Editorial from the May 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
Anyone who remembers the days of “consensus” politics, when Butskellism was rife in this country (which means when the Conservative and Labour parties made no secret of the fact that they were in basic agreement over the running of British capitalism) will be familiar with the slippery image of the floating voter. All manner of electoral bait was cast on the muddied waters to entice the floating voters into the net, as they moved shoal-like between the bed-rock support for the two big parties. Many dirty tricks disfigured the great angling contest between Labour and Tory, for the floater was in many cases considered to be crucial to the outcome of an election.
But all that was in the days of Macmillan, Gaitskell, Butler and the like; interest in the floating voter has declined and attention is given instead to the tactical voter, who is now said to be the deciding factor. There are contrasts between the two types. The floating voter could be an apathetic creature, liable to stay in its shell if the bait was not enticing enough to get it out to the polling station, while the tactical voter is essentially someone who votes. When the floating voter did vote, whether under inducement or threat, in the end it was for the party of its choice; the whole point about tactical voting is that it is for the party you don't really support.
In the famous Bermondsey by-election, for example. Labour supporters who were persuaded that Peter Tatchell stood little chance of winning might have voted for the SDP/Liberal Alliance candidate as the one most likely to keep the Tories out. This tactical vote would have been cast, even if the voter had been aware that the Alliance is a bunch of unprincipled opportunists.
Tactical voters try to be on the winning side, which means that they will be affected by preconceptions about the result. Electoral forecasts, then, are important; if Tatchell had looked likely to win in Bermondsey he should have attracted tactical votes rather than, as was the case, repulsed them. In that event many supporters of the Alliance, although they regarded Tatchell as a dangerous revolutionary (which he isn't) and the Labour Party as discredited and impotent (which it is) should have voted for him. In the past this process was known as a bandwagon which, as it gathers speed, picks up more and more people eager to be taken for a ride.
Although it seems to have been only recently discovered, tactical voting has been practised for a long time. Ever since the twenties the Labour and Conservative parties have argued that, as the Liberals could not hope to win an election, to vote for them was a waste; for tactical reasons. Liberals should vote Labour or Tory, even if they were opposed to those parties. This is not an argument about principle but about a squalid expediency. As the Liberals once suffered through the use of the tactical vote, it might be expected that they would be still opposed to its use now and would still be protesting that people should vote in accordance with their ideas; but now that they think the tactical vote is favouring them, the Liberals have no difficulty in accepting it.
Of course this is causing the Labour and Conservative parties a great deal of anguish and they are turning their ire on to the opinion polls on the assumption that, by forecasting the winner, they help to attract the tactical vote to that party and so to energise its bandwagon. A bruised Labour Party asserted that this happened in Bermondsey and one Labour MP — the ridiculous Doug Hoyle — wants to ban the polls from operating during the crucial period of an election. Hoyle sits on a thin majority having won a by-election almost as disastrous for his party as Bermondsey so it is natural that he should be anxious to find a picturesque excuse for Labour’s failures, to add to those which litter their history. A pollsters' conspiracy may now take its place alongside the bankers’ ramp, the economic blizzard and the winter of discontent.
Hoyle’s spluttering symbolised how seriously these matters are taken by the big parties whose business is to amass enough voters, whether sinking or floating, tactical or suicidal, to get them into power. None of them need be concerned about what the votes are based on — about what informs the voter who can be persuaded, during the brief couple of weeks of an election, to switch their support from one candidate to another. It is clear that no part in this is played by elements of political maturity or class consciousness or an awareness of the power of the vote to transform society.
Those votes are determined by inconsistency and opportunism and an ability to ignore the historical fact that it is useless to change from one of the capitalist parties to another. Workers in Britain have been swinging from Labour to Tory and back again since the twenties without producing any effect for the better; to add the SDP to the game will make no difference to its futility. All these parties represent the interests of the minority who own the means of life and they have no plans or intentions — or any conception — other than to run the social system in which that minority dominate through their ownership. They stand for the society which produces war, nuclear weapons, famine, poverty and disease alongside class privilege. They all stand for the decadence of capitalism and it matters not one whit if the vote swings from one to the other of them. The real issue is to get rid of capitalism.
This cannot be brought about through the crazy oscillations of the floating voter nor by the expedient manoeuvres of the tactical vote. It needs a stable political awareness that capitalism cannot be reformed out of its nature. A voter who has that knowledge does not drift or wriggle; they cannot be tempted to vote for any of the capitalist parties under the delusion that this is a useful thing to do because it keeps one of the others out or lets another in.
In contrast to the floaters and the tacticians there is the socialist, whose vote cannot be bought or manipulated or netted. Socialists vote on their knowledge, which means they use their vote to the limits of its awesome power to establish the society of freedom.