Protest Votes and Null Votes

by George Hatjoullis

On November 12, 2013, I published a blog entitled None-of-the-above: innovations in democracy. It was a response to Russell Brand urging people not to vote. I suggested that a formal null vote (none-of-the-above) might meet the needs of the emotion driving Brand’s call and avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of protest voting. The original blog post is well worth reading (even though I do say so myself). The key paragraph is reproduced here:

Many have responded by making protest votes. We vote for a minority and somewhat extreme party which we do not expect to be elected (and would be horrified if it was). It is a protest! However, the minority party will be encouraged by this and draw strength from the vote. It will not interpret it as a protest vote but as a statement of support. It might even encourage a few voters with latent extremist views to support such parties. The protest vote does not necessarily communicate to the ‘political system’ about what we are actually concerned. It is barely better than not voting at all and in some respects more dangerous.

The events of June 2016 and June 2017 would appear to have borne out the observation. The referendum was less about desiring Brexit and more about punishing someone. It was about giving some ill-defined elite, symbolised by David Cameron, the finger. Unfortunately the result  was to poke ourselves in the eye. The success of the Corbyn Labour Party was down in part to many young voters seeing Labour as the most effective way of removing Theresa May’s Tories from power. It was a protest vote. Many young pro-EU Remain supporters voted for Labour even though Labour clearly committed to Brexit in the manifesto and no one that had been awake since last June could be in any doubt how Corbyn and McDonell feel about Brexit. Now we are being told over 80% of the country voted for Brexit and many of these young Remain labour voters are upset.

Not only did I warn about the danger of protest votes in 2013 but I screamed loudly (on Twitter at least) about the folly of Remain voters choosing Labour. The LibDems offered a clear commitment to avoid Brexit or at least provide a second referendum. These young voters ignored me (and the others) and proceeded to vote against May rather than for a Remain party. Voting against things is not a good idea. And if you cannot find something you are for, what does it say about you?

The Brexit stance of Corbyn was quite clever. He managed to attract enough UKip voters (probably formally Labour) in key marginals, and still win the lions share of the pro-Remain youth vote. He was able to achieve the latter because the contempt for May’s Tories overwhelmed rational thought. The two main parliamentary parties are both pro-Brexit. They are both committed to leaving the single market. The claim that over 80% support Brexit is now de facto true, whatever the polls say. the reason is that voters keep voting againstt things and not for things, which, frankly, is dumb. This might be easily resolved by introducing a null vote to the ballot paper.