The Problem With Electoral Pacts

The idea of electoral pacts comes up every so often in politics. This time an electoral pact has been suggested by Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green Party. Paraphrasing her words, such a deal would consist of a series of arrangements at a local level (“not top down”) involving pacts between candidates that would only see one progressive candidate standing. The idea seems to be that parties with similar policy positions would only present one candidate for this broader movement, whether they be from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party or  any other like-minded party. Lucas and her partner in the Green leadership have taken great pains to stress this would be decided at a local level, so as not to look like an “electoral stitch up.”

The idea of an electoral pact has been seriously entertained, in different ways, several times in recent memory. One example was prior to Tony Blair’s election in 1997 – a proposed pact with Paddy Ashdown, then-leader of the Liberal Democrats, was seriously considered by the Labour Party when it seemed they might have secured the biggest number of seats, but not an overall majority in Parliament. This was abandoned by Blair in the event of a landslide victory in 1997.

This isn’t something unique to the progressive side of politics either; prior to the 2015 election, there was talk of a similar pact that could be made between the Conservatives and UKIP, in order to stem the perceived tide of votes away from one to the other, and unite the Right in the same way that the Left wished to be in a way that would not split their vote.

It might be argued that such methods are justified. There are certainly a number of politicians united by policy positions but divided by party affiliation. If those with broad ideological similarities clubbed together, they might be better equipped to compete against those they have greater ideological differences with.

The problem is this often disregards how politics works; people who agree on broad principles will always disagree on smaller points, sometimes profoundly. Look at the splits within the Labour Party at the moment, within the Liberal Democrats or The Conservatives over Europe. These parties are broad coalitions of different viewpoints, sometimes themselves difficult to manage when it comes to the hundreds of different opinions within them. To expect to make any kind of pact between such disparate groups, which are already alliances, is very likely too ambitious. There might also be the sense that these pacts tend to be suggested when parties are likely to lose, which itself seems suspicious.

Potentially more problematic, these arrangements and statements could possibly show a lack of respect for the electorate. Political parties making pacts with each other over elections will always look like an electoral stitch up, regardless of the level at which they are organised. It’s two parties not being popular enough on their own, and so conspiring to affect a result by means other than campaigning and convincing the electorate to vote for them. If any party seeks to gain power by means other than winning votes, it could be argued that it always going to appear dubious, because, well, it is.

Further, the very idea of an electoral pact seeks to subvert the voting system to your advantage, and could easily be seen as a way of pre-empting the result, often for reasons of weakness in your own situation or base. The narrative around it further serves to dismiss people’s votes, as well as conflate different voters with each other. Further, who is anyone to take away by any means someone’s choice of voting for the party they wish to? Any electoral strategy that can discourage people from voting seems highly suspect. It would deny them the choice on an arbitrary basis, and suggest that their vote really doesn’t count, because the politicians making these pacts know better than the electors, so much so they can decide who should have the opportunity to vote for what party.

Finally, the reasons for making these pacts suggest a certain level of dishonesty in and of themselves, and very possibly bad for democracy. If you are unable to win an election, then you have no right to be elected. That is democracy. If the only way you can win an election is by coming to an understanding with some of your political opponents, then similarly you have no right to be elected. These pacts are anti-democratic, and inherently suggests that you believe the people voting deserve to have their voices heard more than the people not voting for you. This is inherently anti-democratic.

Surely, it would be more honest and democratic to make every effort to convince those people of your case and attempt to obtain their vote, rather than talking about electoral pacts. And if you can’t win that way, you should look at your own positions and change them rather than making deals to affecting an outcome. It’s the only way democracy can work. These things insult voters, who are already feeling insulted; how do you convince people their vote matters when you attempt to ignore it if you disagree with it?

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