How to vote? The use of tactics in 2019

How to vote? The use of tactics in 2019

by Jill Stephenson
article from Tuesday 26, November, 2019

THE ELECTION on 12 December looks as if it will be the first election in which tactical voting will play a significant part. In England and Wales, those who are strong EU Leavers will vote for either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. Those who would normally vote Conservative or Labour but are strong Remainers will gravitate to the Liberal Democrats, although some may feel that their cause can be served by voting Labour. Some voters will remain true to their traditional allegiance, but, for England and Wales, the issue is Brexit, for or against. Independents who have left either Labour or Conservatives over Brexit are an unknown quantity. In the UK’s first past the post system, probably few will prevail – but also probably more independents will succeed than in normal times.

In Scotland, however, there is another aspect to the election. It has been clear for several years, perhaps since the SNP’s Scottish election victory in 2011 and certainly since the 2014 referendum, that the SNP poses an existential threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is its raison d’être: the only policy that truly matters to the SNP’s leadership is taking Scotland out of the UK. The SNP may pose as a Remain party, but its only constant and obsessive policy is secession from the UK.

Although the SNP’s campaign for a Remain vote in 2016 was low key – with the party spending less on it than its by-election campaign in Glenrothes – the Leave victory gave the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon, its leader, the opportunity to rail against Scotland “being dragged out of the EU against its will”, with 62 per cent of Scots having voted to Remain. This was a tad hypocritical, given that the SNP’s campaign in 2014 for secession from the UK would, if successful, have resulted in Scotland being dragged out of the EU, without a deal. The EU Commission had confirmed that in writing during the campaign.

With the election of 56 SNP MPs out of 59 Scottish MPs in the general election of 2015, it became clear that leaving the UK was a real and present danger, one that many Scots felt it was a priority to combat. The 2015 result might have suggested overwhelming support for the SNP, yet, in our first past the post system, 90 per cent of Scottish seats went to the party winning 50 per cent of the votes. This was something of a wake-up call for pro-union Scots. Three pro-union parties (as Labour then was) were competing with each other and with the SNP. During the 2015 campaign, there had been the beginnings of recognition of this disadvantage for the pro-union side, and a few people started thinking about a possible solution: tactical voting. This meant working out which of the pro-union parties would be the strongest challenger to the SNP in various seats. I sent a financial contribution to two candidates who belonged to the party that I favoured and were also the strongest challengers to the SNP in their constituencies. I voted for a party other than the one I favoured, on the grounds that its candidate was best placed to defeat the SNP incumbent here. Nevertheless, 2015 remained a disaster for the pro-union side.

In 2017, however, Mrs May gave Scots another chance by calling a general election against the prescriptions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Pro-union Scots were possibly the only people in the UK to welcome that, and, as it turned out, with good cause. The SNP’s 56 MPs were reduced to 35, as the party shed half a million of its 2015 votes. Part of that was undoubtedly due to anti-EU feeling in the north-east, which had been an SNP stronghold. The dispossession of seats by Conservative candidates in a traditionally SNP area cost faceless MPs, as well as big beasts such as Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond, their parliamentary careers. Was this tactical voting? It is hard to say, but with 36 per cent of former SNP voters having voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, it seems possible that, in an area where SNP supporters had been known as ‘Tartan Tories’, tactical voting played a role.

Where tactical voting undoubtedly figured was in Edinburgh. Christine Jardine, Liberal Democrat, in Edinburgh West, and Ian Murray, Labour, in Edinburgh South, undoubtedly benefited from a ‘stop the SNP’ campaign, although personal loyalty among even natural Conservatives to an excellent MP was also a factor in Murray’s case. Tactical voting may also have worked to favour Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat, in East Dunbartonshire. In Edinburgh South West, Joanna Cherry, SNP, found her vote squeezed down to a one thousand majority over the Conservative candidate, as the Liberal Democrats ran a token campaign.

The election of 2019 is seeing a much more concerted tactical voting campaign. There is also what we may call tactical standing. The Brexit Party has withdrawn candidates from 317 seats where Conservative candidates are standing, while the Green party in Scotland is standing candidates in a modest twenty-two seats, but certainly not in the SNP’s two most marginal seats, Perth and North Perthshire and North East Fife, where Pete Wishart, with a majority of 21 in 2017, and Stephen Gethins with a majority of two, respectively, are highly vulnerable. The Conservatives have the strongest chance against Wishart and the Lib Dems against Gethins. The absence of the Greens is no big deal: in 2017, the Scottish Greens stood only three candidates, in the hope of Patrick Harvie winning their first Westminster seat. A miserable result may be the reason that he is not standing again. The absence of Green candidates in Perth and Fife in 2017 makes their absence in 2019 relatively insignificant.

Some of the parties, then, have themselves acted tactically, leaving voters with starker choices. There is a possibility that some who voted in 2017, wearied by Brexit and perhaps also by Scottish separatism, may simply not bother to vote. The turnout could be crucial. In places like Stirling, in 2017 a higher turnout favoured the Conservative Stephen Kerr, whose majority of 245 could be strengthened by tactical voting against the energetic Alyn Smith, SNP. Further, there can be no doubt that many Scots remain congenitally incapable of voting for a ‘Tory’ under any circumstances, just as others cannot vote for a party with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Many others have, however, realised that they (we) have to hold our nose and vote for a party other than our first choice in order to try to prevent the SNP candidate from holding or gaining the seat in our constituency. It is by now an open secret that the Conservatives and Labour are virtually standing aside in Ross, Skye and Lochaber to give the Liberal Democrat, Craig Harrow, a free run against the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford. This is partly because Blackford’s would be a prized scalp to take, but it is also in homage to the late Charles Kennedy, whose seat it was until 2015, and who had faced a deeply unpleasant and personal campaign then from Blackford’s constituency party.

The problem for pro-union forces is that the Labour party in Scotland appears to be imploding, yet in some seats, especially in west and central Scotland, Labour is the only realistic challenger to the SNP. This is Hobson’s choice. Labour’s pro-union credentials seem to erode by the day, as its leaders constantly shift their position on a second separation referendum, yet when the choice is between Labour and the SNP, the pro-union choice has to be Labour. On tactical voting charts showing which party is best placed to defeat the SNP – whether the charts are linear or in the shape of a wheel – there are great swathes of Labour red in the colour-coded advice to indicate which party to vote for in each constituency. Mostly, this party will be the pro-union one that either won in 2017 or came second to the SNP candidate. Ross, Skye and Lochaber is a curiosity here since the Conservative candidate pipped the Lib Dem for second place in 2017. But the Lib Dem is the clear challenger now.

The SNP does, of course, indulge in its own version of tactical voting advice. The Leave victory in 2016 has led the SNP to pose as the natural choice for Remain voters, and Nicola Sturgeon has tried to hijack the Remain votes of people like me who are aghast at Brexit but who recognise that piling the disaster of Scexit on top of it would be madness. Nevertheless, Sturgeon has asked Remain voters to ‘lend’ their vote to the SNP as the one way of keeping Scotland in the EU. This is thoroughly dishonest, but that discussion must wait until another time. The natural party for Remain voters in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK is the Lib Dems. We were not born yesterday: we know that when Ms Sturgeon says ‘lend me your vote’, her response after a successful election would be to say: ‘Look how support for independence has grown’. No thanks.

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