Study Notes

Protest voting

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Protest Voting is where someone votes in an election to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates or a refusal of the current political system, or a particular anger at the policies of a political party, likely to be the one in Government. Often this takes the form of voting for minority or extremist parties.

There are numerous example of protest voting in UK politics, and much of it has come in the form of specific protest against policies. A good example is the number of votes that Labour lost over the issue of the Iraq War. Some voters voted for the Liberal Democrats, who were the only major party to have opposed the war, but more significant was the number voting for George Galloway’s Respect Party, which actually managed to unseat the Labour incumbent in the 2005 election in Bethnal Green and Bow as Galloway garnered support in particular from the local Muslim Community.

Another type of protest vote that frequently happens is at by-elections, where an incumbent MP has either resigned or died. Because by-elections do not normally lead to a change in Government, the electorate feel more inclined to vote for the party they really want to, or make their voice heard through the ballot box. For this reason, incumbent Governments rarely win by-elections, as it is a chance for voters to express their disillusionment with the Governments’ policies. Hence Labour won quite a few by-elections in the aftermath of the 2010 election as voters protested the cuts brought in by the Conservative, Lib-Dem coalition.

At the 2015 General Election, the Liberal Democrats were subject to protest votes in a number of ways, but particularly in the university towns they had won in 2010 with their promise to abolish tuition fees, which they reneged on once in coalition.

One could argue that the 4 million votes for UKIP and 1 million votes for the Green Party were protest votes against “The Westminster Bubble”, but that ignores the fact that many of those who voted for them shared deep convictions that reflected the policies of those two parties.

Another type of ‘safe’ protest vote could be said to be that at Local Authority and European Parliament elections, which often see smaller parties doing a lot better. UKIP won the European Parliament election in 2014, and the BNP have been voted into the European Parliament and onto Local Authorities before. However, it may also be that the chance to vote in a proportional voting election at those two contests mean people feel they can vote for the party they really believe in without seeing it wasted.

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