What Pro-European voters can learn from American sociologist and social reformer W.E.B. Du Bois. Or why voting tactically does not necessarily mean voting for the lesser of two evils.

Collectively, voters wield a lot of power, but the difference each of us makes is minute. This is termed the paradox of voting: why do we spend time and effort getting registered to vote, researching each candidate, going to the polling station, if the probability of our own vote making a difference is so minute? Yet, by not exercising their voting rights, people disempower themselves. The typical motivation for not voting is typically along the lines of “They’re all the same”, or “My vote won’t make a difference anyway.”

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However, as EU citizens in the UK found out, if you are denied a vote, you can be the topic of referendums and elections (such as the EU Referendum, which centred around free movement), without having any say in the outcome. Disenfranchised people can easily become human bargaining chips or, in the case of the many disenfranchised British in Europe, collateral damage.

Voting is a crucial instrument to achieving equality and emancipation, as W.E.B Du Bois argued. So EU citizens — who can vote in local elections — should vote. So should pro-European UK citizens and Commonwealth citizens. This is even the case in ultra-safe seats, according to Du Bois. Although your preferred candidate might not win, the increase in votes might make the seat winnable next time and in any case sends a signal of approval.

How to make our voice best heard? This question is important for pro-European UK (and EU and Commonwealth) citizens who want to send a message in the 2018 local elections.

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W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) was an African American civil rights activist, sociologist and philosopher. He developed a theory of how one should vote tactically. Crucially, Du Bois did not equate voting tactically with voting for the lesser of two evils. In his essay “I won’t vote” (1956), Du Bois outlines his general strategy for how to cast your vote. You should:

  1. Research who best represents your interests. Go with the candidate, not necessarily with the party (in Du Bois’ case, he looked at the extent to which a candidate was willing to help the cause of African Americans)

  2. If none of the main candidates represents your interests, you should vote “for a third party even when its chances [are] hopeless.”

  3. “If the main parties were unsatisfactory; or, in absence of a third choice, [you should be] voting for the lesser of two evils.”

  4. If there is no third choice, and you are deeply dissatisfied with the candidates on offer, it is acceptable not to vote. This was controversial, especially given Du Bois’ earlier insistence on tactical voting. Yet, Du Bois believed this could send a strong signal “It is hope that if twenty-five million voters refrain from voting in 1956 because of their own accord... this might make the American people ask how much longer this dumb farce can proceed without even a whimper of protest.”

So, Du Bois’ understanding of tactical voting is much richer than merely voting for the lesser of two evils (although he did think it was sometimes necessary, see (3)). You don’t always vote to change the outcome. You may also wish to vote — especially in a safe seat — to give a signal. Refraining from voting also sends a signal, but needs to be done only in extreme cases where you have not a single acceptable candidate and all candidates are equally bad.

Survey among “hard” or “committed” remainers from the 48% FB group
shows an increase in Labour’s vote share.

In the last general election, pro-European voters often voted for the lesser of two evils, in this case, the pro-Brexit Labour party. In my survey among hard Remainers, I found that over 50% of Remainers voted for Labour in the hope of robbing the Tories from their mandate. Unfortunately, while their tactics helped to ensure a hung parliament, by voting for a pro-Brexit party they reinforced the perception that the overwhelming majority of the British voters now support a hard Brexit, at the very least leaving the single market.

It’s easy to speak with the wisdom of hindsight, but what would have happened if pro-European voters instead had consistently chosen a pro-European party (Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru)? Maybe in terms of seats it would not have made a difference (although some marginal LibDem and SNP seats may well have been won this way), but it would have sent a message: pro-European voters are still a force to be reckoned with, they are not “over it”. Now, this case is harder to make, and the Brexit we are heading towards is just as hard and uncompromising as before the 2017 General Elections. We still have an opportunity before March 2019, though.

What does this mean? Vote for the candidate, not the party: check your councillor’s record on Europe. Vote for the pro-European candidate, even if the seat is not winnable. Owen Jones argued on Twitter that pro-Europeans should vote Labour, as they should vote for the lesser of two evils.


The customs union is held up as a consolation prize, and in any case vastly preferably to the spectre of Rees-Mogg.

However, as Du Bois would say, Labour’s position is simply not good enough, and if you vote for Labour (especially a pro-Brexit Labour candidate), you are implicitly consenting to their position on Europe. Time to make your voice heard, and vote tactically for the most pro-European candidate in the local elections, even if their chances of winning are slim.🔷

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(This piece was first published on Medium.)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Matthieuclouis.)