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Beware the dangers of tactical voting

Green party candidates have stood down in some areas in favour of the Lib Dems. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The polls are too volatile and the consequences too unpredictable for people to tactically vote with any confidence, says JAMES BALL. And that’s before all the other objections are taken into account.

Given the proximity and importance of Brexit – and the severity of the economic damage it could wreak – it is hardly surprising that people who have spent months or years campaigning to prevent it are urgently looking for ways to maximise their chances at next month’s election.

To this end, there’s no shortage of calls from Remainers for large-scale electoral pacts or, failing that, tactical voting schemes to get round the traditional tribal loyalties of British politics and, ultimately, keep the UK in the EU.

The decision by Nigel Farage to stand down his Brexit Party candidates in the 317 seats with a Conservative incumbent only adds to the pressure for a Remain alliance, to counterbalance this apparent one-sided Brexiteers’ pact.

The logic follows that if support for the Remain cause is fractured among different parties, it will lose, Johnson will win and Britain’s fate will be sealed. Surely, then, the logic for a pact and for tactical voting is unarguable?

Well not necessarily. And to see why, you need only look at the pollsters’ reactions to the decision by Farage to stand down in Tory seats. Rather than hand Boris Johnson the election, as the received wisdom has it, they suggest that the decision will either have little-to-no-effect, or could even help Labour, because voters don’t work exactly as political strategists imagine they do.

Take a Conservative-held marginal under heavy challenge by Labour, for example… In this seat there may be Leave voters who would never back the Tories. If a Brexit Party candidate were standing, it might split Labour’s vote enough to hand it to the Conservatives. Or, of course, it might not. Similar puzzles abound in the seats where Farage’s party is still standing. The effect of the Brexit Party’s unilateral pact will be the subject of argument among election-watchers for years to come.

The picture on the ground is even more complicated for Remain, where the complexities of a multi-party system are just as relevant and even more entwined. Tactical voting guides are based on polling and analysis of the results from 2017, to identify which pro-Remain candidate in each seat has the best chance of success. But polling has a patchy track record in recent elections and 2017 was a very different election indeed. For instance, the Liberal Democrats are expected to perform very differently next month, compared with 2017 (although whether they will is another matter entirely), so it would be a fool’s errand to predict which party will be the greatest challenge to the Tories in a three-way marginal. An election strategy dictated by opinion polls and previous results will be a gamble. No tactical voting guide will get around that.

And all that is before you hit on the deeper problems of a so-called ‘Remain Alliance’ – of which the largest party doesn’t actually back Remain. Labour does officially support a second referendum, the overwhelming majority of its candidates voted Remain last time and many (including frontbenchers) have said they would do so again. However, a Labour government would reopen Brexit negotiations and secure a new exit deal, which it would then put to a public vote. The party itself would decide whether to back Remain or Leave based on the deal it had secured.

This leads to the odd proposition of Remain voters being encouraged to back Labour as the best bet to stopping Johnson’s Brexit, even though the party might then negotiate a new deal and campaign to leave the EU within six months.

It is perhaps unsurprising that some voters and politicians refuse to consider Labour part of a true Remain Alliance, even if it might prove the most favourable vote in a given constituency to prevent the Tories’ version of Brexit.

The so-called ‘alliance’, then, upon which all tactical voting guides are predicated, is not even unified on Brexit itself. On other political issues, it is far more fractured. The Greens, Lib Dems, Labour, SNP and Plaid Cymru are hardly the same party with different colour rosettes. They come from dramatically different political traditions and have very different policies.

The Green Party, for example, has spending plans in several areas that are more ambitious even than Labour’s – but in some constituencies they have stood down in favour of the Lib Dems, who have pledged to keep government spending in surplus every year of the next parliament, keeping even tighter grip on spending than the Conservatives would. The effect of this is to leave Green voters in these seats politically homeless – do they endorse a spending plan that to some of them feels like an endorsement of austerity, or do they do their duty, as their party has deemed it, and vote to stop Brexit? It is a miserable choice to offer a would-be supporter.

For some, the choice facing them is even more stark. While some newspapers and partisans might treat Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis (or the Conservatives’ persistent Islamophobia) as a point-scoring opportunity, it is real and for those affected by it both depressing and frightening.

It is callow to the point of cruelty for anyone to suggest to a Jewish person afraid or unwilling to support a Labour government that anti-Semitism is just one issue, or not as bad as previous times, or less important than Brexit – all of which Jewish voters have been told. Some will feel content to vote for Labour, others won’t, and to try to persuade them otherwise is wrong.

Finally, voters don’t move in the predictable ways that armchair generals – or at least armchair election agents – wish they would. They shift because a local MP or candidate helped them, or was rude in front of them at the supermarket. They shift directly from the Lib Dems to UKIP, or vice versa, depending what type of protest vote they wish to make. They shift their vote for dozens of other reasons, rational or seemingly not, as is their absolute right to do so. Tactical voting campaigns and calculators have a tiny effect (if any at all) and it may not even be in the right direction.

Ultimately, tactical voting is an attempt to paper over the cracks of an electoral system that is unfit for purpose, that effectively disenfranchises millions of voters in safe seats, and which subjects millions more to calls to hold their nose and vote to ‘keep out the Tories’ – with some saying anyone refusing to do so is equivalent to a vote in their favour.

Tactical votes count just the same as ‘enthusiastic’ votes. The totals are used as a sign of how many people support each leader, each manifesto, as a sign the system works. Until people stop playing along with the existing system, they’ll only prop it up – and maybe not even help the outcome they want as they do. Vote for the candidate you like best – and if you like none of them, well, that’s its own signal too.

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