Will tactical voting destroy the Tories?

Under our winner-takes-all system, in tight seats, voters could well hold their noses and cast their ballot for a candidate with the best chance of winning, just to deliver a knock-out blow for the Tories.

Right-Wing Watch

Following sweeping losses at the local elections this week, the Prime Minister is being urged to call an immediate general election. “Rishi Sunak must listen to the country and immediately call a general election,” said Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper.

Despite a local election drubbing, election experts caution that there are reasons not to take this week’s results as general election predictions. Nonetheless, there are warnings for the Tories to heed. Multiple polling forecasts suggest that if an election was held tomorrow, the Tories would also certainly lose. So, the longer Sunak leaves it, the longer there will be for economic improvements to materialise, which is at least David Davis’s argument for a November, even December election. The government would be “off its head” to call an election now, said the former cabinet minister, amid last week’s frenzy of election rumours

But are today’s predictions too naïve and too kind on the Conservatives, as they fail to consider tactical voting? Under our winner-takes-all system, in tight seats, voters could well hold their noses and cast their ballot for a candidate with the best chance of winning, just to deliver a knock-out blow for the Tories.

In this sense, the government’s tactic of calling a later election could backfire, as the longer they leave it, the more time there will be for anti-Tory campaigns attempting to convince voters to vote tactically, to gain momentum. And you don’t have to look too far to find such campaigns picking up speed. The civil campaign group Best for Britain is launching a tactical ‘GetVoting’ campaign this year, encouraging voters to pledge to vote tactically to support whichever progressive party is best placed to remove the Tories from power.

The question is, does tactical voting really work and will it help sink the Tories in the forthcoming general election?

1997 all over again?

Britain has witnessed organised tactical voting since at least 1997, when a campaign known as Get Rid Of Them (GROT) pushed leaflets through letterboxes in an effort to build an anti-Tory coalition. Labour’s burying of the Tories that year, with the biggest majority since World War II, has been partially credited to GROT.

“GROT came out of the conviction we had that the if the anti-Tory vote was split [between Labour and the Liberal Democrats] we would have the Tories – and nuclear weapons – for the long future,” said the late Bruce Kent, the peace activist who spearheaded the campaign.

“It was a small effort run by a handful, certainly less than ten, with no funds, but we did have an effect. All but one of our GROT seats produced someone other than Tory,” he added.

2015 study into effects of tactical voting in 1997  found that Labour may not have won nine of its seats if it hadn’t been for Lib Dem voters who temporarily switched to Labour in the ballot box. The research also found that 21 of the 46 Lib Dem seats won in 1997 were likely to have been a result of votes cast by Labourites wanting to get rid of the Tories.

One of the biggest parallels between 2024 and 1997 is the deep discontent with the long-in-power Tory government. What is inherently different today though, is the information landscape.

The Labour landslide of 1997 and Britain’s first nationwide tactical voting campaign was pre- social media and digital advertising. Today, candidates and political parties are using a suite of faster and more personalised ways to engage with voters instantly. The likes of X are swamped with political campaigns, many of which are attempting to persuade voters to stop the Tories with a tactical vote.

“A flood of sophisticated online tools, backed up with data from expensive polling campaigns, are promised to help show voters where they can use their tactical edge,” writes Politico.

In this sense, the success of GROT in 1997 with its low-budget reliance on leafletting, could pale into insignificance in comparison with the high-budget and sophisticated tactical campaign literature that is starting to flood social media.

Take Best for Britain, which has run tactical voting campaigns in the last two elections. The pro-European group claims that in the 2019 general election, its digital channels achieved more than 200 million impressions, and in the six weeks prior to the election, it reached 25 million people in a 45.8 million electorate. Its 2019 Election Impact report shows that over 800,000 people voted tactically in line with Best for Britain’s advice. The group says its efforts helped Labour to victory in six seats they may well not have otherwise won.

Yet, the 2019 election was a disappointing result for Labour voters and for pro-Europeans, with the first-past-the-post system delivering a majority government on a minority of votes.

This time round, Best for Britain seem to be upping their tactical voting campaign, encouraging voters to sign up to a pledge to vote tactically, and with alerts on polling day to remind voters to bring ID with them.

“It’ll tell you where to place your vote tactically to have the best chance of either voting out the incumbent Conservative or beating the Conservative challenger,” the group’s chief executive Naomi Smith explains.

According to Smith, much of the analysis will be driven by sophisticated multi-level regression (MRP) polling. They are also planning on providing their recommendation as close to polling day as possible, while enabling sufficient time for postal voters to get the advice.

A rise in centre-left crossover voters

Research by the Economist shows that there has been a big rise in the number of centre-left crossover voters who are prepared to cast their ballots for a party that is not their first choice in order to bury the Tory candidate.

In 2019, around 17 percent of all voters were considering both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, compared with only around 13 percent in 2015. In May 2023, it was almost 22 percent, the study shows. The Economist argues that Labour under Keir Starmer is more palatable to crossover voters than it was in 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn and may therefore be more inclined to vote tactically.

That said, disillusion with the current Labour leadership and its swing to the right, particularly among the Left and young people, should not be discounted. Polling experts have warned that Labour risks losing a number of target seats as previously loyal voters turn away from the party, principally over Gaza and the climate. One senior Labour adviser recently told the Guardian: “Are we losing urban progressive voters? Of course. At the moment it looks like it doesn’t matter as our poll lead is so wide, but it could hurt if they narrow and those voters don’t come back.”

Tactical voting prevalent in recent by-elections

Recent byelections certainly point to a rise in tactical voting, with voters working out the best way to oust the Tories. Last July, the Tories shed huge majorities to Labour in Selby and Ainsty, and to the Liberal Democrats in Somerton and Frome, and managed to just cling onto Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Polling expert Sir John Curtice said the results once again showed how much better UK voters were getting at making tactical decisions.

However, tactical voting in by-elections is generally seen as easier, without the wider political noise of a general election. And, as the Economist points out, less politically engaged voters, who are more likely to vote in a general election than in a by-election, may not be attuned to the prospect of voting tactically. If they did however, the Tories could fare even worse than predicted.

Carol Vorderman, a vocal anti-Tory campaigner, argues tactical voting will be the “third party in the room” in the next election. Writing for Prospect Magazine, the TV presenter and author, describes how a lot of prediction polling doesn’t take tactical voting into sufficient account.

“With this we can do to the Tory party what it has done to this country, and utterly dismantle it. Down to 70 MPs or fewer. Marvellous. The evening of the general election will be the bonfire of their vanities.”

Of course, the Tories may well run their own tactical voting campaign to try and stop people from voting Reform UK, which, if the polls are anything to go by, will snatch a significant number of seats from the Tories. In 2019, a Tory pact with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which promised not to field candidates in any Conservative held seats, proved very successful for the Tories. Such fortunes were not however shared with the Brexit Party, which failed to win a single seat. But Reform UK, the Brexit Party’s successor, has “categorically” ruled out any pact with the Tories. The party’s leader Richard Tice vowed to field candidates in every constituency in England, Wales and Scotland, in a move that piles more pressure on Rishi Sunak.

And with Nigel Farage reportedly being set to announce a return to politics as a Reform candidate, things are going from bad to worse for the Tories.

Labour and the Lib Dems meanwhile have opposed any formal pacts or collaboration in elections, a move that has not been welcomed by everyone. Following last summer’s byelections in North Shropshire, Tiverton and Wakefield, when claims of an ‘unofficial pact’ were reported that saw Labour give the Lib Dems a ‘free pass’ in Tiverton while Ed Davey avoided Wakefield, a rift broke out between Starmer’s office and Labour grassroots over tactical voting. It was declared that the informal alliance with Davey’s party in the byelections would not be revived for forthcoming crucial contests. Ahead of the Mid Bedfordshire byelection in October, Labour HQ ordered the party to campaign hard in the constituency, despite warnings that the seat was ‘natural territory’ for the Lib Dems and a three-way contest could split the vote and result in the Tories clinging on to it.

“It would be madness for us to fight this seat hard. There would only be one winner – the Tories,” an insider told the Independent.

Neal Lawson, director of Compass, the democratic reform group which advocates tactical voting, accused Labour of “petty tyranny” after he was told that he could be expelled from the party for a tweet he posted in 2021 calling on some voters to back the Greens at local elections. He said Labour’s regional offices were told to “go after members who have done any electoral deals [at the local elections] – the machine is trying to clamp down just as voters are getting more into it.”

At the time, activists said the parties’ leadership was terrified of the Tories and right-wing press banging on about a “stitch-up” deal. But Labour went on to win a historic victory in Nadine Dorries’ former seat, with Alistair Strathern overturning a 24,664 majority to become the new MP. 

With byelections being won without any pacts with other parties, and polls pointing to a 20-point lead for Labour, there could be an argument that tactical voting isn’t going to be needed in the forthcoming general election. However, the gap is likely to close when we get closer to the election and campaigning is ramped up. With the current Labour party being so risk-averse and reluctant to take anything for granted, you would have thought that encouraging tactical voting would be a useful insurance policy for progressives.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Conservative media in meltdown over VisitBritain’s language guide

‘Inclusive language’ is defined as language that ‘avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people.’ In the workplace, inclusive language helps create a sense of belonging, which, in turn, has clear business benefits, as Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends research found. This logical and reasonable approach explains why many organisations are keen to adopt more inclusive policies and practices.

But for the reactionary right, the drift towards more inclusive environments is a sign of weakness, and a chance to demonise those showing compassion and empathy towards others. As such, institution after institution in Britain is being targeted by right-wing, culture war-stoking propaganda.

VisitBritain, the nation’s trusted, respected and award-winning tourism agency, is the latest iconic UK brand to be targeted by the right-wing media.

‘Fury, as ‘out of touch’ tourism agency VisitBritain BANS words including blacklist, walkthrough and blindspot,’ headlined the Sun.

The tabloid’s beef is a 50-page guidance issued in a diversity and inclusion ‘framework’ that was sent to VisitBritain’s business partners to help shape the future of events. The Sun lists some of the words the language guide is replacing, including ‘guru’ with expert, and ‘man up’ with ‘be brave.’

Hardly headline news, but, predictably, the story was given editorial space in the usual right-wing sources.

‘VisitBritain tells staff not to use ‘racist’ words like blacklist – ‘Not acceptable!’ gushed GB News.

‘Britain stands on the brink of “woke madness”, after leading UK institutions declared a war on politically incorrect language,’ enthused the Express.

And guess who’s spearheading the heart-clutching racket, cited as the ‘Tory politicians accusing the tourism board of being out of touch with real life’ in the reports?  Our old friend Sir John Hayes, chairman of the Common Sense Group of Tory MPs, who have long encouraged Conservatives to engage in an all-out culture war.

The MP for South Holland and The Deepings told the Sun: “The people behind this document are out of touch. They should be blacklisted and blackballed.”

VisitBritain meanwhile coolly explained that “the guide was developed with input from our business events industry partners.”

The same newspapers seized the opportunity to remind readers that the police have also turned ‘woke’ for warning staff against using words such as ‘policeman.’ A 12-page guide issued by Staffordshire Police last year cautioned, like VisitBritain, against phases like ‘man up’ and ‘grow a pair.’

As a woman, I can appreciate why being told to ‘grow a pair,’ thereby metaphorically criticising the absence of testicles, is offensive and amounts to saying that only men are real police officers. Why therefore would today’s police forces, which have come under intense criticism in recent years for an alleged culture of bullying and intimidation, want to protect bullying and offensive language? But, sigh, that would be far too nuanced for right-wingers to comprehend, who tend to see everything in black and white.

Smear of the week – Tories’ last-ditch attempt to win by backdoor in London mayoral elections

Fake penalty charge notices, incredulous footage of New York supposedly representing London, and data harvesting; the Tories’ campaign for the London mayoral election was littered with underhand tactics to try and win by the back door.

The last desperate shot to close the gap on Khan, who held a solid lead over his Conservative rival in the polls, came in form of a letter that was sent out to some Londoners, suggesting that the Labour mayor was inevitably going to win.

The letter was written by Steve Tuckwell, Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and only mentioned Susan Hall in the small print at the bottom. It is a legal requirement to mention the candidate in all campaign material. The letter urged Londoners to ensure Sadiq Khan “wins by a smaller margin than he’s expecting,” while listing several priorities that Tuckwell claims Khan hadn’t met. These included recruiting more police officers, building high-rise flats instead of ‘family homes,’ and the ULEZ expansion, which propped up the bulk of the Tories’ smear campaign against Khan.

Targeting postal voters, the letter claimed that the mayor “thinks he is going to win this election easily. This means we have the chance to make a difference if Sadiq wins by a smaller margin than he is expecting, he will be forced to sit up and listen.”

The letter was ripped apart by campaigners for democratic reform, who alluded to the changes in voting system in this year’s mayoral election. Unlike previous contests, in which Londoners have been able to have a first and second preference, this year they only got one vote each, under the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). The new system was introduced by the Conservatives in 2022 after Khan beat Tory rival Shaun Bailey in 2021 comfortably with second-choice votes, but only narrowly with first choice votes.

Neal Lawson, director of the electoral reform think-tank Compass, told Byline Times: “This is a last-ditch desperate tactic from the Tories to push progressives apart and win power by the back door. Conservatives know they can win on a minority share of the vote not on their own merits, but by sowing division amongst their opponents. When we divide, they conquer.

“This is partly because of the switch from SV to FPTP for mayoral elections, which represents a real backwards step for our democracy and only serves to deny voters choice.”

Alberto Smith, of electoral reform campaign group Make Votes Matter, said the tactic was a direct consequence of the change to the voting system for mayoral elections Steve Tuckwell’s party introduced.

“Deliberately or not, it acknowledges the reality that, under first past the post, a majority of Londoners’ votes will potentially count for nothing.

“If you don’t want politicians to take votes for granted, don’t introduce a system that denies voters real choice.”

With dirty tactics already on display, it makes you wonder what the Conservatives will resort to as they battle to cling power to Westminster. There’s bound to be some fireworks ahead.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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