Alasdair-McKillopAlasdair McKillop, author and recently joined Scottish Labour member, looks at the phenomenon of tactical voting and sees trouble ahead.


The succession of polls predicting a commanding victory for the SNP has prompted a number of responses. The direction of travel hasn’t altered greatly but the wall on the road ahead looks to be even more fortified that previously imagined.

The Conservatives have sought to exploit the prospect for party political advantage in the hope that a Labour government reliant on some degree of SNP support will drive wavering Liberal Democrat and UKIP voters into their arms. The rhetoric is growing increasingly detached from political and constitutional reality, as evidenced by recent interventions from Boris Johnston and Sarah Vine.

There is a sense that seeds are being planted in the hope that they will quickly grow into gnarled trees casting an dark shadow on the legitimacy of a Labour-led government following the General Election. So much for the need for stability.

The thought of a UK Government reliant on the SNP might be unpalatable for many and there’s no point skirting around the observation that there will be qualitative differences between a government reliant on the SNP and one reliant on the support, for example, of one of Northern Ireland’s unionist parties.

But that is not to say such an arrangement would be illegitimate, as more level-headed unionist commentators such as Alex Massie wearily recognise. Indeed a Labour government reliant on the ebbing and flowing support of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Social Democratic and Labour Party would be a more accurate reflection of political realities across the UK than a majority Conservative government.

The other significant response to predictions of SNP triumph have been moves to encourage tactical voting. These have progressed from low level chatter to the likes of Nick Clegg and Sir Malcolm Rifkind appearing to endorse the approach.

Activity has been detected in constituencies including Dundee West, Perth and North Perthshire, and Gordon, the constituency Alex Salmond hopes will serve has his launch-pad back to the House of Commons. Those promoting the idea, including groups such as Scotland in Union and United Against Separatism, hope it will be an attractive proposition even in constituencies without the prospect of such a big scalp. A YouGov poll conducted for the former found one in seven respondents were thinking along these lines.

The logic is obvious and the attraction understandable. The SNP’s commanding position is directly linked to the referendum campaign. With its post-referendum surge, it has demonstrated that it was the meat and bones of the Yes Scotland campaign, with almost all other campaign groups little more than accessories and fancy clothing. Polling would suggest it has successfully managed to hold on to a very large proportion of those who voted yes despite the party’s own argument that the General Election is not about Scottish independence. The ranks have been swelled by thousands of people looking for an establishment to vanquish but seemingly relaxed about the fact the same party also forms what is a dominant Scottish Government.

Tactical voting seeks to revive the binary logic of the campaign by creating the conditions for 59 mini referendums across Scotland on 7th May. According to the SNPOUT website, unionists should support the Conservative candidate in ten constituencies, the Liberal Democrat candidate in seven and the Labour candidate in the remainder as they are the best-placed to defeat the SNP representative.

Supporters of the SNP will bristle at all this but there are also reasons for unionists to question the underlying wisdom, or lack thereof.

First, tactical voting is just that: a tactical measure. It’s not a long-term strategy for fashioning a political settlement that will accommodate Scotland within the union framework. As such, it is essentially a blunt instrument, the equivalent of trying to fend-off a gale force wind with a hammer.

Furthermore it is an acknowledgement that the post-referendum period has been fundamentally mismanaged by the pro-union parties. Individually and collectively they have failed to devise a way forward that removes the constitutional question from the forefront of Scottish politics. A degree of mitigation might be provided if one were to argue that minimising SNP gains at the General Election is but a prelude to the establishment of a UK Constitutional Convention, a proposal contained in a number of party manifestos, although not the SNP’s. If this is the case, the approach is not being effectively publicised.

Regardless, by pursuing tactical voting complacency is invited and complacency is the enemy of the hard-thinking required to craft the type of UK-wide constitutional settlement that, alone, will give unionists the degree of security they expected following the referendum.

Second, tactical voting, through its assumptions and likely legacy, can’t help but contribute to what some are referring to as the Ulsterisation of Scottish politics. This analogy shouldn’t be overplayed: There are no pronounced ethnic or religious differences between supporters of independence and the union in Scotland. But the weight of the constitutional issue is similarly distorting all other political considerations.

Tactical voting is not an unthinkable or unheard of act in UK politics, despite the first-past-the-post election arguably acting to minimise its effectiveness. The Vote Swap website exists to encourage Labour and Green suppers to exchange votes in order to defeat candidates, while in Northern Ireland a level of tactical voting will take place for the candidate in each constituency best placed to defeat the most-likely candidate representing the other lot.

A tactical vote, however, necessarily elevates a certain issue above all others and thereby imbues it with importance. Otherwise, why else vote for a candidate you wouldn’t support under normal circumstances? It would be a sad irony if those hoping to side-line the constitutional issue by stymieing the SNP only serve to worsen the bad-blood on both sides through their chosen means of achieving that end.

The impulse driving tactical voting might evaporate as soon as polls close but it’s also possible that it won’t be so quickly forgotten. Indeed, there is the possibility that it might harden sufficiently to form the basis of a dedicated unionist party to fight future elections, not least the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament for which the SNP might produce a manifesto containing a pledge on a second referendum. Such a party would, weighing the probabilities, have one of two fates. Either it would fail by further splintering the pro-union vote or it would be successful and Scottish politics would be reduced definitively to a long-war, a zero-sum game on the constitution in which the nationalists would only have to triumph once.

There is a final objection that might be raised. The tactical voting campaign is unlikely to prove successful, at least in sense of preventing widespread SNP gains. This is an assessment shared by John Curtice. The campaign, despite the determined efforts of the blogger Effie Deans and others, has failed to develop a meaningful profile to date, not least when measured against the intricate planning and level of message saturation required to co-ordinate supporters of at least three parties.

But by its mere existence, it offers countless grist to the SNP’s mill while offering to magnify still further the extent of any SNP gains. This is the stuff of future nationalist myth: not only will the SNP have made unprecedented gains, likely leading to it having an important influence in the shape of the next UK government, but the increasingly patchy public memory will recall this was achieved despite the combined forces of conniving unionism.

By promoting tactical voting, the SNP’s opponents are offering it a double victory and its ego is hardly in need of sustenance as it is.

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5 thoughts on “The tactical vote

  1. I read this article with interest but nowhere do I find the reminder that voting for any other party is forbidden by membership within the Labour Party. However that is merely an aside.

    Love her or hate her – and I would never vote for her in a million years – Ruth Davidson has given the Scottish Tories back a great deal of their self-respect and she regularly comes across as reasonable and measured. There are a lot of Tories out there who are looking at the arithmetic and thinking that they can see the whites of Labour’s eyes for the first time in a couple of generations. Why would they waste the chance to get as close as possible? And at the same time might it not be sweet schadenfreude for Tory voters to tack an SNP tail onto the body of any and every minority Labour government policy?

    The Lib Dems are a completely busted flush and what little support left that they can rally doesn’t divvy up very well in tactical terms as potentially half of next to nothing is still next to nothing.

    To my mind the biggest damage that can be done tactically will be by Labour voters doing what is instinctively the wrong thing and what is, for members at least, as mentioned at the start a complete no-no.

    I think we have to admit that the James Francis Murphy experiment has been just about as successful as Paul Le Guen’s six month period at Ibrox and it’s time to move on.

    The SNP are going to be triumphant next Thursday and that is a guarantee. I doubt they will be triumphalist on the morning after the night before as Better Together was.

    Introspection is the greatest requirement for Scottish Labour at this juncture and it is something which has not been exercised for the longest time within the party. Let’s not gripe, accept that we will reap what we have sown and move on to something better.

  2. Sadly this conniving has gone on with Unionism for a number of years, it played a major part in Labour’s downfall sharing a bed with the Tories. My father, a proud shipyard worker on the Clyde, voted Labour his entire life, however, he would have no hesitation in condenming what passes as Labour today.

    His son and his grandsons now vote SNP and he would be very, very proud of them.

  3. This underlines the renewed case for PR in all elections as winner takes all of FPTP distorts voters’ collective wishes/decisions.

  4. Why are labour in a pact with the nationalist sdlp in northern ireland but would rather have a tory government than speak to the snp?

  5. The idea that Labour are somehow going to allow the Tories to govern rather than talk to the SNP is the Goebbels moment of this campaign and one which Nicola Sturgeon herself has repeated.

    Both Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy are on record as saying they will never put the Tories into power. But Sturgeon has confirmed that the SNP will vote against a Labour budget if they disagree with it and have not been consulted about it. Fine. That is their prerogative as a party. But the only way a Labour budget can be defeated is if there are sufficient votes in the House of Commons to do so and no amount of SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green, old Uncle George Galloway and all MPs have the power to do this. It is only by trooping through the same lobbies as the Tories that a Labour budget can be undone.

    Sturgeon has also suggested the SNP can vote against a Labour Queen’s speech. The same conditions apply.

    In these circumstances the SNP can explain to those who voted for them why they have voted with the Tories to oppose the 50p tax rate, the abolition of the bedroom tax etc etc.

    Or they can realise – in the words of Alex Salmond – that their rhetoric is mere “bluff, bluster & bullying.”

    The SNP have really nowhere else to go. The saddest fact is this: should the Tories emerge with just one seat more than Labour then Cameron will try to soldier on and forge a coalition of sorts with UKIP, the DUP, Liberal Democrats. if he succeeds then no number of SNP MPs allied with Labour can dislodge him. But if Labour emerges ahead by just one solitary seat then Cameron will have no option but to go. It may then be a minority government but it will be a Labour minority government determined to get as much of its legislation through as possible and able to govern executively without legislation for much, just as the SNP did between 2007-2011.

    Sad indeed if that opportunity were lost thanks to an SNP success in Scotland.

    Finally, the SDLP. An anomaly of course. But the SDLP is a separate member of the Socialist International (something the SNP is not and never can be) and as such is a sister party to Labour. The Labour Party does not stand candidates in Northern Ireland (whether it should is a different argument altogether) so there is no comparison whatsoever between the SDLP and the SNP. Similar to the SNP, a Labour government won’t cut any deals with Plaid Cymru either.

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