Tactical Voting in a Desert: Waiting for the tide to turn….back

Anyone remember the 1992 Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon dark political satire ‘Bob Roberts’? It featured Robbins as a Republican candidate that wrote and played reactionary US country songs. One that sticks in the memory from that film was the parody of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A’Changing’: ‘Times Are Changing Back’.

I was thinking of this in connection with yet another PanelBase poll for the Sunday Times at the weekend, that showed further increases since their last poll (which was conducted maybe 30 seconds earlier – with poll density reaching saturation levels, who can recall clearly anymore?), with SNP on 48% (+3), Labour 27% (-2) Conservatives on 16% (+2) LibDems no change on 4%, UKIP on 3% (-1) and Greens no change on 2%. Can you imagine Labour’s Scottish headquarters? ‘Its not great…but next time, guys…I feel we are making REAL inroads – we might even get a kickback from Kaye Adams giving Jim a hard time and making him sound vulnerable on BBC live radio this morning…’ And then the next poll DOES comes out: TNS says SNP on 54% with Labour on 22%, giving the biggest lead yet to the SNP…’the next poll, lads – I can feel it, the countersurge is coming…’.

Of course, to a certain degree, you have to remember that they are right: those figures are only for those who say they have made their decision, and there are still a third of voters undecided – as much as 39% in Glasgow, according to TNS.

Of course, the responders may simply be shy (so why are they signed up to a political polling company, then?), may genuinely not have decided…or may feel sorry for Labour as ‘the new underdogs’ at the last minute. Or maybe they will join the happy band of tactical voters.

This has been increasingly espoused online as a strategy by pro-Union sites on a ‘keep the SNP out’ basis – but, bizarrely, the innate tribalism of those same parties does not seem to be allowing the same happy Union that it did during the Referendum campaign. Tactical voting wheels and guides have been circulated (despite the fact that advocating votes for other candidates is strictly against the conditions of membership of both Labour and LibDems), but suspicion has fallen on many as to just how ‘impartial’ they are with their counter-SNP recommendations.

For example, leaflets printed outside Scotland purporting to represent ‘Scotlands Big Voice’ (ah, don’t you just love those hoax grass roots campaigns, just like last year?) to ‘protect Scotland and maintain unity’ advocate who to vote for with the best chance of keeping the SNP out. Yet mysteriously they are advocating voting against sitting Labour and LibDem MPs, which would seem to benefit one party only…because it is the Conservatives that they are advocating voting for. Just as in the Referendum, it appears that the Conservatives are happily getting the followers of other parties (this time their voters, rather than their MPs and activists) to do their work for them. One tactical voting site over the weekend bitterly advised everyone to discount the voting guides as they had already been “contaminated” by SNP activists…and it is true that some tactical voting guides have appeared that are entirely coloured gold, and say ‘Vote SNP’ for every single seat (sometimes I love the Scottish sense of humour so much!! 😀 ).

But, aside from the innate tribalism, there are more fundamental problems with such a strategy, as noted recently by psephologist John Curtice. Curtice noted the 40:40:20 rule for the ideal tactical voting scenario, where two parties polling around 40% of the vote have a third party on around 20% – in this scenario, there is a reasonable chance of persuading significant enough numbers (it is pretty much likely to be a minority of their support) of the third party to support the second party, and swing the result. However, as Curtice notes, in post-Referendum Scotland it is now rarely clear what the logical choice second candidate to transfer to would be, given the radically changed voting patterns – and there is a lack of large enough feeder parties to provide significant transfers: support for the LibDems is 2% in many areas, and less than 10% in many for the Conservatives.

Notwithstanding Nick Clegg telling his above-noted 2% of voters to vote tactically to keep the SNP out, these attempts at coordinated pro-Union machinations are not helped by the pronouncements of party leaders – despite Ed and Dave’s readiness to regularly and repeatedly accuse each other of ‘supporting the SNP’. When David Cameron was in Glasgow on 16th April to launch the Conservative manifesto, he was emphatically urging supporters NOT to vote tactically to keep the SNP out. He could, of course, have been kidding on, but…that doesn’t help some voters swithering over whether or not to vote tactically at all. Similarly, the recent London slapdown of Jim Murphy by Labour’s leadership was seen by some as not about presenting a strong (and determinedly not ‘pro-Scottish’ for those coveted south east of England voters) front, but as a very clear tactical decision by Labour Central Office in a Scottish context: they realise that they can only win a few more Scottish seats, and actually, it would suit them better to have the solid block of SNP to facilitate their entrance to Downing Street. Ergo – best to slap down Jim, and encourage more Labour voters to feel comfortable voting for the SNP instead.

Realistically, it would probably be the smartest long-term policy for Labour to rebuild in Scotland – accept the nihilist requirement that in order to build, you must first destroy everything – or allow someone else to destroy it for you.


“For too long there have been Scottish Labour politicians at local government level and at Westminster who have been resentful, and even contemptuous, of the Scottish Parliament. That behaviour needs to stop now if we are to have any chance of regaining ground.” (The late Labour MSP Tom McCabe, after Wendy Alexander’s resignation as Labour Party leader in Scotland)

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