By Wilkie D.
A protest vote is a vote cast in an election to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the political system – for example in the UK, First Past the Post – or over a specific issue like the environment or the European Union. This is a key part of the democratic process as a protest vote can demonstrate the public’s dissatisfaction using their democratic power. So, what is there in the current UK system to protest, and how can someone voice their concerns using their vote depending on what they want to protest?
In the past few years, there have been various different forms of protest voting. For example, voting for UKIP prior to the EU referendum could be considered a protest vote against membership of the EU. UKIP received 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 general election. Despite winning only one seat, these votes still had an impact on Conservative policy, having led them to pledge to hold an EU referendum in their 2015 manifesto. This was because the Conservatives feared losing seats to UKIP in the general election. Although UKIP were not a realistic candidate to win the election, they effectively acted as a pressure group on the Conservative Party, and so voting for UKIP during this period could be viewed as an effective protest.
Protest voting is important within the political system as it informs political parties of the importance of issues to the electorate, such as the environment. A way of voicing discontent with current political action (or inaction) on the environment is voting for the Green Party. Even though the Green Party has a very low chance of actually being in government – with its vote share peaking at 3.8% in 2015 and decreasing to just 1.6% in 2017 – the party could instead define its success as influencing the environmental policies of others, in a similar way to UKIP’s effect on the Conservative Party. The reduction in the Green Party’s vote share in 2017 was, in part, caused by the Conservative and Labour Parties adopting the goal of becoming carbon neutral (by 2050 and 2030 respectively) in their 2017 manifestos. This suggests a greater satisfaction with the environmental policies of the major parties, but in a way proves the effectiveness of the Green Party protest vote.
Another form of protest voting is against the way that the UK democratic system operates. For example, a major issue with our current politics is the inequitable electoral system of First Past the Post. FPTP doesn’t produce a Parliament that is representative. For example, in the 1983 election, the Liberal-SDP Alliance won 7.7 million votes – 25.4% of the total vote – but despite this only won 23 seats as they had a spread of voters across many different constituencies as opposed to concentrated support in specific areas. This means that effectively about 20% of the electorate were completely unrepresented in Parliament, which is deeply undemocratic. Likewise in Scotland, in 2015 the SNP won almost exactly half of the Scottish popular vote, but won 56 of the 59 available Scottish seats. This means that nearly half of the Scottish people went unrepresented in Westminster. Both these examples show how FPTP rewards a concentration of votes as opposed to general countrywide popularity, meaning that Parliament is not actually representative of the views of the country.
So, how is it possible to use your vote to protest against FPTP? The way to resolve the issues surrounding First Past the Post is to change the voting system to a fairer and more representative one such as the Additional Member System or Single Transferable Vote. The most effective way to do this using your vote is to vote for a minor party. Whilst they won’t win the seats that they contest, this is exactly the point. If minor parties receive too large a share of the votes without being represented in Parliament, it reduces the authority that a government has to rule based on a democratic mandate. In order to resolve this lack of mandate and increase their authority, governments and parliaments may eventually be forced to introduce voting reform. Thereby, the issues surrounding first past the post can ultimately be eliminated using your vote, again showing the value and the power of protest voting.