Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Some observations on tactical voting in the forthcoming General Election

The first and most obvious is this. If you say you are a Remainer, or if you understand the nightmare that No Deal will create, or want to end the threat to democracy this government is, you have to vote tactically. The converse is also true. If you don’t vote tactically, you by your actions are supporting a No Deal Brexit. You will be partly responsible for a No Deal Brexit.

If you want a Brexit that does not involve crashing out, you might tell yourself that the only way of getting a good deal is to keep No Deal on the table. But it is obvious by now that Johnson has no intention of even trying to get a deal, because he knows the EU will not budge on the need to prevent a hard border in Ireland. Amber Rudd in her resignation letter made that clear, as have many other Conservatives. If Johnson wins an election you can be sure we will leave with No Deal.

Tactical voting is second best. The first best thing to do is for Labour and the Liberal Democrat/Green alliance to cooperate, much as Farage will almost certainly do with the Conservatives. There are tons of seats where Labour have no chance to win, and plenty where the Liberal Democrats cannot win. In the current poll of polls, Labour are static on 25% and the LibDems are static on below 20%. The idea that during an election the LibDems and Labour could swap places is fantasy, and in contrast there are good reasons for thinking Labour may make some gains during the campaign. It makes no sense for the LibDes not to cooperate, and then end up with a government that will crash us out of the EU because people voted LibDem in lots of Lab/Con marginals.

Equally the potential gains to Labour in cooperating are huge, as this FT article shows. Under current polling Labour would get about 220 seats and the Tories just under 350. If the LibDems stood down in Lab/Con marginals Labour could get nearly 300 seats, beating the Conservatives. A belief that Labour will make similar gains during the election campaign as they did in 2017 is almost certainly false. May ran a terrible campaign, Cummings will not. He will employ all the social media tricks he used to win the EU referendum vote and more. In contrast to 2017, many will not vote Labour because of the antisemitism issue. Why risk the certainty of gains under cooperation for more risky options?

Unfortunately I see no signs that this kind of cooperation will happen. The Conservatives can cooperate with the Brexit party because the Brexit party is under the complete control of Farage and the Conservative party is now under the complete control of Cummings/Johnson. Both Labour and the LibDems are more democratic, and resistance to cooperation remains high. 

In addition the LibDem leadership fears that because Tory voters believe the 'Corbyn as devil' meme, they will not switch to the LibDems if they cooperate with Labour. It does not matter that non-cooperation means far more Labour seats will be lost than LibDem seats gained, increasing greatly the chances of a Johnson victory: party advantage is more important than stopping No Deal. So we have to presume that cooperation between the LibDems and Labour over seats will not happen. (In contrast, LibDem cooperation with expelled Tories seems acceptable.)

Which is why voters are going to have to do what politicians will fail to do, and vote tactically. The People’s Vote and other Remain campaigns understand that, and will be campaigning and helping with tactical voting. In most cases what to do is obvious: vote LibDem where the LibDems can realistically beat the Conservatives and vote Labour where Labour are more likely to beat the Conservatives.

The key point that I want to make is that the goal has to be to elect a Labour government, which realistically will be a minority Labour government. If that victory is more than marginal, Brexit will end one way or another. Those who say they cannot trust Corbyn on Brexit, or that Corbyn is really a Brexiter, are falling for media propaganda. There is no way Corbyn, even if he wanted to which I doubt, could go back on his commitment to hold a referendum. The trick is to hold a referendum in such a way that Remain are sure to win, and that means not having No Deal as the other option.

In contrast a minority Conservative government would do everything it can to avoid that outcome, and with Labour Leave MPs they will probably have the votes to do so. In that case Remainers would be relying on the patience of parliament and the EU which will be severely tested over five years.A more probable outcome if Labour do badly is a majority Johnson/Cummings administration. Every LibDem attacking Labour are encouraging this outcome. 

This point is important when deciding who to tactically vote for in difficult cases. If the contest is between a Labour Remainer and an independent, where the former can realistically win, then it makes sense to vote Labour because it increases the chances of a Labour government. However if that Labour MPs supports Leave, the decision is reversed, because we need a majority of MPs supporting a referendum whoever is in power. In a contest between a Leave Labour MP and a Conservative Leaver, then it is obviously important to vote for the Labour MP, because they increase the chance of a Labour led government.

Whether enough voters vote tactically in this way will determine the future of Brexit. We have, at last, a sure way of ending this nightmare of the last three years, and I fear if we don’t take it all those campaigns and every march will have been for nothing. I also fear for democracy under this government, which has shut down parliament to stifle accountability and will no doubt do so again. This could be the last chance to end Brexit and save the United Kingdom as we know it. We have to take that chance.


  1. What I think is positive is that the last election was only two years ago so that should help make it fairly obvious how to vote tactically. For example, in my own constituency the lib dems had an impressive presence (lots of posters in windows, leaflets through my letterbox) but the end result was con 21K, labour 20k and libdem 4k. Surely, some of those Libdem voters will have regretted their decision.

  2. In the 2017 election, May got 42% like the Tories in 1983, 1987, and 1992. I don't think the quality of her campaign mattered. Similarly, I have not seen the polls move over the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party, but they have moved over Brexit. I think a country that voted as it did in 2017 for Labour knows how to vote tactically, and those voters will return from the Libs and Greens.

  3. If there is not to be an election until late November then it is absolutely essential that the 2018 recommendations of the Boundary Commision are implemented prior to then. The people cannot and should not tolerate another gerrymandered election.

  4. I fully agree with the case you make for voting tactically. Labour has no chance in my constituency, but I will decide on tactics when I see the list of candidates. However, on the plausible assumption you make that Labour and the Lib Dems will not co-operate formally in any meaningful way, I am concerned that if voters deliver enough seats to Labour and the Lib Dems that require them to form a coalition (or some similar arrangement - possibly with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party on board) to secure a majority in the Commons the current high commands in both parties will be either unwilling or unable to form a credible and sustainable government. The 2015 poster of Alex Salmond with Ed Milliband in his top pocket can be adapted in all sorts of ways to the advantage of the Tories and the Brexiteers.

    The other problem I have is that it is not sufficient to make the case for a simple referendum that enforces a choice between some modification of the current Withdrawal Agreement and Remain.

    In order to secure a democratic plurality a campaign for Remain must make the case for a significant institutional restructuring of the EU. The tensions in the EU between those who favour "deepening" and those who favour "widening" continue to manifest themselves in various ways. The UK has always been a proponent of widening rather than deepening and a number of its smaller natural allies now lack the heft the UK provided. The result is the formation of the Northern Alliance of the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Baltic States. However, with the formation of the new Van der Leyen Commission Macron (and France) - pushing for more institutional deepening - is in the ascendancy.

    This needs to be resisted for all sorts of reasons. There is a strong case for the evolution of a two-tier EU with all members emebedded in the Customs Union, Single Market and the governance of trade and competition but with core members engaged in more political, fiscal and economic integration - and opt-ins and opt-outs available to states outside the core. There is also a case for separating the ECJ in to two divisions with one having jurisdiction over trade, competition and market matters and the other dealing with cases emerging from the integration and co-ordination of the core.

    For those advancing Remain some vision along these lines of the UK's role and the evolution of the EU must be intrinsic to the campaign.

    But I fear we are sadly lacking the politicians with the competence and vision to achieve this.

  5. What do I do if my constituency is that of an expelled Conservative who will stand as an independent because (s)he wants a second referendum? It is usually a Tory "safe" seat but I suppose there is a decent chance that the Lib Dem could win (as in 2001 - the only time it was non-Tory for a century). The constituency is pro-remain. Do I back the long-standing but now independent in the hope of that referendum (which I really, really hope goes differently) or go for the LD? I suspect this constituency will go to the wire so a split vote will win it for the Tories for sure.

  6. more people fear corbyn than brexit

    the end

  7. Having read the Brexit supporter's complaints about immigration and crowding, I have some sympathy for their views. Ireland complicates the problem, but is a "hard" border really necessary with today's technology to have an acceptable immigration policy post-Brexit? The EU seems at least as much at fault as anyone for the Brexit dilemma by insisting that its immigration policies be forced on any member that wants the benefits of the customs union (though some other parts of the agreement are clearly needed, such as who pays for subsidies to farmers and others affected by the trade consequences.)
    This whole episode should make it clear that a Brexit referendum limited to a choice between "stay" and "leave" makes little sense, because it asks the voters to buy a pig in a poke. And it is hard to see how a new referendum would do anything but create more heat, unless the alternatives are more clearly defined. But how can that be done? Make the choice between stay and the latest EU offer, or between stay and a hard Brexit? Presenting more than one alternative seems infeasible, because one cannot assume that the results will be transitive.
    Clearly, more thought should have gone into the referendum before it was presented to voters in the first place. I thought Brits were smarter than that.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.