I believed in tactical voting for 18 years: long enough to make a voter.
In the early morning of 10th April 1992, I stayed awake until it was clear that Labour would not win – that we were in for five more years of Tory government with a 21-seat majority. No one predicted that.
“Tactical voting is disgraceful. You should vote for your party of choice, in the sure and certain knowledge that doing so is a complete waste of time, and your voice will never be heard.”
In the realms of what-if: If Labour had won, and Neil Kinnock had become Prime Minister, would Tony Blair – then Shadow Secretary of State for Employment, soon to become Shadow Home Secretary – have succeeded in becoming Prime Minister? (Certainly not in 1992.) If Kinnock had still been Prime Minister in 2003, would he have lied to the House of Commons to get Labour to vote for a war in Iraq? That’s one of the great what-ifs of history – would any other Labour PM but Blair have committed this crime in order to have the UK follow the US into war with Iraq against the clear will of the British people? Would Black Wednesday have been such a disaster if Gordon Brown, not Norman Lamont, had been Chancellor? (Quite probably.) Would the NHS be lumbered with so many hugely expensive PFI hospitals if Kinnock had won in 1992? (Probably not.) Was the delay in the Northern Ireland peace process caused by John Major’s dependence on the DUP vote for confidence and supply?
We can’t know. All we can really be sure of, if we had voted tactically in 1992 to get the Tories out, then John Major could never have privatised British Rail and we’d now have a unified, cheaper rail network. Obviously, that would be terrible.
My recollection is, that tactical voting had been mooted before, but after 1992, left-wing voters throughout the UK but especially in Scotland, were on fire with the idea that we could get rid of the Tories by tactical voting for either LibDem or Labour. In Scotland particularly, where the Conservatives still had 11 MPs after 1992 (and the SNP only 3), pundits discussed at length how if only Scots had voted tactically, and cost the Tories 11 MPs, John Major would have had to try and form a government with a majority of minus one….
Whether this tactical voting was needed in the event, who can say? In 1997 the New Labour party won an 179-seat majority with 43.2% of the vote in an 71.4% turnout – 418 seats out of 659. That is, Labour got almost a two-thirds supermajority in the Commons even though only 30.84% of eligible voters had voted for them.
But in 1992, the Conservatives had got a 21-seat majority with 41.9% of the vote in a 77.7% turnout: a bare majority in the Commons with just 32.55% of eligible voters voting for them and a higher turnout. In a First Past The Post system of individual constituencies, a party doesn’t need a majority of the popular vote to have a majority in the Commons: they only need to target the right constituencies effectively.
First Past the Post works when there are only two parties to vote for.
Tactical voting perhaps works when there are three parties to vote for and you think you have a fair idea to expect from each one of them.
In 2010, the Liberal Democrats trashed all of that and slowly died. Seven out of ten LibDem voters would now prefer to support other parties: SNP, Labour, Conservatives, Greens, even UKIP.
When Labour are campaigning in Scotland by telling the Scots that if we vote SNP we’ll get a Tory government, and the Conservatives are campaigning in England by telling the English* that if they vote Labour we’ll get a Labour-SNP coalition, tactical voting is, to quote Patrick Harvie, just another way of settling for the least-worst option.
*In this dialogue with Alex Massie on Twitter, Tim Montgomerie apparently does not realise that though English voters never get to see Scottish campaigns, Scottish voters do get to see English campaigns.
Before the SNP surge, Labour were likely to win a majority, the Conservatives were hoping for an electoral miracle that would give them another five years in government, and the LibDems were cheerfully planning to offer a coalition, probably to Labour but equally to the Conservatives, whichever was the bigger party. None of these options would have upset Westminster politics.
But if the SNP win 40+ seats this year, no one knows exactly what’s going to happen because nothing like this has ever happened before in UK politics. Yes, the Labour Party went from 6 MPs in 1906 to become the third-largest party with 42 MPs in 1910, and 14 years later had 191 MPs – enough in 1924 to form a minority government as the second-largest party in Westminster. But SNP MPs are limited to standing in Scotland unless the SNP itself undergoes a paradigmatic change.
[Alex Massie’s latest column in the Spectator, states bluntly that an overwhelming SNP victory in Scotland – whether Miliband accepts Salmond’s help to form a government, or refuses and lets Cameron have a weak Tory government with no legitimacy in Scotland, could mean another independence referendum in which, he thinks, Yes would win. It’s well-reasoned and well-informed, but my own feeling is that short of rUK voting to leave the EU or some other political catastrophe, the SNP won’t hazard another referendum for ten years: no one wants neverendum.]
If the SNP wins enough seats in Scotland to be the third-largest party at Westminster, both Labour and the Conservatives would still prefer a LibDem coalition – but the LibDems may not win enough seats for this to be a viable option. In Holyrood, the SNP have been Labour’s Opposition: at Westminster, they have never yet had as many MPs as the DUP. We cannot say what effect the SNP will have at Westminster because we do not know – not even the SNP can be sure of what impact they could have as the third party in UK politics in a hung parliament. Yet proportionally, UK-wide, the number of voters likely to vote SNP is less than 5% – lower even than the LibDems are polling.
What if Labour have no choice but to allow a minority Tory government or accept a pact with the SNP?
Former Scottish Labour MP Baron Moonie, of Bennochy in Fife, declared on Twitter that “many of us would rather form a coalition with the Tories” and added in response to a Yes Scotland supporter’s query “I said it would be better than one with the SNP. Quite a different thing.”
The former chair of the East Lothian Labour Party branch, Robert McNeill, on 22nd February tweeted an infogram outlining tactical voting for Scots who don’t want the SNP to win more than their budget of seats: whether to vote LibDem or Labour or Tory, depending on your constitutency.
The uproarious reaction to this seems to have caused McNeill to delete his Twitter account: a Labour Party member, the chair of a local branch, advising voters in marginal constituencies to tactically vote Conservative or LibDem to keep the SNP out? Unheard of – and strictly against Labour Party rules: a Labour Party member is not allowed to urge voters to tactically vote for another party.
The irony of this in the light of the independence referendum (and I voted No myself) is that if Scotland chooses to send a bloc of SNP MPs to Westminster, then it seems to me that Westminster parties, wanting Scotland to remain part of the UK, must thole Scottish voters having an impact on UK politics. If the Westminster parties don’t like the way Scots are choosing to vote, well: too bad. Majority of Scots voted to stay in the UK: the Westminster parties supporting a No vote must now support the right of Scots to vote for the SNP to be the third-largest party at Westminster.
As the Conservatives found in 1992, as Labour found in 1997, under First Past the Post rules, a party doesn’t have to gain significant majorities in the electorate – just win in the right constituencies.
Tactical voting is a Prisoner’s Dilemma gamble made by a single voter in the privacy of the polling booth, based on polling data and on past elections and on parties fulfilling electoral promises where they can.
But, reminder: this year, no one knows exactly what’s going to happen. Either in the General Election, or after it, as the four largest parties play the coalition game.
You can’t play Prisoner’s Dilemma unless you have a fair idea of the consequences of your choice.
For Westminster politicians in Labour, LibDem, or Conservative parties, the kind of change promised by 40+ SNP MPs is unwelcome by definition: their parties hold political power at Westminster under a system that works and benefits their parties. Even a sticky handful of UKIP MPs wouldn’t have the impact 40+ SNP MPs could. (UKIP’s metier, after all, is to take the existing gravy train and profit from it as much as possible. They don’t want radical change.)
It is exciting to think that Scottish voters might create an explosive change at Westminster, make a douce and democratic revolution, just by voting SNP.
But, British politics is conservative. The system of First Past the Post elections for individual MPs and government by a majority of the constituencies ensures neither individual MPs nor the two largest parties at Westminster can benefit from any paradigmatic change to the system: therefore, neither most MPs nor either of the two largest parties in the Commons will ever support any revolutionary change.
But for voters, this system means most of our votes don’t count. Vote for the third or fourth or fifth party in your constituency, one of those that’s never even close to being the also-ran candidate, and the only reward you get for voting for the party of your choice is to see the party gain a little in the national statistics. One reason for the huge turnout at the independence referendum was that for the first time most of us could remember, each vote counted: picking one of two options is what First Past The Post is made for.
The biggest change in British politics since 1846 was the Labour Party replacing the Liberal Party as the second party in the UK. The prospect of the SNP replacing the LibDems as the third party in the UK is appalling to the Conservatives and terrifying to Labour for this general election – but unless the SNP starts standing candidates outside Scotland, or unless Scotland always votes SNP from now on, this is a short term scare, not a paradigmatic change.
So I don’t hold out much confidence that 7th May 2015 will bring change to Westminster, because neither Labour nor Conservatives want change. No matter which way we vote on 7th May, the government we get will be sorted without our input, in backroom negotiations: we will find out which of the manifesto promises the parties of government will keep, and which discard, in the days and months and years afterward.
Still, all we have is hope and votes. So I plan to vote on 7th May: but not tactically. I’ll vote for the party I want to win.
Let’s hope our votes win.