As the UK goes to the polls in what is dubbed the “Brexit election,” some Remain voters are going the extra mile to make sure their vote has the maximum impact. Increasing numbers of people are choosing to swap their vote with someone from a different constituency, switching allegiances in order to unseat an undesirable candidate.
‘Vote swaps’ are particularly common in marginal constituencies, where only a small number of votes are required to swing the overall percentage in favour of a different party. Tactical voting – when voters pick a party or candidate other than their first choice in order to reduce the margin of the other most prominent candidate – is by no means uncommon, with a poll by BMG showing that one in four people plan to vote tactically. However, vote swaps are a newer phenomenon, and have been propelled into the limelight by an increasingly loud anti-Brexit discourse.
“This was a direct response to people on the street coming up to us and talking about the issue,” said Pamela Armstrong, a committee member for the collective ‘Cheltenham for Europe,’ who founded a Facebook group for vote swaps along with her friend Nikki Robson. “At first, we thought it would just be about linking our own [local] constituencies and we were a little surprised, when we went live, to get requests from all over the United Kingdom. I even had one from Antarctica which was a huge surprise to us.”
Robson and Armstrong set up the Facebook group in May 2019 with the aim of bringing together voters whose primary concern was remaining in the European Union, and initially it had 156 supporters. That number has now grown to more than 7,000 members, with up to 50,000 engagements per month and a month-by-month reach of two million. Whilst Robson handled the business end of the process, matching voters and supporting them through the swaps, Armstrong handled publicity, advertising the group on Twitter.
Armstrong, who swapped her vote for the first time in this election, said that for participants, votes “are so precious to them because it’s as if they hold them in their hands close to their hearts, and they will not let it go. I got the sense that it is a very great responsibility, and it does count. You’re switching your allegiance into a constituency where there is a very real chance that the Pro-remain candidate will be returned to parliament. And both vote swappers are doing that. It’s win-win.”
Many people are hailing tactical voting as being especially important in the 2019 election, with approximately 50 marginal seats which the Conservatives could lose as a result of tactical voting. Despite the exit poll predicting that the Conservatives will win a working majority, with YouGov’s final poll predicting a gain of 50 seats for the party, in their biggest majority since 1987, there is a great deal of speculation that tactical voting could pull the rug from underneath their feet.
Tom de Grunwald, who runs the vote swapping website Swap My Vote since 2015, said vote swaps go a long way in hyper-marginal constituencies, citing the example of how the Conservatives won the Richmond Park constituency by just 45 votes in the 2017 election, with vote swappers providing 10 percent of the swing towards the Liberal Democrats.
“I think it has really affected the way people think about politics. The idea of voting is to vote for who you want, but we have such a bad electoral system that many people literally waste their vote. In 2017, 22 million votes were wasted. I think it [vote swapping] normalises tactical voting, it means that people understand the electoral system better.”
This year, de Grunwald says there have also been unexpected “unionist” vote swaps between the Labour and Conservative parties in marginal Scottish constituencies, in order to avoid Scottish National Party victories, as the latter is lobbying for Scottish independence. However, he says the “lion’s share” of vote swaps are still between progressive parties.
58-year-old retail assistant Caroline Donnelly was one of the many people who used Armstrong and Robson’s group to organise her own vote swap, as well as for three members of her family. Although a staunch Labour supporter, Donnelly voted Liberal Democrat in Cheltenham, as there were just 5,000 votes between the current Conservative MP and the Liberal Democrat candidate in the 2017 general election, whilst Labour trailed more than 20,000 votes behind. In exchange, her swap partner voted Labour in Warwick and Leamington, which is a marginal Labour-Conservative race, with just over 1,000 votes separating the two in the last election.
Anti-Conservative rhetoric is strong within the group, with Armstrong saying, “The Tories have systematically closed down democratic debate in parliament.” For Donnelly, however, the issue is about more than just Brexit, which she views as an elitist move to avoid paying tax. Having previously worked as a nurse for the NHS, she said it had been “devastated” by austerity, and that her own two sisters, who are both disabled, had “suffered severely with austerity cuts. The services they use have been removed and it’s really affected their health. So, I’ve seen the direct results of that.”
Donnelly found out about the group through a social media link and said it was “a great idea. It’s really easy. Both my husband and daughter had queried, ‘How do you know they’re going to do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s trust, you know.’ It’s kind of made me want to look more widely at other constituencies and how they do, usually I don’t think about Warwick but I’m going to be watching that one tonight. It’s sort of bringing people together to look beyond your own constituency.”
This sentiment is shared by Chair of the Liberal Democrats in the Isle of Wight, Anni Adams. Her party stood aside for the Green Party in her constituency and many others across the country, in a pact known as ‘Unite to Remain,’ in which parties stood aside for one another increase the possibility of pro-Remain candidates winning in certain constituencies. Adams swapped her vote with a Green voter in Cambridge, as she was unable to vote Liberal Democrat owing to the Isle of Wight candidate standing aside.
“It was the first thing that came into my head that I wanted to do, because of my position here, to be able to explain to people not being able to vote for a party I believe in,” Adams said. “It was a genuinely lovely moment this morning going to the polling station and texting my vote swap, taking a photo and saying, ‘You win mate, you’ve got my vote,’ and her saying the same to me.”
Adams, who vote swapped for the first time this election, added: “It’s nice to find a community that believes the things you do in a time that is so divisive and has split the country, and Westminster hasn’t done very much to create unity across the board. Things like Vote Swap, Unite to Remain have given the opportunity for people who are like-minded and want the same thing to put tribal party politics aside in the hope for a better future.”
Other voters have a history of swapping – 39-year-old marketing manager Paul Ahearne swapped votes for the first time in 2017, using the ‘Swap My Vote’ random voter matching programme, and voted Cheltenham Liberal Democrat in exchange for a Labour vote in Portsmouth. “I think it has an effect, but from what I read after 2017, swapping appeared to decide the margin of victory rather than which party won,” he said.
He believes that although some seats may have changed hands due to vote swaps, the number of changed seats is still not high enough to swing the overall victory in either direction. “Cheltenham will be a lot closer this time because of it. [It’s] hard to tell the effect of actual swaps versus those being pragmatic though… I think it gives the opportunity for those open to pragmatism to vote with a clear conscience.”
The UK adopted its current first-past-the-post voting system in 1950. Parties including the Green Party have lobbied for proportional representation to be used instead, but the 2011 Alternative Voting Referendum produced an overwhelming rejection of the idea. However, the current system continues to be criticised for ‘gerrymandering,’ or manipulation of electoral boundaries, and its implicit encouragement of tactical voting.
Tactical voting has had a tangible impact in previous elections, with widespread agreement that it ensured a greater majority for Tony Blair in the Labour Party’s 1997 election victory. Anti-Conservative voters deliberately switched to the Labour Party in order to avoid a Conservative victory, and Blair, alongside former Prime Minister John Major, has encouraged tactical voting in the 2019 election.
Ahearne said he is particularly concerned about gerrymandering and called the UK’s current electoral system “shoddy.” Adams agreed, saying “For example, taking the Green Party and how many people voted for Greens and how many MPs they have just doesn’t reflect at all what the nation is voting for. And same with the Liberal Democrats. This two-party system which obviously isn’t working, hasn’t been working, because you sit then in the hung parliament situation.”
Donnelly concurred, saying vote swapping was a less than ideal option. “I’d love to be able to vote Labour and [for it to] mean something, but the voting system we have doesn’t allow for that, unfortunately. So, a new system of proportional representation would be much more to my liking. I’ll do it [vote swapping] because it’s the lesser of the evils but my heart would be much happier if I was voting Labour directly with a direct impact.”
“The system is broken,” added de Grunwald. “We need proportional representation, we desperately need seats to match votes. We’d actually probably have better governments if we had coalitions. If voters can do that, which our vote swappers can, why can’t politicians find solutions that actually compromise in the interests of all people?”
Although de Grunwald adopts a non-partisan approach on his site, for the users of Robson and Armstrong’s group, this election is about holding back Brexit.
“I think we need to deconstruct the word win,” Armstrong said. “We’re on a high road to nothing if we think we’re going to win in the normal sense. Parliament has done what we Remainers needed it to do, which is simply holding the line. My hope is that with this election, we will simply hold the line again, and continue to hold the line. And holding the line is winning.”
However, it looks as if the UK is now on course to leave the European Union, with the Conservatives winning 47 more seats in the 2019 election. The vote swappers were unsuccessful in ensuring a victory for the Remainers, but they do seem to have had an impact – in Cheltenham, where many people swapped to vote Liberal Democrat, the Conservatives were re-elected with a much reduced majority, winning by just 981 votes, compared to 2,569 in the 2017 election. In the Isle of Wight, however, the Conservatives increased their majority.
“Tactical voting hasn’t worked in this election,” said de Grunwald. “[But] vote swapping did help make it more proportional – there were some seats whose margins were affected by our users. The voters who were swapping did affect the results where they were swapping.”
Adams and others in the group expressed horror at the unexpectedly bad performance of the more progressive parties, but they are hopeful tactical voting could have more of an impact in the future. “[As for] how much it will back an impact going forward, I’d like to think a lot,” said Adams.
One fact is clear – UK voters are changing the way they think about the electoral process. Although vote swapping is still a relatively new phenomenon, 6.5 million people voted tactically in the 2017 election, according to the Electoral Reform Society. That number is likely to have gone up in 2019, and going forward, it is likely that the British public will increasingly think twice about how best to use their vote.