Will you play a tactical vote?

Battle ready
Tactical voting - whereby voters cast their ballots not on the basis of the party they want, but in order to prevent another party from winning - can play havoc with projections. In 1997, tactical votes are estimated to have cost the Conservatives around 40 seats; they also played a part in the 2001 and 2005 election results.

At this early stage of election preparations, it is difficult to measure what the impact will be. Generally, tactical decisions are not made until a campaign is nearing its end, when the specific issues in any given constituency have come to prominence. In addition, there may be confusion this time around over boundary changes in England and Wales.

The scale of tactical voting can be significant. On the eve of the 2005 election, ICM found that 10 per cent of those voting for Labour, 16 per cent of Conservative voters and 30 per cent of those supporting the Liberal Democrats had made their decision on that basis (see graph, below right). But in 2005, the outcome was almost a foregone conclusion. Now, things are very different, especially for Labour and the Tories. In key battlegrounds there will be major battles to win the votes of other parties' supporters, mostly the Liberal Democrats.

Yellow fever
How might tactical Lib Dem supporters vote? Responses to YouGov's regular "forced choice question" - which gives voters only two options, a Cameron-led Conservative government or a Brown-led Labour one - give an indication. In the most recent YouGov/Sunday Times poll, the split was 43 per cent Tory, 38 per cent Labour. Among Liberal Democrat voters, however, 43 per cent said they would back Brown's Labour, while just 26 per cent opted for Cameron's Tories (see chart, above). This may be an advantage Labour can exploit.

In previous elections, Labour supporters have generally been more ready to switch to the party best placed in their constituency to beat the Conservatives than Tory voters have been to keep Labour out. In the past, this has been a critical factor in helping Lib Dem incumbents to beat off strong challenges, and could make a big difference again.

Fringe benefits
Tactical voting is not confined to the major parties: there are Green, BNP and Ukip votes up for grabs as well. According to recent polls, supporters of these three parties may account for 10 per cent of the vote or more, so there is a potentially large group of voters who could move one way or the other. Just before the European parliamentary elections in June 2009, YouGov put its forced choice question to a sample of 7,500 supporters of the three smaller parties. Labour was ahead among the Greens, but only by 6 per cent.

The bulk of BNP and Ukip voters preferred the Conservatives: 70 per cent of the Ukip segment chose that option, while just 12 per cent opted for Labour. In the marginals, Ukip supporters in particular could be crucial, and are probably Cameron's biggest hope for an overall majority.

Follow the leader
The polling gap between Labour and the Tories is getting smaller. If the Conservatives hoped their ratings would benefit from the British Airways strike and Labour's links with Unite, they have been disappointed.

But the government's recent problems have had an impact on the leader's approval ratings. In previous elections, notably in 1992, these have proved to be a more accurate predictor of outcomes than polls of voting intentions. The latest YouGov figures put Cameron's net rating at 10 points. Gordon Brown's is at -28 points, which is a very big gap to close.

Mike Smithson is the editor of

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.