AV and Tactical Voting

Today I decided to spend the morning reading up a bit on the Yes!/No! campaign arguments to try and see which I should vote for. One of the arguments between the two campaigns is the issue of ‘Tactical Voting’. The Yes! campaign declares the claim that “AV means more tactical voting” a myth, and that AV will eliminate the need for tactical voting.

Why should we have to abandon the party we actually support, to prevent the party we least support getting in? The dilemma facing millions of voters is often characterised as the choice between “voting with your head or your heart”. AV allows people to do both.

However, the No! campaign declares that this is a myth and that…

AV wouldn’t eliminate tactical voting, it would reinvent it. Under AV, the challenge comes in working out the order in which candidates are eliminated, and ordering your preferences accordingly. For example, in a three way seat where both Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in danger of coming last, a Conservative might be tempted to give their first preference to Labour, for fear a Labour elimination would mean a hefty vote transfer to the Lib Dems.

I think the No! campaign has a point here, which is a surprise because most of the arguments on this page are complete mush. For example, they claim AV will have a detrimental effect on smaller parties:

Not a single constituency has been identified as likely to fall to a small party under AV. One study in Wales suggests Plaid Cymru could even be wiped out, losing all 3 of its current seats. As Professor K.D. Ewing and Dr. Graeme Orr found, “a small party is unlikely to win any seats under AV.”

Yet, at the same time they claim:

While we hope that AV wouldn’t lead to extremist parties winning win seats, it would certainly give them more influence – BNP second preferences alone could swing at least 35 seats. Moreover, they will gain legitimacy from a greater vote total. Fringe parties could expect their first preference vote to be higher than it is now, giving them more support and legitimacy.

Either I’m completely thick, or these two claims are contradictory. If BNP is a small fringe party, and AV is going to make life more difficult for small parties, surely AV will ‘mean the death’ of the BNP as well? I digress… AV, it seems to me, is in most cases going to be tactical. Unless voters genuinely agree with different candidates they will be putting the candidate they support first, and arranging the rest in terms of the ‘least bad’ or, in my case, in such a way that the Tories are least likely to get in. However, what interested me in the tactical voting issue was not which side had the best argument, but that it is an issue at all. I was watching the Manchester AV Debate, and one of the debaters for a No! (Tony Lloyd, MP for Manchester Central) made some very interesting points. One of the things he said was, even if the BNP will be destroyed by the move to AV, “The answer to the BNP is not a change in the voting system, it is politics.” This highlighted for me that it isn’t just the voting that would be done through AV that would be tactical, rather: voting for AV is in itself tactical. The main question for me with this referendum is whether AV will make it less likely for the Conservatives to get in power in the next election.

While Mr. Lloyd’s remark is very noble, and is certainly something I think I agree with, I am not sure I believe that there is any ‘politics’ left in this country. If we understand politics as coming to some sort of view of what is best for the country and working towards it through campaigning, voting, debating with people who disagree with you etc. then our politics is nothing but tactics.

This is nothing controversial, I do not think. Though I don’t think I want to go as far as Levinas and define politics as “The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means.” (Totality and Infinity, p. 21), I do think that the claim ‘politics is somehow essentially tactical” is quite close to common sense.  We think of politics as a certain tactical manoeuvring. The politician has to be tactical about what he says in public in order to actualise his goal of getting people to vote for him. We talk of ‘politics’ in our work place when we are forced to be tactical about our behaviour to keep on good terms with our colleagues in order to maintain an amicable environment and be on our best behaviour superiors in the hopes of coming across in our best light and maybe get a promotion some day.

To be more exact, though not necessarily more rigorous, politics is a tactics because it starts with an idea it wishes to be actual and then asks “How can I bring this about?” So, we start with the Idea “A raise in tuition fees is a bad idea”. We then ask “How can I prevent the vote?”. The “How can I x” is the call for strategy, the step towards developing some sort of tactical plan that will bring about x. In the case of the tuition fees, the proposed answer to the question was a set of protests aimed at trying to convince the MPs to vote against it, with the particular hope that the Libdem back benchers would realise that their re-election is unlikely and turn on their party’s cabinet members.

This particular hope, that the coalition can be dissolved through the rebellion against the increasingly unpopular Nick Clegg by the Libdem back benchers is a particularly good example of the tactical nature of politics. It is the isolation and targeting of a weak-spot in one’s enemy. The coalition is Achilles, the Libdems are the heel and the protests are our arrow towards it. The trouble is, it doesn’t seem to be working and the vote went through. Though, if we assess the campaign against the tuition fees rise in terms of what they should or could have done better, we are already assessing it in terms of strategy and tactics in the same way we might criticise the tactics used in Afghanistan. Similarly, Mr. Lloyds comment that “The answer to the BNP is not a change in the voting system, it is politics” is a criticism of the tactics of the Yes! campaigners.

So, though I am not much closer to deciding what to vote for, I am certainly not put off by the thought that AV is a tactical move rather than a political move. In fact, if AV is more tactical than FPTP, then perhaps that shows that AV is much more in touch with the state of politics in our time. Though it does raise the question: ‘Is there a way of doing politics that is not tactical?’ If there is, and this new way is preferable, then whether or not AV is the right voting system to get the right party into power is not the only problem to be reckoned with. We would also need to think about the way we do politics as such.

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