Posts Tagged ‘voting’

Five reasons to vote in a safe seat

Why bother to vote in a safe seat, knowing your vote won’t make a difference to that constituency’s outcome? Jonathan Birch offers five key reasons why voting makes a difference to the legitimacy and stability of parliamentary democracy, even when individual seats don’t change hands.

Elections can be pretty demoralising if you live in a safe seat. Where I live, in Mid Sussex, the Conservatives have a majority of almost 20,000 and have held the seat since its creation in 1974. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. Nothing happens, no one visits. You’re lucky to get a single leaflet.

If I lived in a marginal seat, I’d have a realistic chance, albeit a very small one, of making a difference. In the 1997 election, the seat of Winchester was decided by a margin of 2 votes, so it was literally true that every vote for the winning candidate mattered. This happens every now and then in marginals. But not in safe seats.

The Electoral Reform Society estimates that over half the seats in the UK are safe, in the sense that the outcome is not in any serious doubt. Ideally, we’d have some sort of proportional representation that would give my vote a chance of influencing who gets elected. But we don’t. I know that the outcome of the election will be unaffected by my vote.

So why vote at all? Why bother when you know your vote won’t matter? I’m sure this is one big reason why, in every election, around 30-40% of eligible voters don’t vote. But I think there are still reasons to vote, in spite of our flawed electoral system. Here are five.

1: The seat might not be as safe as you think

We live in volatile times. In the 2017 election, some seats turned out to be far more competitive than anyone expected. One example is Canterbury, which had been held by the Conservatives since its creation (as a constituency) in 1918. Propelled by the student population, Labour overturned a majority of almost 10,000 from two years earlier. In recent years, Labour has lost all of its ‘safe seats’ in Scotland with the rise of the Scottish Nationalists. In 2017, they even lost Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, which had a majority of 23,000 in 2010. These things happen. But they don’t happen very often.

2: To influence your MP’s behaviour

Even in a safe seat, your vote counts towards the totals for each party, so it can make the seat a tiny bit safer or a tiny bit less safe. This makes no difference, you might think: the same MP is elected either way. But the behaviour of the MP will be influenced by the safety of their seat.

MPs in safe seats are under no serious pressure to deliver benefits to their constituents. They might be diligent MPs anyway, but they are not compelled to be. If they want, they can skip votes and debates and spend their time doing after-dinner speeches, serving on company boards, indulging in schemes and plots for their own advancement, and so on. By contrast, an MP defending a tiny majority has a motivation to work hard.

Moreover, an MP in a safe seat can also happily follow the party whip, even if the party line harms their own constituency. By contrast, MPs in marginals often feel much greater pressure to put their own constituents before party loyalty. Brexit has given us some interesting examples. Many of the most high-profile Labour rebels over Brexit—e.g. John Mann, John Woodcock, Ruth Smeeth, Gareth Snell, Caroline Flint, Jon Cruddas, Gloria De Piero—are in vulnerable, pro-Leave marginals.

It might occasionally be a good thing for an MP to feel able to oppose the interests of their constituents. Sometimes, we might want our MPs to vote in the national interest, setting aside the interests of the people of one small area. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

3: To make future elections more (or less) competitive

Parties invest their resources according to how competitive they think a seat is. In a safe seat, you will see few leaflets, few signs, few activists and probably no candidates. Once a party starts regarding a seat as a serious target, they start to have a chance of taking it, even though the incumbent party will also start campaigning more vigorously.

You might want your seat to be more competitive next time, if you oppose the incumbent party. Or you might want your seat to become less competitive, if you support the incumbent party. Either way, your vote will make a difference to the seat’s competitiveness, and that will make a difference to the atmosphere surrounding future elections.

4: To influence national vote share

The effect of your vote on the parties’ national vote share is minuscule. But you might conceivably tip your party over some significant threshold: from 39.9% to 40.0%, for example. Because we don’t have proportional representation, the national vote share officially makes no difference. But it does make a difference to the perceived legitimacy of a government. Governments in this country are usually elected with a minority vote share, but the smaller the minority, the worse this looks. When Labour was elected in 1997 on a 43% vote share, I don’t remember anyone complaining about their legitimacy or using the result as an argument for electoral reform. But when they were re-elected in 2005 on a 35% vote share (a margin of victory of less than 3%), people did complain, and it did strengthen the argument for electoral reform.

5: To help keep democracy alive

Turnout matters because it affects the legitimacy and stability of parliament, the government, and all the institutions of a democracy. Imagine turnout fell to 35%. What kind of democracy would we have then? What sort of democratic mandate could a government claim for doing anything? The overwhelming message from a general election with a 35% turnout is that democracy is in trouble, and its institutions and parties are not perceived as legitimate. It would be a perilous situation for the whole country.

This isn’t hypothetical: it’s been the actual situation for a long time in elections to the European parliament. One of the problems MEPs have faced for decades is that turnout in European elections is low. The result is that people don’t generally see their MEPs as representing them, or know much about them or what they do, allowing the idea of the EU as ‘undemocratic’ to take root.

So, in a vague kind of way, a vote for any party is a vote of confidence in parliamentary democracy itself. As an individual, your effect on turnout is even less significant than that on national vote share, so the effect is still minuscule. It also cuts both ways. You might want to undermine confidence in a parliament elected by an antiquated electoral system, which would be a reason not to vote. But if you still believe in parliamentary democracy despite everything, you can be comforted by the thought that your vote makes a tiny difference to its legitimacy and stability.


About the Author

Jonathan Birch is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the LSE.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

Democratic rights Vs. expected outcomes: why do citizens support referendums?

Whether or not to hold a referendum on Brexit is a clear dividing line between parties in the upcoming UK general election. However, Philipp Harms and Claudia Landwehr argue that support for such a measure is often largely contingent on expected outcomes, and so can entrench political divides. More deliberative democratic innovations might therefore be better suited to resolving the UK’s political conflicts.

By any account, British democracy is in deep trouble after the Brexit vote and the failure of Parliament and two Prime Ministers to deal with its result in a way that pacifies the deep conflicts that gave rise to it. But most other seemingly consolidated democracies, too, are confronted with problems of political alienation, growing political inequality and the rise of populist parties and candidates. These apparent ailments of democracy prompt calls for democratic innovations to cure the disease. Democratic innovations, such as deliberative assemblies, participatory budgeting or citizen consultations, can complement or partly even replace representative institutions in some of their functions. Whereas political scientists and theorists of democracy tend to favour deliberative innovations like the latter, the most popular innovations with the public are forms of direct democracy.

In the UK, however, direct democracy – or more precisely, the Brexit referendum – is precisely what caused the present crisis. Scared by the success of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and unable to arbitrate the divisions within the Tory party, David Cameron called the referendum in 2016. Cameron was hoping to put an end to the debate about the UK’s membership in the European Union and tried to use the public as a kind of umpire of last resort, erroneously confident that the umpire would decide his way.

Despite the experiences with the 2016 referendum and its consequences, the People’s Vote campaign as well as the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats continue to advocate yet another referendum on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. They thus seek to resolve the crisis with the same means that caused it. But will this work? We want to highlight two interrelated and severe problems with the use of referendums to resolve deep political conflicts. Both problems concern referendums in general, but have particular relevance for the British case.

The first problem is that politicians’ motivation in calling a referendum, but also citizens’ preferences for referendums, are insufficiently understood. Referendums are typically justified on the basis of their supposed intrinsic merits for democracy: they are viewed as giving citizens a say on important policy decisions, allowing them to exercise their democratic autonomy more directly, and they promise decisions with a strong public mandate. Asked whether they would support more referendums to be held in their country, citizens will tend to answer on the basis of an assessment of the democratic merits of direct democracy.

As our research indicates, however, the intrinsic motives for supporting referendums are only one part of the picture. As soon as the decision to hold a referendum is contextualised, a different set of motives comes into play. Where the question is not whether there should be more referendums in general, but whether a referendum should be held on a specific issue, support for it becomes contingent on its expected outcome effects. Put somewhat bluntly, people tend to be more supportive of a referendum if they expect a majority to share their position on an issue. In this case, the referendum procedure may be expected to be instrumental to the achievement of one’s own desired policy preference.

Although a general preference for referendums, which captures intrinsic motives for supporting them, remains an important predictor for choosing a referendum as a decision-making procedure for a specific issue, instrumental considerations thus play an important role. What we can show for ordinary citizens is likely to apply to politicians and office-holders, who are in the position to call a referendum, to an even stronger extent. Placed in a context of strong interdependence, politicians are bound to act and decide strategically and to base their procedural choices on strategic considerations. Referendums are thus likely to be called in the expectation of an outcome that is in keeping with a politician’s own policy preferences and strategic advantages.

At the same time, citizens’ and politicians’ estimation of the majority opinion may well be wrong. In our sample, participants favouring anti-immigration policies (the issue under consideration in our research) tended to assume a majority to share their position and were accordingly supportive of a referendum on the matter. The support for their own position, however, was much weaker than they assumed – psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘false consensus effect’. The significance of instrumental, rather than intrinsic, motives for supporting referendums and the fact that support is contingent on potentially faulty assumptions about congruence between own and majority preferences leads to a further problem.

This second problem consists in the fact that where referendums are called and supported under wrong assumptions about the majority position, their results are unlikely to be accepted as legitimate and decisions based on them may not be expected to resolve political conflicts. A referendum cannot replace participatory, informed and deliberative decision-making processes, but constitutes what Cristina Lafont calls a ‘procedural shortcut’ that will ultimately miss the goal of a democratically legitimate and broadly accepted decision. The Brexit vote is in fact a prime example for a case in which a decision that was based on such a shortcut rather than on inclusive and informed deliberation has failed to settle a political conflict. Instead, the referendum has not only deepened divides, but has also caused severe damage to the representative institutions that are to implement its result.

Although it remains to be seen whether or not another public vote on EU membership will ever be held, the December election is widely viewed as a quasi-referendum on the terms and conditions of Brexit. Given the first-past-the-post electoral system with its incentives for strategic voting and resulting disproportional representation, however, things are unlikely to improve whatever the result will be. Instead, trust in democratic institutions and procedures is likely to be further diminished.

Under these conditions, many have called for a deliberative citizens’ assembly to address the issues Parliament has failed to resolve. Given the growing frustration with representative institutions and alienation from politics, however, deliberation should not stop at the Brexit question. Instead, it could take the Irish Constitutional Convention as a model and address democratic decision-making procedures and their innovation as such, aiming to renew the procedural consensus that enables democracies to deal with deep, substantial conflicts peacefully and constructively.


The above was first published on Democratic Audit. It draws on the authors’ published work in Political Studies.

About the Authors

Philipp Harms is Professor of International Economics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.



Claudia Landwehr is Professor of Public Policy at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Steve Eason / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

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