Friday 6 June 2014

Newark and the angst of tactical voting


Yesterday the Conservative candidate romped home in the Newark by-election. In one respect this should have been entirely predictable. A safe seat (albeit one that elected a Labour MP in 1997) shouldn't be a problem for even the occasionally creaky Tory by-election machine. But there are a couple of factors that make the outcome especially pleasing for the Party - the reason for the by-election in the first place and the populist surge that is UKIP.

I'm sure lots of people will analyse the result to death. Comment will be made about how UKIP's tornado (or is it earthquake, I get my natural disaster metaphors mixed up) turned out to be nothing more than a stiff breeze. And others will point and laugh at the Liberal Democrats. Wise observers will also ask how it was that Labour did so badly in a seat like this? Surely an opposition heading for government would be winning by-elections like this not coming a distant third?

But I'm not going to do such an analysis. I'm going to talk about tactical voting. Mostly because there's some folk saying that non-Tory residents of Newark voted Tory to keep out UKIP. Now I've never voted tactically but I recall the endless machinations on the centre-left about the practice. Indeed the Liberal Democrats made it into something of an art form completely with creatively presented bar charts (sometimes illustrated with jolly little cartoon horses) - lend us your vote Labour folk, the Lib Dem chap would say. And those previously Labour voting people would weigh up their options and vote tactically.

When Stephen Ross won the Isle of Wight for the Liberals in 1974, the Labour vote dropped from 23% of the vote (and second place) to just 11% of the vote and a poor third. This was in an election that Labour (more-or-less) won nationally. And we'll see that pattern repeated again and again in subsequent years with the main beneficiaries being the Liberal Democrats.  This became such a significant campaign that the Mirror could publish a guide to tactical voting ahead of the 2010 election:

This is a Labour paper with a long tradition of supporting Gordon Brown's party, but we are urging some of you to vote Lib Dem this time.

Below is a guide which shows how Labour and Lib Dem supporters can vote tactically in 71 key marginal seats to stop the catastrophic cuts Mr Cameron would begin if he wins the General Election.

It is perhaps ironic that the Mirror's campaign might have led in part to the circumstances that resulted in a coalition as Labour voters in Solihull and Wells prevented Conservative gains in those towns. But that's as maybe - yesterday we're told that some people who'd regularly vote Labour or Liberal Democrat chose instead to vote Conservative so as to prevent a UKIP MP being elected. For the former, the angst must have been painful. Can you imagine that, having been weaned on the utter evilness of Tories you find your pencil hovering over the Conservative candidate's name on the ballot paper! The agony!

It's different for Liberal Democrat voters - the party was built on protest, on not being the other two, on tactical considerations. This means that most Liberal Democrat voters are voting tactically - either because the local MP is such a nice chap (the Tim Farron method) or else because they hate the other party, be it Labour or Conservative, enough to want to stop them winning by voting for someone you disagree with.

In the run up to this Newark by-election, to the extent that Labour and Lib Dem folk were engaged at all, I'd read twitter comments agitatedly pondering tactical voting - for a Conservative. I suspect this is a massive breakthrough for the Conservatives - UKIP has succeeded where sleigh rides and hugging hoodies hasn't and has made the Conservatives seem decent, honourable centrist politicians. That Labour voters are even considering a tactical Tory vote is a major shift in outlook and, I suspect, very bad news for Labour in places where UKIP are strong. If stopping UKIP becomes the theme will voters plump for the sitting MPs in Thanet, Thurrock and Great Yarmouth?


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