Stuff your wheels, it's swing that will wreck the SNP

Stuff your wheels, it's swing that will wreck the SNP

by Effie Deans
article from Thursday 11, May, 2017

AT THE LAST General Election in 2015 I voted for the Lib Dems. This was partly because I thought they had done a good job as part of the coalition government, but it was mainly because I had become convinced that tactical voting was the best way to keep the SNP out.

I live in the Gordon Constituency in Aberdeenshire. It’s very rural and more prosperous than most parts of Scotland. For a long time the seat was held by the Lib Dem Malcolm Bruce, who is popular in the area and who did a good job as an MP. My MP now is Alex Salmond.

The SNP won in Gordon with 47 per cent of the vote. What this means is that theoretically we could have stopped Mr Salmond if all Pro-UK voters had voted tactically. If you add the totals for the Lib Dems, Labour, Conservative and UKIP they surpass Mr Salmond’s total. The same can be said for nearly every seat the SNP won in Scotland. Unless the SNP won more than 50 per cent of the vote they could have been beaten. So in a possible world where all Pro-UK people voted tactically the SNP might have won almost no seats instead of 56 out of 59.

This is the logic behind tactical voting campaigns. It looks sensible but, sorry folks, this is not how real world elections work.

I woke up to a surprise two years ago when it turned out that David Cameron had won a majority of 12. No-one had predicted this. The talk throughout the campaign had been of coalitions. A year later I woke up to another surprise. The UK had voted for Brexit. A few months after this the impossible happened. Donald Trump was US president. In each case polling, betting and pundits got it spectacularly wrong.

I was delighted that there was a Conservative Government with a majority in 2015. Suddenly there was the prospect of a referendum on the EU, which was something that I had wanted for many years. I was pleased too that the Lib Dems had been reduced to 8 seats. I think UK democracy works best as a two party system. A third party just muddies the waters. But then I began to reflect that I hadn’t actually voted for the Conservatives. I felt like a mug.

The fact is that if only a handful of extra Lib Dem MPs had been elected in 2015 there would not have been a Conservative majority. If only a few more Labour MPs had won we might have ended up with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister forming a loose “coalition” or pact with anyone else who would vote for him. The Lib Dem candidate I had voted for might have been part of this coalition, might have prevented the EU referendum and might have been part of a pact involving the SNP.

During elections most parties say that they won’t make pacts. They are competing against each other so naturally avoid talk of working together. Talk of pacts also implicitly concedes defeat. But there are 650 seats in the House of Commons and if a party doesn’t have more than half of them it has to do a deal even if that deal is only on a vote by vote basis.

It is for this reason above all that it is pure folly for Conservative supporters to vote tactically for the Lib Dems or Labour. The MP elected by this means might well end up in a loose coalition with the SNP and this coalition might be enough to put the Conservatives in opposition. Any Conservative supporter who votes for another party could in part be responsible for this.

It was this that dawned on me on the morning after the General Election in 2015. I had made a mistake. The Conservatives had done better than expected. If Conservative voters up and down the country had voted tactically they might well have lost. Tactical voting may seem like good tactics, but what if it led to Jeremy Corbyn ending up as Prime Minister backed by Lib Dems and the Scottish nationalists?

My experience of campaigning for tactical voting in Scotland in 2015 was not a pleasant one. I write from conviction. I try to write in an interesting and creative way. But I was arguing for something I didn’t really believe. I was supporting a party that I disagreed with. I was being insincere. I regret it now. It was unfair to the Lib Dems who I voted for. It was also unfair to the Conservative candidate who deserved my vote.

I discovered while campaigning for people to vote tactically that I met resistance. Labour voters frequently told me that they could only vote Labour. Indeed as members of the Labour Party they had no choice but to do so. It’s part of the deal when you join. They were happy for people to vote tactically for Labour, but they would not reciprocate. The whole tactic comes up against human nature. It is a possible world tactic that doesn’t take into account real world psychology. Tactical voting only really works in a two way marginal where two parties are very close and miles ahead of anyone else. It doesn’t work in safe seats and it doesn’t work where a number of parties think they have a reasonable chance. For this reason apart from in isolated instances tactical voting doesn’t work.

One of the main problems involved in a tactical voting campaign is determining which candidate to vote for. I remember advising people in 2015 about which candidate had the best chance of defeating the SNP in each particular seat. People produced pictorial guides based on the result in the previous election or on local polling. I was asked to share these pictures, which sometimes took the form of a wheel. I spent quite a lot of time sharing these guides. But there were disputes. Some people disagreed over who had the best chance. The wheel sometimes changed. Right up until the final day there were disputes about whether a Conservative, Lib Dem or Labour candidate had the best chance in this seat or that. But all of these disputes were completely meaningless. Tactical voting failed dismally in Scotland in 2015. It hardly had any influence on the result whatsoever. Scottish nationalists quite rightly mocked our wheel. It made us look stupid, because it was stupid.

Oh but if only more people had voted tactically it would have succeeded. One more push and it will work next time. But this is simply to fail to learn from mistakes. It is to fail to take into account the psychology of elections and to recognise how they are decided.

The mistake that people who are politically active frequently make is to suppose that the whole population is like them. They aren’t. Most people don’t think that much about politics. It bores them.

Huge numbers of people vote the same way every time. They won’t read your tactical voting guide, because it’s not on TV, it’s not in all the papers and it’s not on a leaflet dropping through their letterboxes. None of the parties who campaign will be telling voters to vote tactically. None of the people knocking on doors or phoning you up will tell you to vote for another party. All you are doing is talking to a few thousand Pro-UK activists, who are too few to make any difference.

Elections are not decided by tactical voting, they are decided by swing. The mood of the country changes and sweeps to power one party or another. Theoretically the Labour landslides of 1945 or 1997 could have been stopped by tactical voting. But do you really think this might have happened? To suppose so is simply to misunderstand human nature and how elections work.

It is the momentum of a campaign that decides the result. In the present election if the mood of the country becomes overwhelmingly in favour of electing Theresa May this will affect every seat. The Conservative vote will increase more or less uniformly. This is why the swingometer is a good general guide. Increasing the share of the votes for the Conservatives is by far the best way to decease SNP seats in Scotland. It is for this reason that every Conservative vote counts.

Around a third of Scottish voters will vote Conservative at the next election. This might win them 8 seats. But every percentage point increase swings more and more seats to the Conservatives from the SNP. This is the way our electoral system works. First past the post rewards vote share. The Labour and Lib Dem vote share in Scotland is simply too small for marginal increases to make any difference.

What matters in all elections is momentum. The SNP gained such a degree of momentum in 2015 that they won seats where previously they had been nowhere. Alex Salmond had a 25 per cent swing in Gordon and the SNP had a 30 per cent swing overall. Sometimes the swing was still higher. Ultra safe Labour seats went to the SNP.  No amount of tactical voting could ever have made a difference in those circumstances.

But the crucial point is that swings between elections can go both ways. A Conservative surge in 2017 could win seats where on paper they have no chance.

It is this that tactical voting guides forget. Even if the Conservatives were third or fourth last time round, given a large enough swing they could well win those seats. Tactical voting guides would tell Conservatives to vote for the party that came second last time round. But that might actually increase the chances of the SNP candidate being returned.

The way to increase swing is to campaign for what you believe. Tactical voting suggests that all parties in Scotland are the same and it doesn’t matter who wins in a particular seat so long as it isn’t the SNP. This is not true.

Half way through the election campaign in 2015 the Lib Dem candidate I was supporting declared that she wasn’t a Unionist. I was shocked. I almost reversed my position. It turned out that she like most Lib Dems was a Federalist. This is the line that Labour takes too. They want to give still more power to the SNP. I don’t.

I keep coming across Labour and Lib Dem voters who are sympathetic to independence or who are wavering. Some Lib Dems in particular seem to prefer the EU to the UK. Many former Labour and Lib Dem voters now support the SNP. In order to try to win them back both the Lib Dems and Labour tend towards making concessions to Scottish nationalism. The Left in Scotland agrees with the SNP about most things. They think the solution to every problem is to spend more money that we don’t have. At times I can barely distinguish a Labour supporter from a Scottish nationalist. They both just go on and on about Tory cuts. It is because Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP agree about so much that it is so easy for left wing voters to end up supporting independence.

Every Conservative vote will increase the share. No Conservative vote is wasted. It doesn’t matter where you live. Each vote will strengthen Theresa May’s hand when she stands up to Nicola Sturgeon. Every percentage point the Conservatives gain pushes them to the tipping point where they begin to gain massively from the SNP.

Tactical voting will make next to no difference to the election in 2017. All it does is hinder the momentum that the Conservatives are building. We are building support for the Scottish Conservatives so that we have a Pro-UK party that can take on and then surpass the SNP. Every Pro-UK vote that comes our way is one step towards that goal. Join us. Help us. Just watch us.

I am going to campaign positively for what I believe this time. Stuff your wheels. They are broken. 

You can read more from Effie Deans at her blog Lily of St Leonards.

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