Tactical voting” has a kind of technical, fashionista twist to it.

Don’t be fooled. It trully means:

“Not really” voting…

Al at 10:17 pm on May 7th, 2010

I totally AGREE with VIC!

i voted LABOUR, with all my body parts - heart & head included.

Mike Fleming at 10:19 pm on May 7th, 2010

I think tactical voting is a result of the negative campaigning and scare-mongering by all parties and the press.
Making people want a party they dislike to not win, more than wanting the party they support to win, seems wrong.

KlooRhee at 10:20 pm on May 7th, 2010

Tactical voting is like tactical fouling in a team sport. Not fair. To oneself and to one’s fellow countrymen. Nicely demonstrates the character of people who suggest it.
Well done for pointing it out!

It’s heart or mind. Heart is definitely the better choice :)

Fingers crossed for the reform now…

Andpalm at 11:11 pm on May 7th, 2010

You might be here: You’re centre-left, you want a Labour government, but you have a Lib-Dem MP, with the Cons hard on her heels, Labour nowhere. All you high-minded souls go and vote with your heart and let in the Tory, just tipping them over the line so that they can unleash George Osborne on you.

RomanticRecluse at 11:22 pm on May 7th, 2010

If the party you support has a good chance of winning where you live voting tactically makes no sense.  If the party you support has little or no chance of winning where you live because it has few other supporters there or it hasn’t campaigned there or it has a discredited candidate or it isn’t standing there because it can’t afford to do so then voting tactically to try to prevent the outcome you want least makes sense and can work, especially if it is organised.  You can’t win but you can minimise your losses.

In politics and in life sometimes you don’t get to choose between things you want.  Sometimes you get to choose between a thing you want and a thing you don’t want, sometimes you have to choose between things you don’t want and sometimes you have no choice at all.

The Tim at 11:33 pm on May 7th, 2010

I didn’t vote tactically, but now wish that I had - I don’t think it’s wrong - just accepting the reality of a situation.

Lego at 11:52 pm on May 7th, 2010

I understand & admire your position, as it’s very principled,  but I don’t agree with it. You say PR is another issue, but I think tactical voting and PR are in some ways inseparable issues. At the risk of stating the obvious, people chose to tactically vote because of the flaws in the electoral system that often means their 1st choice is a completely wasted vote. I think PR supporters and tactical voters are often 1 & the same.

Yes, you can come a cropper by being “too clever” with it, & that’s always a risk, but I think there was quite a bit of tactical voting this election that successfully helped keep the no of Tory seats down.

Like poker, some cunning plays come off, some fail, & great & good politicians are cunning all the time, why can’t the voters be a little clever too?

& if we get PR, nobody need tactically vote again and we can all vote with our hearts… Speaking of which, there is no party that truly speaks to my heart. I’m left and liberal, but New Labour always seem a bit skitzoid on social justice, 1 minute seeming kind & just, next minute bringing a policy to please DM readers (other problem with FPTP, having to try and appeal to enough different types of voter to get you over the bar). Plus their strange obsession with stealing our civil liberties.

Last GE, voted Lib Dem, wasted vote. Guy got 12% of the vote. This time was going to tactically vote Lab. Ended up voting part tactical & part heart for Lab, as I started having my doubts about Clegg & I think we finally started seeing the real Gordon Brown in the last week.

King John II at 11:54 pm on May 7th, 2010

Awful fellow still loitering in No.10 with 29% of the vote? What? A veritable dogs breakfast of a mess.
Rotten luck. Saw you on C4. Awful broadcast, absolutely awful.

Victoria Coren at 12:18 am on May 8th, 2010

I wasn’t on it til quarter to one in the morning! If you thought it was that awful, I’m impressed you stayed tuned in for three and a half hours. You really must change the batteries in that remote.

Lego at 1:05 am on May 8th, 2010

King John, apparently the other guy only got 36% too. Shocking, isn’t it? ;)

Bill Green at 4:20 am on May 8th, 2010

I’m trying to figure out how the PM has managed to run things into the ground so well and only lose 1 million or so votes compared to ‘05.

Are there really eight and a half million people that think the guy who ‘ended boom and bust’ only to lead us into the worst fiscal hole in our history should be in charge?

Adam Eve at 10:09 am on May 8th, 2010

Poor Old GB (Great Britain, Gordon Brown)
Labour might have had a landslide - without him.

The Tim at 11:40 am on May 8th, 2010

I’ve no special love for the LibDems but voted for them simply to get rid of a system that’s essentially unfair. You have to admit it’s absurd when a party gets 23% of the votes but less than 9% of the seats. PR works in places like Germany whose constitution was set up after the war. The problem this country has is that it’s not been conquered for hundreds of years and is still stuck in an outdated system.

The current negotiations with the Tories are merely a mutual gesture and the really interesting discussions will be between Clegg and Brown when they might just agree to some electoral reform. Paradoxically the failure of the LibDems to get as many seats as hoped may work in their favour as if they did ally with Labour they’d need PR to get an overall majority between them.

Lynn Pettigrew at 11:56 am on May 8th, 2010

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” John Quincy Adams.

LC at 2:09 pm on May 8th, 2010

I’m lucky enough to be a Lib Dem and vote in a seat where the battle is essentially between them and the Tories.

If i’d been in a seat where we had no chance, i’d genuinely have to consider otherwise.

I’d say that if you’ve voted Labour (and kudos if you did, Glenda Jackson is one of my more favoured Labour faces, and have always liked her) then it wasn’t such a bad idea. Whatever the other parties were saying, Glenda still clearly had a chance, and voting tactically in a three-way marginal is silly.

That said, if the 800 or so people who voted Green in the constituency I was campaigning in had voted for us, we would’ve won & we’d have another LD MP that’d push for the electoral reform that’d mean a vote for the Greens actually meaning something in future elections.

Sam at 3:08 pm on May 8th, 2010

Hypothetical question, suppose the BNP started to make big gains somewhere, would you encourage tactical voting to keep them out?

Ultimately if you tactical vote your vote means something. It might be negative and horrible but it’s the nature of the system. I did enjoy the irony of Tories criticising it while constantly sticking up for the very system that encourages tactical voting.

RomanticRecluse at 3:15 pm on May 8th, 2010

Why is anyone saying there was no clear winner in the election?  There was a clear winner at 10p.m. on Thursday but the BBC, ITV, Sky and C4 didn’t spot them.  Who won?  The Don’t Knows.

LD 6.8m, L 8.6m, C 10.7m, DK 15.8m

So well done to the Don’t Knows.  Maybe it’s time they were given a chance because for the last 31 years the Knows have been in charge and their strong and increasingly centralised and image-led leadership has given us three big recessions, five wars, many scandals, many disasters, social division, a tarnished global reputation, a discredited political system, fractious public debate, a crisis of trust and a loss of hope.

If you voted ask yourself who the next prime minister is, can they solve Britain’s problems and do you trust them?  Do you know?  I don’t.

Victoria Coren at 4:52 pm on May 8th, 2010

Interesting question about the BNP; for me, still no. I’d have to stick to the principle of wanting the seat(s) to go to whoever the British public most wants to have them, and trust the Brits that this would never be the BNP in large enough numbers for success. If I and everyone else voted for the party we most wanted, and the BNP got the most votes in an area where I live, well, the BNP would be the rightful democratic winners. I’d just have to move away and respect the decision from afar.

C Scott at 7:58 pm on May 8th, 2010

It seems there *has* been a shift towards talking openly about how one has voted - perhaps it’s because of the erosion of privacy facilitated by e.g. Facebook.

Also, given what happened here last time they were in, “keeping the Tories out” *is* an act of conscience in the West of Scotland, head & heart! Having said that, once in the booth, I too vote for the party nearest to my beliefs/values.

RomanticRecluse at 8:50 pm on May 8th, 2010

Sam’s question is not a hypothetical one for everyone.  I live in a region with a BNP MEP, and a few years before, they won council seats.  A similar process has happened in London, going from council seats to an assembly seat.  They’ve lost some of the seats they gained and are now beset by infighting, incompetence and financial problems but they have had success and I wouldn’t trust the British people not to give them more.  In 1999 the BNP got 8,911 votes in the European election where I live.  In 2008 they got 120,139 (9.8% of the votes).

Every seat the BNP gains gives their membership, donors and potential voters encouragement and gives their leaders a platform from which to speak and on which to build.  Tactical voting can and does stop that process.  A stitch in time…

Phil at 9:51 pm on May 8th, 2010

I’ve had plenty of pretty heated politcal debate over the last few weeks about the idea of voting tactically, and whilst i agree that your situation is an example of it going wrong, the whole idea masks a greater issue.
Tactical voting just reflects how badly out of step the First past the post system is with the modern electorate. FPTP also splits the progressive vote giving the tories a power disproportionate to their vote share.
Our country is actually fairly left leaning and yet we have managed to elect a right wing minority government; it’s crazy
Hopefully the Libs will hold out for PR as conditions of a coalition and then we can have the reform that this country badly needs.
Then no-one need ever vote tactically again

Ron at 10:14 pm on May 8th, 2010

This is precisely why we need a sensible single transferable vote system in this country.

Polictics has become too stage managed to continue without it.

Bill Green at 1:52 am on May 9th, 2010

I don’t recall Nick Clegg ever explaining why he wants BNP MPs. I wonder how many 564,000 votes would have given them under PR.

RomanticRecluse at 1:56 am on May 9th, 2010

Under the current system I don’t think it’s fair to talk about who “we” elect because 45m people can vote but only about 2m people get to choose the government.  Those who get to choose are swing voters living in marginal seats contested by one or more of the main national parties.  Policies and tactics are aimed at those few people, their interests and their prejudices and the further you are away from those people geographically, socially and politically the less you matter to the process and politicians.

You can compare votes with seats and talk about the pros and cons of other voting systems but the basic human injustice of the current system is that a small minority of people decide elections and it’s mostly the same people in the same places time after time.

Colin at 3:24 am on May 9th, 2010

Regarding BNP MPs under proportional representation: some countries (e.g. Germany) have voting thresholds that a party has to reach before they get any MPs through PR. In Germany, the threshold seems to be 5%.

The BNP received less than 2% of the vote at the recent election and would thus get zero seats unless they won a particular seat outright (assuming we were using an additional member system of some kind with a 5% threshold). UKIP were the best-performing fringe party but they only got 3.1% of the vote.

A system like that would cause problems with regional parties as the SNP (19.9% in Scotland), Plaid Cymru (11.3% in Wales) and the Northern Ireland parties (all above 5% in NI except for TUV) polled less than 5% nationally

King John II at 4:29 am on May 9th, 2010

Greetings friends of peace.

The realm is in turmoil.
Democracy is dying.
BNP, wiped out in Barking.
Respect, wiped out in Newham
Respect, all but wiped out in Tower Hamlets.
Did anyone realise that 29% Labour was that popular? All very suspicious.

Freedom is more than just a word.

I will return.

Oliver at 8:28 am on May 9th, 2010

But you shouldn’t vote tactically in three-way marginals. Voting tactically only works in two-way seats where your preferred choice has no chance of winning. I’m not sure a few voters’ inability to understand how tactical voting works is a particularly strong indictment of tactical voting itself.

I voted tactically in a two-way marginals where the 3rd party has no chance. Given the system we have, I truly believe it is the best option. I think even people who don’t actively think they’re ‘voting tactically’ do so - who can honestly say they studied the manifestos of the smaller and independent parties?

Phil at 12:03 pm on May 9th, 2010

Bill, I agree there would be some undesirable elements introduced to parliament as a result of PR, the BNP being the prime scumbags. It was calculated that under PR and using thursday’s results they would gain about 12 seats.
This is a nasty thought, but it’s not the system’s fauit, it is the choice of the electorate. We would get the government we deserve, and if this means giving the BNP a slight platform then so be it. There will always be a slight moronic fascist minority, but as shown by the election this time around, their vote share did not increase. After a year of huge publicity for them this fact says a lot. The BNP mercifully are as big as they are ever going to get
I think PR is still the best way to go. It can’t be as bad as the present system and it seems is what people want

Rob at 12:37 pm on May 9th, 2010

Everyone is missing the fact that it’s not 2 million people who choose the government, it’s 650.

All the electorate choose is whom they want to be the 1 of the 650 entrusted with representing their interest. In some areas the choice is close to unanimous and so one party gets lots of votes (boosting their share of the national vote) for one MP. In others it’s not clear cut and the MP is chosen based on a simple idea - the one with most votes gets elected.

There may be reasons to change this basis locally which I don’t have room to go into here (unfortunately), but to say that PR based on share of the vote is the fairest option misses the point in the same way that saying the premier league title should be decided on who has the best goal difference rather than games won.

RomanticRecluse at 5:21 pm on May 9th, 2010

Rob, MPs can throw out a government by passing a motion of no confidence but they don’t choose it.  The Queen appoints a Prime Minister and invites them to lead Her Majesty’s Government.  The difference between this election and the seven before it is that this time the result means the Queen doesn’t know who to appoint as PM and invite to form a government.

In 1997 the election was on May 1st, Tony Blair became PM on May 2nd and parliament returned on May 7th.  In 2010 the election was on May 6th but parliament doesn’t return until May 18th and MPs must swear an oath before they can take their seat or vote, by which time we may have a new government and PM.  I think theoretically Simon Cowell could be made PM and he couldn’t be removed before May 18th.

The Tim at 5:58 pm on May 9th, 2010

I thought the system for which the CLegg has been striving which I clearly remember John Cleese advocating in a broadcast many years ago is to have far fewer constituencies and elect a number of MPs proportionately according to votes. Let’s say 65 regions each with 10 MPs, who still have a say in local issues. This would obviously not be as ‘fair’ as complete PR but the fairest system is not necessarily the most practical. I understand Rob’s analogy with the Premiership but we’re talking about a favourable arrangement and not an entertainment.

I’ve mixed views about coalitions – we’re so used to the government-versus-opposition system – indeed the House of Commons is structurally designed for this – that it would be something of a culture shock for everyone.

Chris (slowthinker) at 12:18 am on May 10th, 2010

I tend to agree with Vicky on the point of principle, although I’m sure we wouldn’t agree politically. Voting to keep a party out is just a little sad. A democracy needs diversity, it needs a change in parties every now and again or it goes stale.  Thirteen years of Labour is too much just as it was too much when the Tories held the reins for so long.  Let’s have a little balance and let them have a crack at it. Let’s be honest, they can’t do much worse and quite honestly I’m surprised there aren’t more people advocating tactical voting to keep Labour out of power after the total hash they’ve made of things recently. I’m not implying everything is all their fault, but they are in a total mess, in fighting and a hunger for power has blinded them to their own values.

Rob at 10:26 am on May 10th, 2010

RR - my point isn’t that the MPs themselves literally get together and choose a PM like they do the speaker, or the electoral college system for the US President (fun though that would be!), but the make-up of the HoC as determined by the parties of individually elected local representatives (and any inter-party allegiances) determines who governs because about the first thing the HoC will do when it returns is vote on the Queen’s speech, which is a de facto confidence vote.

If the PM of the day doesn’t have a majority of votes in parliament then the new government will fall very quickly.

Much as it seems that HM can choose whom she likes, our mostly unwritten constitution does still have some principles governing the choice and it’s mainly down to whom the outgoing PM suggests.

Tab Turner at 2:35 pm on May 10th, 2010

The Lib dems, according to their own hype, have less agreement on policy with Labour and Conservative than those do with each other, so why don’t Labour and Conservative form an alliance?
Better still, why isn’t there an all party alliance? That would be properly democratic and perhaps the best solution given that we have a crisis and we need all hands on deck. It’s all about power, not democracy, for these ‘leaders’.

Andrew at 3:04 pm on May 10th, 2010

I think people have missed the big picture with “tactical voting”.

Politicians are more concerned with doing whatever is necessary to gain or remain in power than they are with what their actual job is. I don’t know when the onus shifted (possibly Blair’s “new” Labour ?) but there has been a gradual movement from left-wing or right-wing policies to a mad rush for the centre. Rather than parties stating their policies and having the voters decide, they seem to want to run everything past focus groups first and then fit their ideology to the results that will win them most votes.

Politics should not be about trying to be the most popular, it should be about doing what is necessary; witness Greece’s problems.

Ginger Pogue at 11:23 pm on May 10th, 2010

Never voted in my life.  Never have, never will.

Dani at 1:25 am on May 11th, 2010

VC I live in the same constituency as you, if you haven’t looked at the Camden New Journal yet then when you do you will see which Labour bigwigs came out to campaign on Glenda’s behalf.

I didn’t expect all three major party results to be so close, Lab & Cons 17000+ Lib Dems 16000+.

Shame as the Lib Dem guy does far more for the area and community of West Hampstead than either the Lab or Cons party guys do.
Maybe they should bring in Proportional Representation, then I could vote for who I wanted and perhaps stand more of a chance on getting who I wanted in to government. As a working class child of Thatcher I’m not really looking forward to this Cons government.. for me or my children.


Hilary at 7:13 pm on May 11th, 2010

There WERE places where it would have made sense to vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out but #handk was NEVER one of them, with a sitting Labour MP and substantial Labour presence (eg well-respected councillors) even in the Lib-Dem held new sector of the constituency.

I do think it’s bloody tragic that anyone voted Labour in Oxford West and Abingdon, where the heroic Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris went down by less than 200 votes to a peculiarly nasty breed of Tory.

The Tim at 7:56 pm on May 11th, 2010

My God - it’s scary - I’m now older than the Prime Minister….

adam at 11:51 pm on May 11th, 2010

thoroughly enjoyed charlie’s radio show. i too went on an 18/30 holiday one time (standby ticket) and had to laugh at your description, so true.
funny DM being on a show that didn’t involve lying.

John at 12:41 pm on May 12th, 2010

It is still about ‘chapel and playing fields’: throw in The Eton Rifles at a rate of knots, and Morse’s wonky leg and you have Dave’s manifesto right there in a wing-collar.  Or am I simply remembering the brick in Margaret’s handbag?  We shall see.
His new fag seems to have a bit of spunk, though.

David R at 6:36 pm on May 12th, 2010

Well the obvious t-shirt for David Cameron is:

“I wanted a majority government, but all I got was this lousy coalition.”

And the obvious t-shirt for Nick Clegg is:

“I’m with stupid.”

David R at 1:27 am on May 13th, 2010

Actually, I don’t think David Cameron is stupid. I think I should get a t-shirt for myself saying, “I know nothing about politics!” (true).

Victoria Coren

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