#GE2015 Your Questions Answered #3: What’s Your View on Tactical Voting?

This is the third in a series of posts attempting to answer questions and comments put to me by family and friends around the General Election. This time round, the issue is tactical voting. The specific question put to me was as follows:

What’s your view on tactical voting? (e.g. a relatively safe Labour seat, where UKIP is the only potential contender)

First, let’s define our terms. Tactical voting, according to Wikipedia, occurs “when a voter supports a candidate other than his or her sincere preference in order to prevent an undesirable outcome”.

This is a relatively simple one for me. You have to separate out the question into two parts to get things clear. There’s the matter of how we should act in our current system, which arguably encourages tactical voting. And there’s the matter of whether we should retain such a system.

Let’s start with the question of how we should act in our current system. It is obvious that in a decision involving more than two candidates where there is only one winner, tactical voting is automatically rational. The example given in the original question is a good one. If I am (say) a Conservative supporter in that constituency, I have the following choices:

  1. Follow my sincere preference, vote Conservative, and “waste” my vote
  2. Vote for Labour if I dislike UKIP sufficiently
  3. Vote for UKIP if I dislike Labour sufficiently

To me, as a natural Lib Dem supporter, I dislike UKIP to such an extent that I would vote Labour in that environment, as problematic as I find their current attitude to immigration and many other things too numerous to discuss.

This would not be true if you replaced “UKIP” with “Conservative” in the question, though. My current constituency is a Tory-Labour marginal and I will be voting Lib Dem on the basis that it’s my sincere preference, and it makes little difference to me which of the two leading candidates win.

Another wrinkle is the calibre of the candidates. If I were in Brighton Pavilion, for example, I would be highly likely to vote for Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s sole MP, as she has improved Parliament by her presence, showing a principled approach and working in a collegiate way with others on various issues. This is also true of Ed Timpson, the Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich, who has been to my mind a very good Children’s Minister.

It’s not at all simple. But ultimately the point of the secret ballot is to allow you to make such decisions based on your own conscience. I would tend towards encouraging people to vote for their first preference on that basis, even though the system militates against it. But I would never judge people for voting tactically, given the restrictions placed upon us by the system as it stands.

Unsurprising then that I don’t believe the system should remain as it stands. There are certain things that I hope most people would consider axiomatic about a representative democracy:

  1. It should be representative. To me this means that the votes cast should translate accurately into the representation elected to enact laws and create policies on our behalf.
  2. It should be democratic. To me this means that citizens are able to vote freely and fairly in a system that gives an accurate picture of the people’s wishes.

In order for such a system to pertain we would have to switch to a form of proportional representation and a voting system that allows our preferences to be accurately reflected. The Alternative Vote system on which we had a referendum in 2011 would have achieved the latter of the two goals, a substantial improvement and a down-payment on the former goal, which would be the bigger and more vital shift. How to vote under FPTP and AV, by the great Anthony Smith

We may yet see a renewed movement in favour of such reform after the election. Not only will UKIP and the Greens lack almost any representation, despite picking up perhaps 20% of the vote between them; it looks highly likely that we are going to be in a position where the SNP wins perhaps 90-100% of the seats in Scotland on about 45% of the vote.

The UK will be held to ransom by a party benefiting from the ludicrously unrepresentative First-Past-The-Post system. The difference this time is that it will be a party that wants to break up the UK. But that is a subject for another post…

#GE2015: Your Questions Answered 2: Where do the parties stand on education?

This is the second in a series of posts attempting to answer questions and comments put to me by family and friends around the General Election. The focus this time is on education. Two friends asked very similar questions, which can be summarised thus:

What’s your take on the education policies of the major parties, and what impact might they have?

This is a pretty broad question! First of all, “education” means different things to different people. But usually, when people talk about education, though, they’re meaning state schools, so I’m addressing that. If you want me to take on further and higher education, just let me know in the comments.

What do the parties propose?

With two manifestos now published, we have a very good idea of what Labour and the Tories would do in education. You can find a fuller list by either reading the relevant manifestos (here and here), or by consulting the BBC’s updated policy guide here. However, I tend to cut education policy differently to most people so my own summary follows!

Funding

The schools budget has been “relatively well protected” over the past five years, but that looks likely to change slightly in the period 2015-2020:

  • The Conservatives say they will protect funding per pupil in real terms
  • Labour say they will protect the entire 0-19 education budget in real terms
  • The Lib Dems say they will protect the entire 2-19 education budget in real terms

These all sound quite positive. “Real terms” means that the parties are going to take inflation (rising prices, a normal part of any economy) into account, and increase spending at least by the same amount to compensate. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a prominent economic think tank, has said that the impact might actually be negative overall, because these pledges don’t fully factor in other things such as increasing pupil numbers and staff wages.

Structural Reform and New Schools

There’s been substantial change over the past five years with the Academies Act fundamentally altering the schools sector, at least in the secondary age range. The parties’ pledges mostly respond to this in some way:

  • The Conservatives want to continue the “academisation” of the secondary schools sector, by forcing failing and coasting schools to convert. They also want to open at least 500 new free schools (270,000 places) – these are new academy-type schools. They’ll also parachute high-achieving headteachers into failing schools, if Ofsted says they require improvement and don’t have a good enough plan.
  • Labour want to extend the freedoms available to academies and free schools to all schools, provided they are appropriate. They also want to introduce “Directors of School Standards” as a new way of monitoring school performance and intervening to improve it. They will also be responsible for commissioning new schools. They say they will end the Free Schools programme and use the funding to cap class sizes. Private schools will also be required to partner with state schools in order to continue to receive business rate relief.
  • The Lib Dems’ policies will focus on greater collaboration and partnership between schools including, potentially, a new accountability model for academies. They would also set up an independent education authority to set the curriculum and monitor standards. They plan to open new schools only in areas with a shortage of places. They would also allow Ofsted to inspect academy chains.

Teaching

Teaching is obviously a key area for schools policy and the parties have made some specific pledges here:

  • The Conservatives will create an independent College of Teaching to promote high standards. They’ll also reduce paperwork, introduce further bursaries for in-demand subjects, expand Teach First, and pay good teachers more.
  • Labour want to ensure that all teachers in state schools are qualified. They also want to introduce a “Master Teacher” status for experts in their subject. They would also create a new College of Teaching, and will support Teach First. They would also create a new School Leadership Institute.
  • The Lib Dems would prevent unqualified teachers in state schools, starting with academies and free schools from September 2016. They’d require a B grade in Maths and English GCSE for new teachers. They’d establish a Royal College for Teachers that would set professional standards.

What will the impact be?

The impact on schools, regardless of who’s in power, will probably be a continuing need to restrain spending. That might mean restricting pay increases for teachers. Given there is already something of a crisis in teacher recruitment, and given a lot of teachers leave the profession each year, that could be a serious problem, especially as the number of pupils is already rising significantly. In turn, that might lead to even more pressure on class sizes. So it’s going to be challenging to maintain standards.

A further wrinkle is the fact that further funding reform is likely. The coalition government was aiming to change the national funding formula so that it was more uniform across the country: there are serious historical problems with the current formula which have meant some areas losing out massively compared to others. The question will be whether a new government can do this without taking money out of some schools’ budgets. They’ll be keen to avoid that but it might be very hard to achieve.

You’ll probably have noticed that there is actually a lot of overlap on many of the policies outlined by the parties. That’s because there’s really quite limited disagreement on the big questions of education policy. It’s universally agreed, for instance, that schools should have more independence and freedom to make their own decisions; that teaching should be considered a “profession”, with all that that entails; that funding should be protected; and that there should continue to be attempts to increase accountability and improve standards – if necessary through quite drastic interventions.

Teachers who yearn for a quieter life aren’t going to get it; there’s probably going to be as much pressure, if not more, under any colour of government from 2015 onwards. On the plus side, there will probably be more jobs to go for as schools expand, the recruitment crisis deepens, and pay differentials become more pronounced – in particular, academies are likely to be fighting hard to hire the best staff.

As such I’d expect to see a continuation of the current trends. I don’t think anyone should expect the kind of revolution we’ve had in the past five years, with radical changes to almost every aspect of school life – curriculum, oversight, standards, targets, and the rest. It’s generally acknowledged that there’s been a lot of change; letting that bed in, perhaps with some tinkering around the edges, is likely to be the order of the day from 2015-2020.

#GE2015: Your Questions Answered #1: Where’s the Best Place to Find Out About Policies?

This is the first in a series of posts attempting to answer questions and comments put to me by family and friends around the General Election.

I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, so obviously I have some political bias. But one of my main principles is a commitment to democracy and the idea that voters should have access to as much information as they want in order to make better decisions.

Crucially, that information needs to be accurate and political parties need to be transparent, if we are going to get results that accurately reflects the will of the people. It’s a shame that much of the activity at election time – from most, if not all, of the parties – aims to obscure rather than clarify the facts, confusing people with claim and counter-claim.

Anyway, the objective here is to answer the questions as openly and neutrally as possible – my political bias having been declared.

The first question is:

If I want to find out about all the issues that policies relate to (e.g. free market, inheritance tax, etc), where are the best places to do that?

This is one that comes up a lot. What tends to happen at election time is that even media outlets become more partisan. We’ve already seen this, for example, in the way the Tory press has been attacking Ed Miliband, but you can also see it in the way that different papers cover the same poll, or the attention given to different policy announcements.

As a political consultant this is something I have to work hard to do. Much of my job is interpreting the grey areas left by policy announcements, or sifting through the commentary to find the nuggets of real interest. I appreciate that most people don’t have the time to do the same. So here are some simple tips:

  1. Go to the original source. If a policy is being announced, it will be “spun” by different media outlets to emphasise different things. The best way to avoid this is to read the original announcement. Usually that will mean finding the relevant press release on a party’s website. (Unfortunately, political parties also put spin on things – so you still have to be wary. But at least you know there’s only one layer of spin to cut through now.)
  2. If that’s too much effort, then reading different stories on the same policy will help you to get a sense of how it’s being interpreted to fit other people’s agendas.
  3. If that’s still too much effort, then I’d recommend finding a good, relatively neutral policy guide. Generally speaking, the BBC is pretty good at avoiding spin, and their policy guide is as comprehensive as any out there.
  4. There are also some good, relatively neutral organisations dedicated to fact-checking statements and claims by politicians. Two particularly good ones are Full Fact and Channel 4’s FactCheck Blog. These often move rapidly with the news agenda, meaning that they will often respond well to current stories and help you unpick things.

Hopefully that’s helpful – but feel free to continue the debate in the comments!