by David Gow

Editor of 

5th November 2019

This article was first published on SCER.

Tactical voting is the talk of the town, say the broadcast, print and social media, as the UK heads for its third general election in under five years on December 12. Much scratching of heads among our mainland European neighbours who are used to hearing, ahem, that first-past-the-post (FPTP) delivers “stable majorities.”

Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat leader, proclaims (improbably) that she can be the UK’s next premier, largely on the back of tactical voting among pro-Europeans for her party’s unequivocal Remain-in-the-EU stance. She is about to launch a Remain Pact in around 50 seats with the Greens and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists, which will see them stand down in favour of the more likely winner (Lib Dems for the most part).

But what if the tactic backfires? Let’s imagine many of the 15,000 Conservative/Labour voters in Swinson’s East Dunbartonshire constituency swing behind the second-placed SNP (5339 votes behind in 2017) to support Scottish independence and hand the seat back to the Scot Nats. Unlikely. Or, further south, Boris Johnson falls victim to tactical voting and loses his 5034 Conservative majority? Quite possible. Or, utterly improbable, Jeremy Corbyn’s 33,215 majority (the biggest he’s had since first elected in 1983) in Islington North is chiselled away by the LibDems, Greens and tactical Tories?

According to one early poll, at least a quarter of voters intends voting tactically in 2019; another says 30%. For our friends in the EU-27 this is extraordinary. Their experience of such voting, if at all, is via the second or list vote in the D’Hondt proportional system that is practised, say, in Germany – and in Scotland for elections to Holyrood and in England, Scotland and Wales in the euro-elections. FPTP is unknown except in elections to the Polish senate. But in December it may well reflect the fact that the UK is split down the middle over Brexit and deliver another hung parliament with all the instability that implies.

Why be tactical?

In this election, the momentum behind voting for the person most likely to win rather than the party one might otherwise favour is unambiguous: stop Brexit. That means stopping the Tories winning a clear majority of seats enabling them, armed with an influx of hard Brexiteers replacing moderate remainers, to engineer the UK’s (nominal) departure from the EU early next year. Or, as Naomi Smith, chief executive of Best for Britain which runs the controversial tactical voting site, put it: “… our mission is not to help any party. It is to stop Boris Johnson, stop the Brexit party, and – in turn – stop Brexit.” According to Stephen Fisher, professor of political sociology at Oxford University, tactical voting is a proven powerful tool that, inter alia, gave Tony Blair a landslide victory in 1997. (There were plenty of other more potent reasons why that happened!)

But this could well be what many call the most volatile election in living memory with a highly unpredictable outcome. Brexit may be the most salient issue but we are experiencing one of those seismic shifts in political sociology that renders forecast results wholly unreliable: Brexit is overlaid by anger about austerity, declining incomes, inequality, precariousness and, judging by the Scottish campaign so far, independence; the old class-based certainties/cleavages, Left v Right, are evaporating; there is no such thing as “rugby league” towns peopled by a homogenous white working class; and, for the young especially, the climate emergency is an over-riding issue.

Best for Britain claims that if 30% of pro-Remain voters do vote tactically, the Conservatives will be stopped in their tracks and, if 40% do so, a pro-people’s vote majority government can be won. But this assumes that Labour can be placed firmly in that camp which it can’t and that a wider pact than that envisaged by Swinson emerges, one encompassing Labour and the SNP. But there’s little or no chance of that happening systematically, not least because of deep-seated distrust of the Lib Dems after the 2010-15 coalition and even Brexit. (Ironically, it does appear to be in place in Northern Ireland where both unionist (DUP/UUP) and nationalist (Sinn Fein/SDLP) parties are standing down in each other’s favour.) And the sites promoting tactical voting are already under attack for, allegedly, favouring the Lib Dems over Labour to the point of promoting them when they’re 30,000 votes behind on 2017 figures.

Three-way marginals in six-party Scotland

Metropolitan media (that cannot even get Scottish National Party right) blandly proclaim that the SNP will win a landslide on the scale of 2015 after losing 21 seats in 2017. The talk is of between 52 to 56 seats but the caveats we enumerated re: tactical voting in the UK apply just as fiercely in Scotland.

For one thing, there are 14 seats where the outgoing MP had a majority of less than 1000 and three more where it’s under 1100. A dozen marginals have majorities below 1%; only 13 have majorities in double-digit percentages. Moreover, as many as 30 of the UK’s 38 three-way marginals are in Scotland, including Lanark and Hamilton East which split SNP (16,444), Con (16,178) and Lab (16,084) in 2017. Hardly surprising then that battle-hardened pollsters such as John Curtice wonder whether putting the SNP closer to 40 than 50 seats is more accurate but others confidently predict the opposite.


Millions will probably opt for tactical voting but caveat emptor! The very sites that claim to be giving sound advice based on geekish methods such as MRP are at odds with each other, with the People’s Vote campaign version giving different advice in 101 seats than that given by Best for Britain. Moral: use your own shrewd instincts as well as beliefs. Result: not a clue. So far….