We MUST stop using the language of votes “not counting” and “wasted votes”

As Liberal Democrats we all care about electoral reform. Nevertheless, we really don’t make a strong case for it by saying that people’s votes in safe seats “don’t count” or that we have untold “wasted votes“. That is of course one way to look at it, but completely ignores the reality that any electoral system will have people who vote for candidates or parties which aren’t then represented – even with Proportional Representation (PR), such as those voting for parties which achieve less than 5%.

More fundamentally, even under the current First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system every vote counts (and I’d be the first to take to the streets if it didn’t) since every vote is literally counted to see which candidate has the most (such an act is, of necessity, a comparison and involves weighing every pile of votes against every other). By talking about wasted votes we are conflating voting at all with voting for the winner – a specious argument since the very idea of electing someone (again, of necessity) means choosing between competing candidates and therefore having both winners and losers.

That is not to say that FPTP is a good system, it isn’t! Outside the United States (which is an exclusively two party polity in a way the UK hasn’t been for decades, a presidential system, and otherwise not a democracy we should wish to emulate for a whole host of reasons) almost no liberal democracy in the world still uses FPTP – certainly no other in Europe. But in making the case for reform we should rely on and encourage voters’ innate sense of fairness when presented with the facts of the result, rather than a present a questionable interpretation of their role in democracy as it stands.

As such, it would be far better to focus on the HUGE disparity between the numbers of votes cast for different parties and the MPs these actually elected (i.e. in 2019 ~26,000 for an SNP MP vs ~51,000 for a Labour MP and a staggering ~335,000 for a Lib Dem MP). Add this point to the threat to democracy manifested by any party which gains only a MINORITY of votes thereby acquiring absolute power by having a MAJORITY of MPs, with no checks on that power save a weak House of Lords (presenting examples such as Blair taking us to war in Iraq despite the public being overwhelmingly against it, or Thatcher introducing the poll tax, or Boris delivering a devastating no deal Brexit, if that goes on to happen) and you have a very powerful argument for reform.

Obviously making the case for PR over the next few years is important*, especially if Labour go on to support the idea. But let’s get the argument right – telling people their votes don’t count under the current system is completely wrong if for no other reason than it goes against their own lived experience. They cast their vote, watch the results come in and get on with their lives – feeling like, not unjustly, they have a stake and a role in democracy as it is. Telling them they don’t, that they’ve been conned, and that (by implication) they’ve been too stupid to realise it all this time is not going to go down well at all!

So please, I implore my fellow Liberal Democrats and others interested in making the case for political reform, please let’s get the argument right – not confusing making democracy better with the (false) idea that there is no democracy under the current system. If I believed the latter I wouldn’t bother with elections at all and would perhaps even embrace regime change by other means. So let’s use the right language, make the right arguments, and not present the idea to the average British voter that “we know best and you’ve been conned” which – we know from the Brexit debates – is not an argument likely to be well received.

* Nothing in this article is intended to say that we should be talking about a move to proportional voting at the expense of more urgent priorities for voters. Health and social care, jobs and the economy, education, the environment and imminent climate catastrophe are all far more important to voters and should be the focus of Lib Dem messaging and arguments if we are to have any hope of finding a path back to relevance.

* Matt McLaren is an elected member of the English Party Executive and the English Party’s representative on the Federal Conference Committee. In London Region, he is Vice-Chair of Enfield Liberal Democrats, a member of its Local Parties Committee and one of its elected representatives on the English Council. Matt is also currently a Liberal Democrat candidate for Enfield Council, standing in his home ward of Winchmore Hill.

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24 Comments

  • I get your point but I think the wasted votes argument is relevant because people often say in an election that a Lib Dem (or Green etc) vote is a wasted one in order to bolster the stale 2 party system.

    A counter argument is to point out that most people live in safe seats that never change hands therefore they can’t shut you up by claiming you are “splitting” the “progressive” “left” “remain” or whatever vote.

    For that reason I actually felt in 2019 there should have been more talk about PR.

  • John Marriott 25th Aug '20 - 5:18pm

    I am afraid that the jury might be out about whether you could argue that a vote for a Lib Dem candidate in a General Election in a place like Lincolnshire is a wasted vote or not. The new Lib Dem President would probably prefer to use any vote for a Lib Dem candidate at any level as a litmus test on where his party currently stands. Sorry; but I just get a bit tired of ritual humiliation!

    I was living in Germany during the U.K. ‘Who rules?’ General Election in February 1974. Discussion took place on German TV about our voting system and the way that commentators described it was that any votes that were not for the eventual winner simply ‘fall under the table’, in other words, did not count and could be disregarded.

    Now I do not necessarily support the idea of putting up a no hoper just to give people a chance to vote Lib Dem, as Mark Pack does. However, on the occasions that I have in the past ‘wasted’ my vote on a Lib Dem around here I did comfort myself in the knowledge that my vote was adding to the percentage tally for the party overall. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if any party at least got the percentage of seats in the House of Commons equivalent to the percentage of votes it got in the country as a whole, provided, of course, that it got at least 5% of the popular vote.

  • Julian Tisi 25th Aug '20 - 5:37pm

    I see your point about describing votes as “not counting” and that we need to make our case in a way that attracts moderate voters and not overstate our case in such a way that might put those voters off. But I don’t agree with you about the term “wasted votes” as I think people can see how if they vote for a no-hope candidate (when they could have voted for a contender in a close race) or if they vote for a candidate so popular that they would have won easily without them, their vote has in many ways been wasted. This is especially true in very safe seats where the result is a foregone conclusion. In Scotland, when STV was introduced for local elections, parties – even the Conservatives – reported that they found themselves fighting areas that had previously been ignored for years, either because the area was a safe win or a no-hope. IMO, arguments like “ever feel like your vote is wasted?” at the micro-level are far more effective that arguing about the overall disparity between votes cast and MPs elected.

  • George Thomas 25th Aug '20 - 5:50pm

    “Obviously making the case for PR over the next few years is important”

    Why? The Electoral Reform Society states that STV is a better voting system when measured across proportionality, voter choice and local representation. It is already used in Northern Ireland, in Scotland at a local level and now within the Labour party so some English and Welsh voters will be becoming more familiar with system whereas PR voting system is used…umm, help? For the record FPtP ranks bottom three (of nine) in each of those categories and could be basis of argument for reform, but what is the reason for still suggesting PR is one to campaign for? Did the conversation stop in 2011?

  • Daniel Walker 25th Aug '20 - 6:12pm

    @George Thomas “The Electoral Reform Society states that STV is a better voting system when measured across proportionality, voter choice and local representation.

    PR is a group of systems. STV is a form of it. The article doesn’t mention a specific system, and LibDem policy is for STV, so I would expect that would be the focus of any campaign.

  • Andy Hinton 25th Aug '20 - 6:31pm

    “By talking about wasted votes we are conflating voting at all with voting for the winner – a specious argument since the very idea of electing someone (again, of necessity) means choosing between competing candidates and therefore having both winners and losers.”

    This (and indeed the rest of the article) seems to me to be ignoring the fact that we are in favour of STV, a preferential system of voting in which everyone, if they choose to use their preferences, can express both an “ideal world” preference and ensure that they can contribute to their “least worst” option winning. Thus the frustration of “voting at all but not having your vote elect anybody” is largely avoided, whilst fulfilling the necessity for an electoral system to pick winners.

    Indeed, talking about “wasted votes” and “votes not counting” seems to me to be pretty good, pithy language to persuade people of the merits of preferential voting.

  • George Thomas 25th Aug '20 - 6:44pm

    @Daniel Walker, thank you for correcting me quickly and kindly.

  • @ John Marriott Curious to know why your views weren’t acceptable elsewhere, John, but maybe you can now see where I’m coming from based on what I’ve observed of events in a fair minded way in recent years…… (I thought she looked a bit tired today. Not surprising, she’s a hard worker on top of her brief, the sort you’d see in the University Library on a Saturday afternoon).

    It’s the difference between Lincoln City (and I say it kindly with credit to the Cowleys for their achievements) and a 50,000 plus European night at Celtic Park. I’ll let you guess which party would fit in well at the Indodrill Stadium in Alloa.

  • Generally agree with the article but its not true that thw public were overwhelmingly against the iraq war.

    Iirc the public was split fairly evenly and even the lib dems were more ambivalent on the issue than people now like to believe.

  • Richard O'Neill 26th Aug '20 - 12:17am

    In terms of electoral reform I’m fairly neutral. I’d say there are no safe seats really. Parties that “own” seats are often caught out. In the last decade the SNP have taken many seats where once they were nowhere. The Tories likewise in Welsh, Midlands and Northern seats. Labour have won Canterbury and other unfancied seats. LDs once took seats anywhere in by-elections. Perhaps in the future as well. Any party that considers any seat safe is mistaken.

    The party often endorses the “no wasted vote” argument. But, in my constituency it publishes pie charts and says “labour can’t win here”. And I know – at least in the past – there have been “Tories can’t win here” equivalents. I’d like at least a degree of consistency from the party. Similar to the Lord’s where no LD should set foot. To me an unelected lords is far more concerning than a FPTP commons. In the short term at least, I’d rather concentrate on a more winnable goal.

    @John Marriott
    I totally understand the historical legacy in Germany, but doesn’t the 5% rule undermine the every vote counts argument. It is entirely possibly that five or six parties might get between 4% and 5%.

  • Richard O'Neill 26th Aug '20 - 12:22am

    @Forner Dem
    yes. If I remember correctly (to be fair I’d just started secondary school if I’m wrong) but it was much more divided at the time. In the US it is ama

  • Keith Sharp 26th Aug '20 - 9:52am

    Wendy Chamberlain (witness her adjournment debate speech June 8) makes a powerful case for voters being left ‘voiceless’ under FPTP. Clive Lewis (Labour of course) makes a powerful case that wasted votes under FPTP are a step towards wasted lives.

    If you look at the Electoral Reform Society report on the 2019 GE you will see that millions of votes did not count. Doesn’t that mean they were wasted?

    The need is to focus on the gross inequalities that cut millions out of having an effective say in who gets elected and who governs us. We need to take the position of the voter, not the ‘hard-done-by’ party.

    This is a crucial debate and I’m pleased that we* are holding a virtual fringe meeting at Conference – A ‘democracy’ that cheats the voter’ at 6.45pm September 26. Wendy is leading this so I hope you’ll all sign up for it. Details are in the just published directory.

    *Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform. http://www.lder.org Please join us.

  • Peter Kenny 26th Aug '20 - 9:54am

    The paradox of PR is that it has to be enacted by Parties winning through FPTP, who then discover delights in the system that elected them.

    The Liberals only came to support PR once they’d got the rough end of FPTP and had become a minority Party threatened with extinction. Neither of the Libs last PMs, Asquith and Lloyd George supported PR and even ignored the Royal Commission that recommended AV.

    So, I’m a Labour supporter, in favour of PR for a long time and I don’t see it coming soon because of the self interest of the victorious.

  • John Marriott 26th Aug '20 - 10:04am

    @Richard O’Neill

    The so called ‘5% Sperrklausel’ was introduced for the second Bundestag elections in 1953 as the first elections in 1949 had once again thrown up a plethora of parties, not quite as many as the 32 in the Weimar Republic, that were cited by Hitler In his famous speech back in 1932, but clearly too many. You have only got to look at the Israeli Knesset to see what happens when you have a political free for all.

    As for every voting ‘counting’, it’s not a phrase I can warm to. Clearly every vote could never ‘count’, but every vote should be a ‘fair vote’. As often in life, what we should seek to achieve is a compromise. As Sir Michael Philip Jagger (briefly of the LSE) famously sang; “You can’t always get what you want”. I don’t think it’s fair for a party to poll several million votes and get no seats at all, as has happened to parties like UKIP, just as it wasn’t fair for Trump to ‘win’ the US Presidency four years ago with several million less votes than his opponent!

  • The movement for electoral reform could improve its language as you state, Matt. In a sense any vote not for a winning candidate and all those in excess of what is needed to win for that candidate are wasted in terms of not contributing to the result. There will always be some wasted votes. What is more important is all winning candidates should do so on a majority of cast votes. This is democracy. Preferential voting certainly gives more voters a feeling they’ve contributed to the result.

  • Richard O'Neill 26th Aug '20 - 5:30pm

    @John Marriott
    Yes, the German system does seem to work. A fairly stable party structure and a general acceptance of the concept of coalitions. Judging from the last one in Britain, the very idea of coalition still seems

  • Richard O'Neill 26th Aug '20 - 5:38pm

    Continued
    -hard to accept. Even amongst people who advocate PR which will lead to permanent coalitions.

    Whichever voting system we have there are likely to be drawbacks and advantages. Much in the same way that the team who scores the most goals in a league season don’t always win the title. Just as there are “wasted votes” in an election perhaps there are “wasted goals” in football.

  • Matt McLaren 27th Aug '20 - 5:10pm

    Thanks for all the comments. A couple of follow up points from me:

    *Preferential Voting*

    Yes, preferential voting is far superior to other systems precisely because it does not force voters into the uncomfortable choice between supporting a party/candidate they truly want and one that may have a better chance of defeating a particularly detested rival contender.

    However, I would caution against constructing arguments for PR which depend on preferential voting systems. PR can be preferential (as in our preferred STV and Jenkins’ recommended AV+) but need not be (e.g. AMS or closed lists). Moreover, preferential voting as such was rejected in the 2011 referendum (since AV was preferential but not proportional). We must therefore make a broad case for a move to proportional voting (an option never before put to voters) that DOESN’T hinge on the particular system adopted being a preferential one.

    *Safe Seats*

    I very much agree that there aren’t really any safe seats (recent history has shown us that, e.g. breaking the “red wall”, Scotland, Labour winning Kensington etc.). There are simply seats which are harder or easier to win for different parties based on historical trends and changeable voter demographics. None are “safe” and anyone who takes voters for granted or who unduly prejudges the choice that they make has any business in electoral politics.

  • Matt McLaren 27th Aug '20 - 5:11pm

    *Votes “Not Counting” and “Wasted Votes” Arguments*

    I completely reject the notion of votes not counting under FPTP for the clear reasons detailed in my article above (every vote counts in a democracy and falsely stating otherwise is not only a dangerous misrepresentation but will only invite a voter backlash, as I previously argued).

    However, i attacked the “wasted votes” line on the same grounds but, as some commentators have pointed out, that wasted vote argument is routinely used not just in making the case for electoral reform but in the business of fighting elections under FPTP – both by our opponents (“Don’t waste your vote on a third party” lines etc.) and by us (“Labour can’t win here – it’s a two-horse race between the Lib Dems and the Tories” etc.).

    Since I first encountered the wasted votes line in argument against a 3rd placed Liberal Democrat candidate I was campaigning for, I’ve rejected this from a very young age. My response always was “Which is the more wasted vote – one cast for a candidate you actually believe in and want to get elected, or one cast simply for the least worst party you think you can tolerate but even if elected won’t actually deliver for you?”

    As you may guess from this response, even in tight two-way Lib Dem races I personally would never suggest that a vote for the third party (Labour or Tory, depending on the seat) would be wasted. Nevertheless, it is simply a fact that longstanding voters for one of the two bigger parties tend to dislike the other establishment party less than us, and just pointing out that we’re better placed to defeat their rival than their preferred choice is usually sufficient for them to consider us.

    As such, I have no issue with bar charts and “It’s a two-horse race” messaging from us – we have to fight elections under FPTP currently whether we like it or not, and that means recognising and responding to the problem of mixed-motivation voting (i.e. some people voting FOR something whilst others vote AGAINST something/someone). Unless and until we move to a preferential voting system this won’t change, and we shouldn’t pretend that a move to PR will necessarily solve that problem because – as I said earlier – unless the particular PR system utilised is preferential – it won’t.

  • Matt McLaren 27th Aug '20 - 5:11pm

    In any event, we shouldn’t be telling people in a democracy like ours that their vote doesn’t count (I’ve been to untold election counts and can attest to the fact that EVERY vote is counted, just as it should be). And neither we nor anyone else has any right to tell someone that they have wasted their vote. We can and should try to persuade them to vote for us and not to vote for another party or candidate, but ultimately who they opt to vote for us entirely a matter for them and only they can judge to what extent it was used wisely.

    I believe in democracy and as such I am firmly of the view that the only wasted vote is a vote not used!

  • I’m baffled by this article. I know people in constituencies adjacent to where I live who, like John Hall who has commented above, have voted all their adult lives without making the slightest difference, as the Tory candidates invariably get huge majorities. And I mean majorities, that is over 50% of votes cast. The rest cam indeed complain their votes were wasted as they didn’t get a representative to advocate their views in the legislature. This is the central problem. I believe JS Mill pointed out over a century ago that with the extension of the franchise to include persons who weren’t landowners, each MP ceased to represent simply a place, or the landowning class in a place. MPs had a new problem of how to represent people whose political views and economic interests were opposed. Of course that is impossible, but we’ve been brought up not to question the familiar FPTP system we have, that pretends otherwise and returns honourable members who supposedly make decisions in the interests of everyone in this or that place. As Mill proposed, single member constituencies should be replaced by multi-member ones with a proportional vote counting system so that the range of political views is represented and the interests of the different political and economic groups that exist have a voice.

  • Matt McLaren 29th Aug '20 - 5:34pm

    @Jo Hayes – I don’t disagree with you at all, and in fact what you’ve set out is a good new (as in not set out elsewhere above) argument not just for PR but specifically for a multi-member constituency PR system (like our preferred STV, or closed/open lists). However, it was never the point of my article to argue against PR (I have said repeatedly that I am in favour of it) but to warn against language and arguments that could do more harm than good.

    In the example you cite, it is true that someone voting for a non-winning candidate did not support the eventual winner and thus may feel that they have a MP who does not represent their interests. It is NOT true that their vote didn’t count, since it contributes to the result (the winner is only the winner because they got more votes than any other candidate, after ALL HAVE BEEN COUNTED). We must not conflate participation in a democracy with some perceived inalienable right to always have one’s preferred candidate elected (which would be no democracy at all), and the problem with the “votes not counting” argument is it does exactly this.

    We can be smarter, better advocates of PR than that. Talk about the huge groups that go unrepresented (or at least insufficiently represented) or the way FPTP gives enormous, almost absolute power to minorities over the majority who didn’t vote for them. But let’s please stop using the lazy and incorrect language of votes not counting when they do. That shouldn’t be baffling at all.

  • George Crozier 29th Aug '20 - 6:55pm

    Matt I agree with every word. Excellent article!

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