David Herdson on Tactical voting: “the voters’ blind man’s bluff”

David Herdson on Tactical voting: “the voters’ blind man’s bluff”

Why I think tactical voting will be down this year

Once upon a time it was easy. There were only three parties, you had a rough idea of how the local land lay and if your preferred party stood no chance while your second preference did, then you could lend them your vote in the hope of keeping out the worst option. Oh for such simple times.

Before looking forward, a quick look back. The phenomenon of widespread tactical voting is a relatively recent invention. No doubt as long as there’ve been elections there’ve been voters trying to game a 3+ candidate vote to make best use of their own ballot but throughout most of Britain’s history there’ve only been two national parties or during those times when there have been three, many seats went uncontested by one or more of them. Indeed, apart from in October 1974, the Liberals didn’t run a national slate until (as the Alliance) 1983. That election, of course, threw previous assumptions to the wind and it wasn’t until the mid-90s that voters on the centre-left really got the hang of tactical voting.

Why they did so bears some inspection. Firstly, there was a policy convergence between the Lib Dems and Labour to a very similar point on the map meaning that voters could get much the same from either. Secondly, after a decade and a half of Conservative government, the two parties saw the cost of working together to defeat the Tories as minimal compared with the benefits to be gained. Thirdly, experience suggested that such co-operation was not only beneficial but necessary given four successive defeats. And fourthly, the political system had been stable enough that voters who might be open to tactical voting generally knew whether they needed to do so, and if so, how.

After 1997 (and innumerable by-elections) proved how effective that tactical voting could be, the zenith came in 2001, when all the reasons above applied again but even more so – the landslide swing in 1997 meant it wasn’t entirely clear who was in the running; the minimal change in 2001 meant it was. But from there, the decline set in, starting with Iraq driving a wedge between the Lib Dems and Labour while the necessity of tactical voting seemed lessened with the Tories so far from government.

Fast forward to today and the situation is so different from the 1994-2003 period that I expect tactical voting to be well down this year (note that while that earlier period involved tactical voting on the centre-left, that’s only because of a relatively unified centre-right at the time). The key questions that will cause potential tactical voters are:

Am I inclined to use my vote tactically?

If there was going to be an increase in tactical voting, we’d expect to see a consolidation of support around those parties who finished in first or second place locally last time. In fact, we’re seeing the precise opposite. The rise of the Greens, UKIP and the SNP in most places runs wholly counter to tactical voting. People are switching away from the main contenders in huge numbers to formerly fringe parties. In some places, that switch is so huge as to put that party into contention but that’s a different thing from voting tactically. Reading the decline in the Lib Dem vote is harder. For a start, it seems to be holding up better where they have an MP (though not where they were second last time – a key tactical consideration), and the LD to Lab swing may have a tactical element to it from people who refused to vote tactically in 2010. Reading the polling evidence for, for example, voters’ motivation to support a particular party is also tricky without comparable figures for last time, that those polled are responding honestly, and that the figures won’t change much between now and the election. What does seem clear is that even in cases where a tactical vote might make a difference, many voters still prefer to stick with their first choice and hang the consequences up the order.

Should I use my vote tactically?

Here lies an absolutely key consideration and, now, a tricky one. The political landscape has changed so much since 2010 that it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s in contention. We do have constituency-specific polling, as well as local election data, the result from 2010 and other information. The problem for the voter is that much of this will be contradictory and that parties will put out the data that suits their cause. As mentioned, one of the main reasons that LD-Lab tactical voting peaked in 2001 was because of the stability of the system at the time. Vote shares have been anything but stable since 2010. There’s only a need to vote tactically if your first choice isn’t in the top two or near to it.

If I should vote tactically, who for?

Once a voter’s decided that his or her first choice isn’t a runner, they then have to work out who is, which again means second guessing the local electorate. With five parties likely to run close to full slates (and more in Scotland and Wales), making the right choice will not necessarily be easy.

What do I hope to achieve with my vote?

One activist reporting from the Newark by-election last year reported cases of some ex-Labour and Lib Dem voters backing UKIP to give the Tories a bloody nose, while others were backing the Conservatives to keep UKIP out. The net result increased an already big left-right swing, depressed the Yellow and Red scores but made little difference to the outcome. Unless the tactical voters in a constituency can achieve some sort of unity – which implies some sort of shared purpose – they may well end up creating a perverse outcome for themselves.

The scale of the swings since 2010 – to the SNP, to UKIP, to the Greens, and away from the Lib Dems – not only implies a direct movement away from tactical voting but also makes it far harder for those who might still do so to work out how best to achieve their aim. Not that a reduction in tactical voting means we can bring back good old UNS; that model’s broken too. But against a backdrop of a cynical and disengaged electorate, should we really expect all that many voters to back their second- or third-preference party in the hope of keeping out someone even lower down their list? My instinct – and the numbers – suggest not.

David Herdson

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