Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 27 June 2024

UK Election Special: The Conservatives could lose almost every seat to efficient tactical voting


Of course MRP polls could be wrong. However while looking at many of these polls (using this very useful site from Peter Inglesby), the following observation struck me. There were only 17 seats where all the MRP polls agreed the Conservatives would win. That is 17 out of 631.

Maybe that is a result of one or two rogue MRP polls. So I looked at the most recent (on 26/06) MRP by WeThink. That has national vote shares typical of recent non-MRP polls and with the Conservatives firmly in second place above Reform. The MRP modelling translates that into only 76 Conservative seats with the Liberal Democrats close behind on 52 seats. All 76 seats are in England and Wales, with the Conservatives projected to lose all their seats in Scotland. What struck me was that in these 76 seats, the projected winning Conservative percentage vote share was normally between 30% and 40%. Even with a significant Reform percentage, that would seem to give efficient tactical voting among 'progressive' (Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green) voters a strong chance of overtaking that Conservative vote share.

It therefore seemed worth spending a bit of time not watching football, but instead doing a few calculations. In each of the seats WeThink have the Conservatives winning in, I calculated the combined Labour, Liberal and Green percentage of the total vote. If I got this right there are only two seats (Castle Point in Essex and Clacton) where the Conservative vote (just) exceeds the combined progressive vote. More importantly, in all but 12 seats the progressive vote total exceeded the Conservative vote by 10% of the expected vote or more.

Which means if progressive voters are determined to get rid of their Conservative MPs, in all but a handful of seats they could. That would be a Canada 1993 style event, where the Canadian Conservative party, in power in Canada for 9 years, went from 167 seats to just 2. This is made possible, of course, by the right wing vote being split and assuming there is little appetite from Reform voters to vote tactically to defend a Conservative MP.

One of the reasons this result may not happen is that in many of these seats it is very difficult for voters to know which progressive party they should coordinate on. In one of these seats, Waveney Valley, WeThink have the Green party clearly ahead of the other two progressive parties, and there has been some constituency polling backing up the view that they are the main challenger there. In the other seats it is between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In only three seats are the Liberal Democrats 10 or more percentage points (of the total vote) ahead of Labour. In forty seats Labour are ahead of the Liberal Democrats by 10 or more points, which leaves about 35 seats where WeThink calculate that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are within 9 points of each other.

Of course this uncertainty over who to tactically vote for is increased if you also look at MRP polls by other organisations. This suggests two things. First, it is a great shame that there have not been constituency polls in any of these seats. Second, it shows the costs of lack of formal cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The problem in both cases is that it is difficult to predict before the election which the critical seats will be.

Does this matter, as Labour seem likely to win by a landslide? Towards the end of this post I argued that the goal of making the Liberal Democrats the official opposition was well worth striving for. My post next week will amplify this argument, as well as giving some suggestions on these problem seats. To this end, here is a list of seats where I think it is not completely clear whether tactical votes should focus on Labour or the Liberal Democrats, based on looking across MRP polls. Do let me know via social media if I have missed any evidence besides the MRP polls and the advice from tactical voting sites.

List of seats in England and Wales where MRP polls predict the Conservatives may win but differ on whether Labour or the Liberal Democrats are the main challengers to the Conservatives:

Aylesbury, Beaconsfield, Bicester & Woodstock, Brecon, Chelmsford, Chichester, Didcot, East Grinstead & Uckfield, East Hampshire, East Surrey, Ely, Epsom, Exmouth, Fareham, Frome, Hamble Valley, Harpenden & Berkhamsted, Honiton, Maidenhead, Mid Bucks, Mid Sussex, Newton Abbot, North Cotswolds, North Dorset, North East Hampshire, North West Essex, Reigate, Runnymede, Sevenoaks, South Shropshire, St Neots, Stratford-on-Avon, Sussex Weald, Tewkesbury, Tiverton, Torbay, West Worcestershire

Tuesday 25 June 2024

Why UK taxes should be higher


Discussion of taxation in the UK is bedevilled by two problems: one familiar and one less obvious. The familiar one is to imagine the level of taxation is separate from the level of public services and welfare. Most voters and much of the media understand the two are connected, which is why the Tory attack on Labour’s ‘tax bombshell’ is so misplaced. A majority want public services to improve, and know that requires higher taxes [1], so all the Conservatives are doing is reminding voters that Labour is more likely of the two parties to improve public services.

Yet this familiar point gets forgotten when we come to the less familiar problem, which is historical comparison. It is now well known that UK taxes as a share of GDP, as measured by the OBR, are currently higher than they have been since 1948 (see Ed Conway here for example). This sounds bad, until you remember the first problem, which is that it is pointless to discuss taxes without also discussing public services and welfare payments. The elephant in the room here is health spending. Below is OECD data on total health spending as a share of GDP in each of the G7 countries, with the UK in red.

Health spending as a share of GDP in the G7

Health spending as a share of GDP has been trending upwards in all the major economies since at least 1970, for familiar reasons like longer life expectancy and advances in what medicine can do. If health spending is mainly paid for through taxes, then unless some other large item of government spending is trending in the opposite direction, taxes are bound to be at historic highs. For some time in the UK there was such an item, defence spending, but once that peace dividend ended there has been nothing to take its place. Of course if health spending is not paid for by taxes citizens have to pay for it by some other means. The top line in the chart above is the US, where spending is so high in part because it is a very inefficient insurance based system.

I have heard journalists in the media say that UK taxes are at record levels countless times, but I have never heard them also say: ‘but of course this reflects the steady increase in health spending as a share of GDP’. The more general point is that talking about tax without discussing what it pays for is just uninformative. [2]

International comparisons of taxation are better, because advanced economies have similar structures to their public sectors. Here is the same chart as above for total tax as a share of GDP (source).

Total tax as a share of GDP in the G7

Note the definition used here is a little different from the national accounts total the OBR uses, so using this measure UK taxes in 2022 are similar as a share of GDP to taxes in the early 80s. France has the highest tax share in 2022, followed by Italy and then Germany. Indeed most major European countries have a higher tax share than the UK, as Ben Chu shows here. The UK share is similar to Canada and Japan, while the US has the lowest tax share. (Will Dunn shows an international comparison for taxes on wage income here.)

Although more informative than historical comparisons, looking at other countries has obvious pitfalls. The US tax share is so low mainly because most US citizens pay via their employers for health cover through insurance companies. It doesn’t mean that US citizens are better off because taxes are low, because their wages are lower so firms can afford to pay for health insurance. If we ignore the US for this reason, then the UK has amongst the lowest tax take among the G7, and also the lower than most major European countries.

While international comparisons of taxes are better than looking at historical trends, they are not ideal because - as the US shows - the structures of the public sectors are not identical. Partly for this reason, the OECD compiles an analysis of total public and private spending on what it calls “social expenditure”, which is mainly health and welfare. I discussed this data in this post. However, even if we restrict ourselves to total public spending on social expenditure, the OECD estimates that the UK has the lowest spending in the G7 (at 22% of GDP), even just below the US (at 23%). France tops the table at 32%, followed by Italy (30%), Germany (27%) with Japan and Canada both on 25%.

This suggests that public spending in the UK is unusually low compared to other major countries, and as a result taxes are unusually low. This should come as no surprise, because public spending excluding health has been cut back sharply since 2010, as this chart from the Resolution Foundation shows.

What international comparisons tell us is that these cuts in public spending have moved the UK to the bottom of the G7 in terms of spending and taxation. UK public services are in crisis not because they are unusually inefficient, but simply because the Conservative government has chosen to spend far too little on them in order to get taxes unusually low compared to other G7 and major European countries. The Conservatives are going to lose this election badly in part because they continue to prioritise tax cuts over improving public services.

Which means UK taxes are too low, and a Labour government is going to have to raise taxes to meet both its pledges and expectations about public spending. (The National Institute comes to similar conclusions here.) The question Rachel Reeves and the Treasury will have to answer is whether they can raise enough using the taxes left after you exclude those they have promised to keep at existing planned levels? If not, will they break these election pledges, or will the public sector remain underfunded and the UK remain under taxed?

Even if Labour can raise enough taxes without breaking its election pledges to get public spending to levels similar to other European countries, this may pose macroeconomic issues. Higher public spending matched by higher taxes on companies or the better off may end up increasing aggregate demand, because higher taxes will not be matched by lower private spending. Together with higher public investment, this will put upward pressure on interest rates. [3]

However this will be a price worth paying, in part because public spending at close to current levels is having a negative impact on economic performance. In particular ever growing NHS waiting lists are restricting labour supply and therefore UK output and incomes. If the Labour government is to be successful in ending a period of very weak growth in living standards, one of the things it will have to do is increase levels of public spending and taxes closer to other major European countries.

[1] To preempt the tweets from MMTers, even if you believe that the level of taxes is just what is required to keep inflation constant, that in turn will depend on the impact of the public sector on overall demand. For this to be roughly neutral over the medium term, what the public sector adds to demand with higher spending it needs to roughly subtract from demand with higher taxes, so spending and taxes will across countries and over time tend to move together.

[2] Discussing the composition of total tax, and how it has changed over time, is more interesting. The Resolution Foundation has an excellent account here.

[3] Whether this means higher interest rates, or just rates coming down more slowly than they otherwise would have done, will of course depend on other influences on aggregate demand.

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Why is this election a disaster for the Conservatives?


The title of this post might seem like a daft question, because it has so many plausible answers. As a result, endless articles have been written listing some of these, explaining how Conservative doom was all but inevitable. But, at least from those I have read, one factor is often missing or is underplayed. That factor is bad luck.

I know this isn’t what people want to hear. Anger at this government is off the charts, and as a result it is much more satisfying to place the blame for their current polling position in their own hands. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the governments over the last fourteen years have been off the charts in terms of incompetence and harm inflicted, and my last post detailed just one part of that. They certainly deserve to be where they are because of their own actions.

Unfortunately, none of this ensures defeat at the ballot box. Take 2015 for example. Austerity was a disaster in terms of public service provision, macroeconomic performance and living standards, yet the Conservatives won that election. They had the good luck that real wages started increasing a year before the election, so they could push the ‘hard work paying off’ line. More importantly, the media completely bought the necessity of austerity, so voters were badly informed about how stupid and damaging it was.

In 2019, when Johnson won a large majority in parliament, few people predicted it would fall apart so quickly and end so badly, even if we thought he deserved such a fall. Indeed as many people wrote in 2019 about how the Conservatives had put together a powerful electoral coalition as are writing about the inevitability of defeat today, and to be plausible the latter needs to account for the former. 

That includes myself. In March 2021 I wrote a post entitled “As things stand, the chances of defeating Johnson at the next election are minuscule”. To be fair to my former self, I did also write “as a former Conservative PM is said to have said, events, dear boy, events”. Those events are what this post is about.

It is certainly true that the longer a party stays in power the more voters look for change, but this forgets how much at first Johnson successfully portrayed his regime as something very different from the Conservative administrations that had gone before. Brexit wasn’t the only sense in which this was true. Johnson made a point of saying that austerity had come to an end, and he did put more money than was previously planned into the NHS, education and hiring more police. He needed to spend more to keep his new coalition together, because although the red wall voters who voted Conservative were socially conservative and wanted Brexit done, many also wanted to see ‘levelling up’ and better public services. How much he believed or indeed understood that strategy, and how much came from those initially advising him, is an interesting point that I will come back to later.

It is also tempting to say that the Conservatives today are suffering from the project that brought Johnson to power: Brexit. However the economic costs of Brexit have turned out to be the same order of magnitude as economists predicted they would be before the referendum vote, but few went on to suggest that the government that enacted Brext would be automatically doomed to defeat within five years. The reason is simple. The costs of Brexit are slow to emerge. If economic growth had otherwise been relatively good, these costs could easily have been explained away by a government with most of the press on its side. If they could do this with austerity they could do it with Brexit.

Johnson’s project came apart because of the pandemic. The pandemic itself didn’t lose him many votes, even though it should have. I have written many posts about why his decisions during the pandemic were terrible and directly led to tens of thousands of deaths, but his polling position in mid-2021 was pretty strong. Once again, incompetence in government does not necessarily lead to electoral loss, particularly when there is little criticism in the media.

The pandemic was bad luck for Johnson for three reasons. The first and most obvious was it exposed the government’s arrogance in believing rules did not apply to them. Holding illegal parties in No.10 is the obvious example, but the corruption over PPE contracts is another. I suggested here that this problem is endemic to a populist plutocratic right wing party, but it was not a problem that would necessarily become evident to voters so quickly without the particular circumstances of the pandemic.

The second reason the pandemic was bad luck was financial. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, and growth had instead continued at its earlier level, it is possible that Johnson could have put enough money towards levelling up and public services to keep his red wall voters happy, without the need to raise taxes in a way that upset his MPs and more traditional base. That might have required breaking fiscal rules and borrowing more, but this wouldn’t have been the first Conservative government to do so and yet continue to successfully claim that they were the party of fiscal responsibility. After the pandemic this was much more difficult.

The third reason the pandemic was bad luck was because of immigration. The pandemic put a steady increase in labour force participation into reverse, leading to labour shortages as the economy recovered and therefore record immigration. This was bad luck in electoral terms because it provided ammunition to Reform and Farage, who could with some justification claim that Brexit had promised less rather than more immigration. However some of this bad luck was self-inflicted, because Johnson and Sunak failed to provide the NHS with sufficient resources to clear the backlog of cases created by the pandemic.

If the pandemic was the government’s first piece of bad luck, the cost of living crisis was the second. [1] As we saw after the Global Financial Crisis, governments lose support among voters after economic crises even if those crises are global in origin. The 2019-24 period is unique in recent history in seeing an actual decline in living standards. Only a small part of that fall can be blamed on government decisions. The cost of living crisis meant the economy became voters main concern, which gave issues like asylum and culture wars more generally less traction. [2]

My argument is not that the Conservatives current dire electoral position is purely down to bad luck. It is slightly more subtle than that. What the bad luck of the pandemic and cost of living crisis have done is reveal the true nature of this administration, which without that bad luck might have remained hidden to many voters. So just as the pandemic revealed Johnson’s true character via partygate and PPE corruption, so the cost of living crisis highlighted the costs of Brexit and austerity, which under more favourable circumstances might have gone unnoticed by many.

As I stressed at the beginning, none of this bad luck is meant to detract from the fact that this 14 year Conservative government deserves to be where it currently is in the opinion polls. However I think it does help explain why the strategy of 2019 which seemed so successful in electoral terms so quickly turned into a disaster. Why is this important? It suggests the strategy of combining socially conservative policies with moving to the left on economic policy remains viable and capable of winning elections in its own right . The post-2019 analysis that suggested the Conservatives had created a powerful coalition of voters was not wrong, although any implication that this strategy was bound to triumph at the next election obviously was.

The problem the Conservative party (many MPs, its members, donors and press barons) has always had is that they have never really accepted the economic side of that 2019 strategy. [3] Once Johnson’s position became weak, he and his then Chancellor was forced to pander to the desire for tax cuts, and with Truss and Sunak the party reverted to a very right wing economic agenda. As a result the Conservative party itself abandoned the strategy that had been so successful in attracting red wall voters, and with a Labour opposition determined to win these voters back and with voters focused on economic issues its fate was sealed.

As I have suggested before, there is little chance that the Conservative party in opposition will revive the 2019 strategy any time soon. Other things being equal, that is good news for Labour. But it is not hard to see how a Labour government will eventually fall to a Conservative party that is well away from the centre in both economic and social terms. Part of the reason will be that a Labour government will be seen to be too illiberal for its natural supporters but too liberal to more socially conservative voters. Another factor will be a (probable) failure to alter the structural factors that work against liberal parties in the UK, including FPTP and the right wing press. But at some point a key factor may also be just bad luck.

[1] Part but by no means all of the cost of living crisis was a direct result of the pandemic.

[2] The Liability Driven Investment strategy of pension funds that was key to the third and final stage of the Truss fiscal event disaster could be classed as bad luck, but I think that would be stretching things. After partygate and with the cost of living crisis, the party faithful decided to elect a Prime Minister who had no interest in retaining Johnson’s electoral coalition, but instead reverted to promoting tax cuts rather than public services. Even after Truss fell, Sunak felt he had to do the same. The electoral gains Johnson had made were thrown away.

[3] This is why many in the party seem to believe that as long as their policy stance is illiberal and authoritarian enough, that will be all that is needed to secure their 2019 coalition. They fail to see the importance of moving left on aspects of economic policy because they don’t want to see it. In addition by becoming more illiberal and authoritarian they are unable to attack insurgents from further right (i.e. Farage), and instead legitimise that threat as a plausible place for social conservatives unhappy with the government to place their votes.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

The macroeconomic cost of Conservative government

During this election period there has been plenty of analysis that looks at how the economy has performed since 2010 (the IFS here for example). All show the UK performing very badly indeed. But how much is that down to macroeconomic policy mistakes, and how much is due to factors outside the government’s control? I will attempt to answer that question in this post, and try to be as conservative as possible.

I will begin with austerity, because it’s a calculation I have already done. The table below is taken from this post.

The first row comes from an analysis done by the OBR (Chart E on page 27). The main negative impact on growth came in the first two years as public investment was cut back sharply, but continuing fiscal consolidation in later years reduced aggregate demand by significant amounts. The key issue is how persistent these impacts are. To see what persistence means in this context, consider a hypothetical example.

Suppose cuts in public investment in 2010 reduce GDP in that year by 1%. Public investment stays at this lower level in 2011. Other things being equal, does GDP stay 1% lower in 2011, or do other components of demand rise to take the place of some of that lower public investment? In normal circumstances the answer to that question would be the latter, because central banks would react to lower GDP by cutting interest rates which would stimulate private spending. However throughout the period examined above interest rates were at their lower bound, so this couldn’t happen. But other factors (e.g. Quantitative Easing) may have crowded in private demand to some extent.

In this calculation I assumed that the impact of fiscal consolidation decayed by a factor of 0.8 each year. The third row therefore gives the impact of austerity on the level of GDP in each year over this period. For example, the OBR estimate there was no fiscal consolidation in 2017/18, so the impact of past austerity on the level of GDP in that year is to lower GDP by 2.1% x 0.8=1.7%. In theory austerity would have had some impact after 2017/18, but interest rates started rising at the end of 2017, suggesting that the Bank thought there was no longer much deficient demand.

However it is also likely that the earlier prolonged period of deficient demand had an impact on how much the UK economy can supply. I examined this here. The argument is that productivity improving investment was lost during the austerity period, and that had a longer lasting impact on UK productivity and the stock of capital. The problem here is attaching numbers to this idea. Empirical estimates can sometimes be very large (for example here), and the IMF study I looked at here is also consistent with austerity (fiscal consolidation in a recession) having significant long term impacts on GDP. But I want these estimates to be conservative, so I will assume that austerity during the 2010-17 period reduced GDP permanently by 1.5%.

The OBR estimate that Brexit will end up reducing UK GDP by 4%. However I need more than just a long run impact. The following is based on a NIESR study by Kaya et al, and in particular their Table TF4. (I’ve done some extrapolation for the initial years.)

GDP impact of Brexit





















Again I suspect this is quite a conservative estimate for the immediate impact of Brexit, even though their long run impact (at -5.7% for 2035) is greater than the OBR’s number.

We also need to add something for the pandemic. The UK was hit in 2020 comparatively hard, both in terms of deaths and lost GDP, even though other countries like Italy were hit earlier. Not only did Johnson’s government waste the early months of 2020 with the idea of ‘herd immunity’, but it also waited far too long in introducing lockdowns, which meant when those lockdowns inevitably came they were more severe and prolonged, giving a more sustained hit to GDP. UK GDP fell by over 10% in 2020, compared to just over 6% in the Euro area. I think it is fair to class this as an economic mistake, because the reason the government gave for delaying lockdowns was to protect the economy, whereas in reality they were doing the opposite.

The third and last lockdown extended into 2021. In addition, the failure of the government to give the NHS the resources to bring waiting lists down after the pandemic, coupled with the steady squeeze in health funding that preceded it, began to have a clear macroeconomic impact during the 2020s. While labour force participation returned to its pre-pandemic trend in most other countries, it did not in the UK, and a significant part of that was due to poor health.

The table below collects these three elements together.

A conservative estimate of the economic cost of Conservative government, % GDP
































































From 2011 until 2019 households were over 2% poorer mainly as a result of austerity, but with additions from Brexit after the referendum. By 2024 that had increased to being 5% poorer, mainly because of Brexit. That means that the average household was losing over £4,000 worth of resources (public and private consumption plus investment [1]) in 2024 as a direct result of government decisions. The Conservatives like to accumulate these things, so adding up the losses over all fifteen years comes to (in today’s prices) a massive £35,000 loss of resources for the average household.

Is there any way of comparing these numbers with the UK's actual performance, either compared to history or other countries. Comparing GDP per capita growth to a trend growth line based on post-war data would give a much bigger gap, but that comparison is misleading because there were signs UK growth was slowing down before the financial crisis, and this fits with a gradual reduction in underlying growth in other countries. Unfortunately all the major economies beside China undertook austerity from 2010, so international comparison are little help here.

However, John Springford has compared growth in the UK since 2016 with a doppelgänger based on other countries, and he estimates the UK has grown by 5% less than these other countries suggest it should. If we combine my estimate for 2024 for Brexit and post-pandemic health we get 3.5%, which given the uncertainties involved is consistent with Springford's analysis. 


A UK government that enacts policies that reduce GDP by around 2% during its time in office is pretty unusual. To reduce it by 5% is extraordinary, but then since WWII we haven’t had a government that has cut public spending in a recession when interest rates were stuck near zero, or one that deliberately raised trade barriers with our largest market.

The way these numbers are constructed it looks like the consequences of three bad mistakes, but I think it goes deeper than that. What connects them all is crass economic incompetence. In each case expertise was ignored because it didn’t fit in with ideological or political objectives. As I have sometimes said, mistakes made by politicians because they have followed the expert consensus are understandable and to some extent forgivable, but mistakes made because politicians ignore the expert consensus have to be owned by those politicians.

This propensity of Conservative governments to ignore the economic consensus and as a result make very costly mistakes is not unique to this period, as my recent discussion of monetarism showed. What is really alarming is the failure to learn from these mistakes, or even recognise them as mistakes. This isn’t just the natural reluctance of politicians to admit error, but goes far deeper. The Conservatives have created through the right wing press, pressure on the BBC, think tanks and rich donors an alternative reality for themselves, where disasters are seen as triumphs never to be questioned. Which is why in this election they are plugging tax cuts despite crippled public services, refusing to recognise the costs of Brexit and where even the delayed pandemic lockdowns are seen as a mistake.

As a result, as things stand any future Conservative government will be likely to continue to make serious economic policy errors that cost most UK households a substantial amount in lost income and resources.

[1] The idea of household resources (GDP divided by the number of households) is less familiar than, say, household income, but in my view it is a better measure of underlying welfare. It includes, for example, public services like the NHS, which household income does not. It is of course just the household equivalent of GDP per capita. 

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Should voting in this election be about punishing the Conservatives, signalling to a future Labour government or something else?


I didn’t write about the election last week because I didn’t think there was anything of interest to say that I haven’t already said. At the moment at least the Conservatives are saying anything that might shore up its elderly core vote, however silly, unfunded or poorly thought through those proposals may be. But two recent articles in the Guardian about voting strategy are sufficiently interesting to write about.

I have always advocated tactical voting under the UK’s FPTP system, because I view voting in an instrumental way (how can I achieve some end) rather than an expressive way (voting as a statement about oneself). Actually I would put it more strongly: the right way to vote in a UK General Election is to vote to achieve a better social (or social group) outcome, and if you can do that but you instead vote for the party whose policies are closest to yours you are being a little selfish, anti-social and irresponsible. If you disagree, please read this and tell me why my logic is incorrect.

An article by Jonathan Freedland suggests a very different, backward looking voting strategy, which is to punish the government that has done so much harm over the last fourteen years. The only punishment the voter can enact is to not vote Conservative under any circumstances, but more specifically to vote tactically to ensure the Conservatives have the worst possible result in terms of seats won.

I agree with Freedland about how bad the government has been over the last 14 years. We all know how poor economic performance has been over this period. Hopefully in a later post I will try and evaluate (in money terms for the typical household) how much of that is down to government policy. Add to that the collapse in public services, the increase in child poverty, the corruption, the endless and blatant lying, vote rigging, cruelty towards minorities and incompetence, and there hasn’t been a government as bad as this in my lifetime.

I also have to admit that the idea of using my vote to punish the government for all this is emotionally attractive. With a largely supportive print media, and the BBC under its influence, this government has avoided accountability for its mistakes for so long it deserves to do disastrously in this election. Although the 14 years have seen five Prime Ministers and countless different ministers, most of those changes have been the result of internal rivalries or the desire of Conservative MPs for self-preservation rather than accountability for mistakes. Indeed one of the many things that has made this government uniquely bad is how it has ignored offences that would have in past led to resignations.

However, the idea of voting based on how much you dislike the last government has its obvious flaws. To take a recent example, many may have voted against the last Labour government in 2010 because of their failure to regulate the financial sector sufficiently to reduce the impact of the Global Financial Crisis on the UK economy. However this ignores the fact that the Conservative opposition were constantly criticising Labour for too much regulation. Inevitably the backward looking performance strategy for voting choice tends to focus on what the government did rather than what the opposition might have done if it had been the government. [1] It is much better to use the past to inform a judgement about how well political parties will behave in government.

So although the punishment strategy is emotionally appealing, and may well govern how many will actually vote, I don’t think it is persuasive as a strategy for how people should vote. Luckily in this election my own preferred strategy, and Freedland’s punishment strategy, amount to doing the same thing, which is where possible to vote tactically against the Conservatives.

The second article, by Sonia Sodha, discusses a voting strategy that departs from tactical voting against the Conservatives. The idea proposed by some on the left like Owen Jones is to vote for other, more progressive parties than Labour, even where this might lead to the Conservatives winning the seat. She mentions three reasons often given for doing this. The first is that Labour are no better than the Conservatives, but this is obviously false. The second is that Starmer cannot be trusted because he has dropped most of the policies he won the leadership promoting. As Helen Lewis describes here, Starmer is ruthless about winning and therefore prepared to adapt his positions to that end. But that makes him much more like the average Conservative politician, rather than worse than Sunak and his ministers.

The third, more interesting, argument goes as follows. The outcome of the election is bound to be a Labour majority, so not voting for them in the (now many) Lab/Tory marginals will do no harm. [2] On the other hand voting for a more progressive party would send the next Labour government a message that it cannot take the more progressive vote for granted. Sodha attacks this argument by questioning the politics of the more progressive alternatives to Labour, but as I frame the argument this is beside the point, which is to influence what the next Labour government does.

This is an example of a class of departures from tactical voting against the greater evil that I discussed in my post mentioned at the beginning. But as I also said in that post, most such arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. Does this one? For the moment let’s assume that a Labour win with a comfortable majority is 100% certain.

Labour in opposition have pursued a clear strategy to win, which is to place Labour in a policy space just to the left of the government, while avoiding any policy differences that might deter Conservative voters from 2019 switching to Labour. An obvious example of the latter is to avoid the subject of Brexit. As government policy has moved significantly to the right while the electorate has not, together with the government’s terrible performance, Labour’s strategy for winning is perfectly sensible, even though it places Labour to the right of most voters on some issues.

The downside to that Labour strategy is that you don’t give your natural core supporters very much positive to vote for, so those voters may not bother to vote or vote for more progressive parties. In other words Labour’s strategy in opposition already assumes that some potential Labour voters will vote for more progressive parties. In that case it makes sense, if Labour are bound to win, for those on the left to discourage a Labour government continuing this strategy when in power by maximising the vote of other progressive parties.

In practice I think that signal is pretty weak. As I argue here, if a Labour government acts in anything like the cautious manner its election campaign suggests a large percentage of those who voted for it will become impatient and disillusioned and this will show itself in large increases in support for the Greens and LibDems a year or two after the election. That, rather than any voting patterns in this election, is what will influence a Labour government.

Still, under the assumption that Labour will win this election comfortably, for progressives to vote for a party whose policy platform is closer to theirs will almost by definition do no harm. However I think there is a better strategy that would do more social good than sending a weak message to the Labour leadership. It involves thinking not about a Labour government, but the opposition to it. 


What happens to the Conservative party after its defeat? The most likely scenario, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is that it continues in much the same policy space as it currently is. If Labour is successful this will tend to keep the Conservatives out of power, but if Labour makes any big mistakes or if accidents happen then the Conservatives will return to power, and we are likely to see another long period like the last fourteen years. In other words, the pattern that began in 1997 will be repeated (where the ‘accident’ was the subprime crisis in the US). In a country where the right wing press has such an influential role, it is foolish indeed to assume a very socially conservative, economically very right wing party can never win an election.

How can this depressing long term future be avoided? The radical way to avoid it would be to take political power away from wealthy media barons and money more generally, but I doubt that Labour governments will have the courage to do that. In addition reform from within the Conservative family (press, MPs, members, donors) is unlikely even if the Conservatives end up with around 100 seats after 4th July.

What could be enough is if the Conservatives lose so badly that they are no longer the main opposition party in the eyes of the media or voters. Being the official opposition gives you much more visibility and influence than being a third party, as any Green or LibDem member will tell you. (The exception is of course Reform and Farage, but again that reflects the power of the right wing press.) The party that can challenge the Conservatives for this official opposition role are not the Greens but the LibDems. If the Conservatives were no longer the official opposition, or had to share that role with another political party, that just might be enough to make Conservative members and newspapers ask whether the party has become too right wing and too socially conservative.

I don’t think this outcome is likely [3], but current polling suggests it is possible with strong tactical voting. Furthermore it has a greater impact than voting Green (say) would have on a future Labour government, so it seems to me to be a more effective and progressive strategy for those on the left to follow. It involves doing similar things to Freedland’s punishment strategy, because both involve voting in marginals against the greater evil, but it comes from a forward looking perspective. But there is an interesting little twist that this strategy adds in some seats where both Labour and the LibDems could plausibly unseat a Conservative MP.

For example, my own constituency is traditionally Conservative, with the LibDems as the main challenger and with Labour in clear third. However, according to the FT model although all three parties today have that same ranking they are very close in terms of number of projected votes. There are likely to be a number of seats like this, where the LibDems have traditionally been second to the Conservatives but where Labour’s popularity has moved the projected Labour vote closer to the LibDems. Without tactical voting, or voting for a more progressive party, the Conservatives could well retain the seat.

In these circumstances should I vote LibDem or Labour, assuming no clear guidance from constituency polls and where projected vote shares based on modelling and national polls is very imprecise. Suppose also that I have very little information about or preferences between the Labour and LibDem candidates. If Labour wins it would add one to an expected large Labour majority, but if the LibDems win it would strengthen their role as an alternative opposition to the Conservative party. If a Labour government has to worry as much about a LibDem opposition as a Conservative one, this would push the UK political discourse in a more socially liberal direction. The best social outcome, as well as the best way to punish the Conservatives, would be to vote LibDem rather than Labour in these particular circumstances.

I therefore remain convinced that tactical voting against the Conservatives where relevant remains the best option for this election. However where it is not clear whether Labour or the Liberal Democrats have the best chance of defeating the Conservatives, it also makes sense in this particular election and if the polls remain as they currently are to vote for the LibDems. This is not because the LibDems have better or worse policies than Labour, but because the real prize in this election would be to deprive the Conservatives of clearly being the main opposition party after 4th July. 

[1] An exception may be among voters whose views are well away from the political centre, who may be tempted to use their General Election vote to punish moves towards the centre, or other failings, by the main party who might otherwise get their vote. For example, preventing Diane Abbott or Faiza Shaheen from being Labour candidates during the election campaign cannot be justified in electoral terms (it will almost certainly lose Labour votes and possibly seats), and looks much more like a factional witch hunt. However unless that voting strategy achieves some change in the party they want to punish, it just represents another example of expressive voting.

[2] There are a small number of seats where the LibDems or Greens have a good chance of winning against Labour, and where there is no chance of splitting the progressive vote and letting the Conservative candidate win. In these seats tactical voting does not apply. In addition tactical voting is irrelevant in safe Labour seats, so voters are free to vote in a more expressive way.

[3] 1997 suggests that the LibDems do well in terms of seats when the Conservatives do badly. Tactical voting will mean they will do better in terms of seats than their national vote share would suggest.