Analysis: Tactical voting comes of age

The 2010 general election campaign has broken one of British politics’ greatest taboos: tactical voting.

By Alex Stevenson

Let’s be clear what tactical voting is: a conscious decision by a voter to back a party other than the one they support, in a pragmatic bid to secure a more desirable result in their constituency.

It’s a tough call for anyone to make. Lib Dem sympathisers have been confronting this dilemma for years, which is why they are so relieved that – in many seats – they no longer have to contemplate turning against their preferred party.

Politicians have traditionally tried to ignore the phenomenon, on the simple logic that urging anyone to vote against a party other than your own is probably not going to go down well career-wise.

But in the pressure cooker of the 2010 campaign all the old rules have gone flying out of the window. This is one of the most closely fought contests for decades. So it’s no surprise that the usual stresses which keep tactical voting entreaties to a minimum are being shelved by increasingly desperate politicians.

Ed Balls and Peter Hain’s comments today are the latest manifestation of this process. Labour campaigners have privately given up expecting to win power – although as 1992 teaches us, anything’s possible.

But a touch of tactical voting helping the Lib Dems deny the Tories an outright majority could make a big difference on the national stage.

It could make the difference between a Lib-Lab coalition and a minority Conservative administration.

So it’s no surprise Balls and Hain are coming up with the statements they are. Centre-left supporters should “vote with their heads, not with their hearts”, Hain urged. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Don’t forget that in the 1997 campaign Tony Blair sacked activists who backed tactical voting. With the chance of a solid victory, he could afford to stick to the party line. Now things have changed – dramatically.

Don’t think that Balls and Hain are renegades. The urge to vote tactically goes right to the top.

“I want everybody to vote Labour and I want people to vote for our party, and I want our vote to be the highest and I want our number of seats to be the highest,” Gordon Brown said in his exclusive general election interview with politics.co.uk.

“But,” he added crucially, “if people don’t want a Conservative government then they must make sure they don’t allow the Conservatives in.”

It doesn’t take long out on the campaign trail to understand the mechanics of the tactical voting seen in the 2010 campaign.

Mark Coote, the Conservative challenger in Cheltenham, faces a difficult challenge. The MP he is running against is a Liberal Democrat.

“You don’t have to vote Labour to get a Labour government,” he pressed to one Lib Dem supporter on the doorstep. “You might get Gordon Brown by the back door.” The voter he was talking to nodded thoughtfully. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she replied.

Mike Foster, the incumbent in Worcester who is being challenged by the Tories, has the opposite message. He spent five minutes talking to one resident about car parking spaces, but found the space to get in a message about tactical voting, too. “It’s Labour or Conservative here,” he pressed. Foster nodded confidently as he walked away from her. “She just needs a bit more pressure.”

Even the Lib Dems are doing everything they can to keep the others out. Back in Cheltenham, the ruthless squeezing of Labour votes was continuing apace. One old man Martin Horwood talked to was an old Labour supporter who liked the party’s national policies. But he hated the Tories. He’d already made his mind up to vote against his party. “There’s a first time for everything!” Horwood said enthusiastically.

It just goes to show the inherent negativity of tactical voting. In every example shown here the politician is trying to win a vote from someone who is not a natural supporter. They cannot find common ground on sympathy with their own policies. But in their mutual hatred of the third party in the equation they find common ground, which the politician tries to exploit.

Perhaps tactical voting hasn’t just matured in 2010; it might be a reflection of the wider political picture, too.

Unlike in 1997, when the public voted with their hearts to hand Tony Blair a landslide majority, there is no widespread love of David Cameron. Instead many remain as suspicious of the Tories as they are fed up of Labour. The result is a negative campaign, which has helped pave the way for the polling surge enjoyed by the Lib Dems.

It holds one other implication, too. Across the country most of the tactical voting will be taking place among Labour and Lib Dem voters, who are mutually reinforcing their vote across the country in a bid to block the Tories from getting past the post. Their alliance of necessity before polling day could, if it is successful in forcing a hung parliament, act as a precursor for cooperation in the political upheavals to come.