AV would end the scourge of tactical voting

by Luke Akehurst

One of the great myths about the alternative vote (AV) is that it will predominantly benefit the Lib Dems.

I’ve spent all my political life trying to expose the Lib Dems and resisting calls for tactical voting for them. As an election agent one of my proudest moments was when Hackney Labour reduced the Lib Dems from 17 seats to just 3 on our local council.

But I see no contradiction between this and my support for a Yes vote in the AV referendum next May.

The starting point when judging any electoral system is not a snapshot of the partisan benefit to your own party, but whether that system delivers for voters.

AV isn’t proportional representation, so it does not necessarily deliver an improvement on first-past-the-post (FPTP) when it comes to proportionality (that is, share of votes relating to share of seats).

But on any other count, AV would enhance democracy compared to FPTP, while maintaining a constituency link between MPs and voters:

  • It would enhance voter choice, as electors get to rank candidates in order of preference rather than just picking one candidate.
  • It ensures that every MP is elected with a majority of the votes cast in their seat, removing the travesty of MPs elected on small vote shares when, for instance, there is a split vote between two opposition candidates. This would enhance the mandate each MP has.
  • It reduces the number of wasted votes: you can vote with your heart for your first choice party and then use your lower preference votes to vote tactically if your preferred party has no chance of winning.

It is the last point which means that AV would have a partisan advantage for Labour and against the Lib Dems.

In many seats in the south and south west of England, there has been an entrenched tactical voting tradition for decades, going back to the days of the SDP/Liberal alliance.

Having got themselves into second place (and sometimes first), the Lib Dems in many seats have sustained themselves there with a squeeze message on Labour supporters that has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

“Labour can’t win here”, say Lib Dems in any seat where they run second to the Tories. And so Labour supporters vote Lib Dem tactically; Labour activists switch off their local campaigning; and the prophesy fulfils itself.

It is for this reason that in many seats we have no real measure of how much Labour support there is: because the tactical voting message has been run for so many years that people who, if they lived in a seat where Labour was first or second, would be solid Labour voters, habitually vote Lib Dem for tactical reasons.

It doesn’t take long for tactical voting in parliamentary contests to seep over into people’s local election preferences, eroding our local government base and causing our local party structure to atrophy.

We don’t even know who would really be the main opponent to the Tories in some of these seats if people’s real party preferences were expressed and tactical voting removed as a factor. Given the puny poll ratings of the Lib Dems and their deviation from any pretence at progressive politics, it might well be us.

Of course, the Lib Dems don’t give us any thanks for the votes Labour supporters have lent us over the years. This substantial factor in their ability to hold many of their seats was completely ignored when they chose to form a coalition with the Tories.

AV would end the travesty of tactical voting. In seats across the south, Labour supporters could vote Labour and ignore pernicious Lib Dem squeeze messages. We’d find out who was really the main opposition to the Tories in those seats and progressive voters would be able to rank the parties and transfer between them on the basis of their policies, not the effectiveness of their squeeze appeal. Labour’s national vote share would more accurately reflect our real support; and as national vote share was a factor in the Lib Dems choosing a coalition partner, it would increase the chances of a centre-left government.

That has to be good for democracy and good for Labour.

Luke Akehurst is a member of Labour’s NEC.
He blogs at

Tags: , ,

10 Responses to “AV would end the scourge of tactical voting”

  1. Londoner says:

    Fantastic article. I agree with every single word.

  2. Darrell says:

    No it wont as the Labour leadership contest proved; all it does is move the site of the tactical voting to second preferences.

  3. William Bowe says:

    Excellent post.

    Not sure I get Darren’s point – we’re essentially talking about three-party contests here. You give your first preference to Labour and use your second tactically … how? By putting the Conservatives ahead of the Lib Dems in order to thwart them somehow? No, you go to the Lib Dems because you’d prefer them to the Conservatives – nothing “tactical” about it.

  4. William Bowe says:

    Darrell sorry …

  5. Robin Thorpe says:

    Excellent post; I do agree that tactical voting is a major issue in the skew of local politics. I live on the south coast where precisely that issue exists. In some seats the Tories get a clear majority but in some the “progressive” vote outweighs the Tory vote. If more people feel able to vote Labour number 1 instead of Lib-Dem “because they’re not Tory and Labour can’t win” then we would see people’s true opinion and the local party structure may improve. It would still be incredibly difficult for a Labour parliamentary candidate to win but if it improves the chances of a more balanced local government (through stronger local party activity) then it would be a good thing.

  6. Toby says:

    This sums up my reasons for supporting AV. I’ve lived in seats with a Tory incumbent and a Lib Dem challenger. Many, many people tactically vote for the Lib Dems and have for years. AV could allow these people a genuine vote.

  7. Darrell says:


    Errr no. Am I the only person here who was part of the Labour leadership contest? You can still cast your preference tactually in the example you give for the LDs to keep the Conservatives out. Is it not true that Labour in the hypothetical seat would do exactly that, encourage their supporters to rank down their nearest threat? They would if they had any sense….besides in three way marginals its unlikely the second preferences of *any* of the three main parties will matter; what will matter will be the second preferences of those parties likely to be eliminated ie, the BNP, Greens and UKIP et al….so welcome to a world where tactical voting doesn’t end but it means, in practice, chasing the second preferences of BNP voters….

  8. No says:

    In the interests of balance, and safe in the knowledge that the GroupThinkers who post here will not bother to read further, I would just like to point out that Luke’s post is NONSENSE!

  9. Imogen says:

    Excellent article.

    One suggestion remove the word tactically from your third bullet point which currently reads:

    “It reduces the number of wasted votes: you can vote with your heart for your first choice party and then use your lower preference votes to vote tactically if your preferred party has no chance of winning.”

    As you rightly say, you don’t need to vote tactically with AV your subsequent preferences just need to reflect your real preferences…. Just state enough preferences to ensure it eventually gets transferred to a major contenter if it needs to go that far.

    AV improves the power of people’s votes therefore it must improve parliament. Most of the anti-argument commons from a deep seated fear that the electorate won’t want what the anti-reform person is arguing for.

  10. Greg Auger says:

    Completely agree with this post Luke, it’s so frustrating that others don’t see things the way they are. Yes to AV!

Leave a Reply