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31 October 2019

Can tactical voting websites work?

The problem is that there is no way of them being fair, and that they are heavily situation dependent. 

By Stephen Bush

Tactical voting is, as in most general elections, going to be a major subplot of this contest. We know that, if the polls are broadly right – and given that the local election results and the Brecon by-election were both about what we’d expect if they are, that seems a safeish hunch – that essentially, a quarter of the country is voting Labour, a little less than that is voting Liberal Democrat, and neither of those two groups wants Boris Johnson to win the election. 

We know, too, that while there is a group of Labour voters who will never vote Liberal Democrat and a group of Liberal Democrat voters who will never vote Labour, much of the two parties’ voters are happy to flit between the two. Broadly their views are the same – on everything from preferred prime minister choice to Brexit end state – and they may therefore vote tactically to stop the Conservatives.

A number of tactical voting websites have already kicked off: Gina Miller’s anti-Brexit organisation Best for Britain, and the Twitter account Election Maps have both produced guides to how to best vote tactically.

Both efforts have been criticised – as Patrick notes, Election Maps suggests a Liberal Democrat vote in Ceredigion, where voters already have a pro-Remain MP in Plaid Cymru’s Ben Lake, while Best for Britain’s website is under fire for recommending “too many” Liberal Democrat votes and “not enough” Labour ones. One particularly instructive example is Kensington, where it recommends a vote for Sam Gyimah, the pro-revoke Liberal Democrat, against a vote for Emma Dent Coad, a pro-Remain Labour MP.

Viewed solely through a pro-Remain lens, Gyimah is a palpable upgrade on Dent Coad because his party is wholly committed to Remain and there are no circumstances in which his vote might be changed by leadership pressure on this issue. But, again viewed solely through a pro-Remain lens, it is hard to sustain the argument that the heavy risk of recommending that people vote tactically against an incumbent is worth the prize of getting a candidate who is marginally more pro-Remain than the incumbent.

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Is the central concept flawed? Well, at risk of sounding like a stuck record, voters are volatile and the election campaign is six-weeks long. I wouldn’t even start thinking about tactical voting at this stage in the contest. By the time postal votes are due to arrive in people’s homes, we will have the first YouGov seat-by-seat projection of the campaign and thus a better idea of how the contest is going – and that will be the time to think and talk about tactical voting.

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But both websites expose a bigger problem, which is that there is no metric for tactical voting that isn’t flawed – and no approach you can take that doesn’t bias you unfairly towards one party or another. There’s the flat “just look at the result last time approach”: in 2017, tactical voting was a disastrous approach in many seats, where Labour went from third to second-place, and people who voted tactically for the Liberal Democrats in traditional Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds were disappointed. Anyone advocating that approach is going to end up telling people to vote for Labour in seats where they really shouldn’t.

But there is no immediately obvious alternative. Any other approach involves artificially tipping the scales the other way. We can say with near-certainty that the Liberal Democrats are doing better now than they were six weeks from the June 2017 election – but we know that they are highly unlikely to do as well as they did in the European elections or the local elections earlier this year.

Perhaps the best approach is to try to think about the way that less politically motivated voters will think: and vote tactically based on which party is sufficiently well-organised enough to put a leaflet through your door, send a volunteer to your home or hand you something at a train station.