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9 December 2019

Could tactical voting actually alter the election result?

New polling reveals that most Labour and Liberal Democrat voters wouldn’t vote tactically against the Tories even if they knew their preferred candidate couldn’t win. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson would be denied a majority on Thursday if just 41,000 people voted tactically in 36 seats that could swing the election, according to analysis released yesterday by Best for Britain, a campaign for a second referendum.

Since well before the “Brexit election” was called, pollsters like Sir John Curtice told us that this election would be won or lost by the ability of Leavers and Remainers to each coalesce around a single party. So far, the polls have told a story of Leave voters broadly uniting around the Conservatives, while the Remain vote has appeared fatally split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, until the recent Lib Dem squeeze.

For voters who do see the election in these clear Leave vs Remain terms, it is a cause of profound frustration that the pro-Remain vote in many constituencies may well be divided between a Labour candidate and a Liberal Democrat, potentially allowing a Conservative win. This looks like a possibility in seats such as Cities of London and Westminster, where the ex-Labour Liberal Democrat Chuka Umunna is standing, or in Canterbury, where Labour’s Rosie Duffield is defending a majority of 187 against her close Conservative rival, while competing for the pro-Remain vote with the Liberal Democrats. 

From the craze on Twitter over the weekend, we know there is strong enthusiasm for tactical voting in parts of the commentariat. From Alex Wickham’s Buzzfeed excellent report, we also know that the Conservatives fear the unpredictable “Hugh Grant voter” who will, as Best for Britain urges, vote in whatever way possible to keep a Tory out. Wickham reports astonishment in the Conservative camp that Remain politicians haven’t pushed tactical voting more throughout the campaign.

And yet, it is difficult to know how many of those who voted Remain in 2016 still prioritise their preferred Brexit outcome over other issues. As Patrick and Stephen have both said in the past, when we talk about Conservative Remainers, we tend to over-emphasise the “Remainer”, and forget the “Conservative”. We know that Conservative Remainers have a less strong Remain identity than those who voted Remain from other parties, and would in 70 per cent of cases prioritise preventing a Corbyn government over stopping Brexit.

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Polling last month for the New Statesman also indicated that, despite the media narrative suggesting otherwise, 2016 Remain voters prioritise issues like the NHS over Remaining, while Leave voters pick Brexit as their priority.

The frustrations and hopes of Remainers who wish the parties could act together in pursuit of their preferred Brexit outcome are entirely understandable and wholly legitimate. Less legitimate, however, are the complaints from commentators and journalists who think that some sort of pro-Remain pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats could or should ever have been a serious possibility.

It is the reality and, depending on your perspective, maybe the tragedy, of our politics at the moment that Labour and the Liberal Democrats in their current incarnations were never going to put aside their differences to form a pro-Remain pact. Each party has serious and legitimate grievances with the other: Labour with the Liberal Democrats’ record on austerity, the Liberal Democrats with the Labour Party’s record on dealing with allegations of anti-Semitism, and their wider issues with Jeremy Corbyn’s vision and leadership. And it isn’t just temporary quibbles: both parties would be keen to emphasise that one is not a watered-down version of the other, but a fundamentally different approach to how the country should be run, even if they overlap in some policy areas.

It may well be frustrating to a Remainer in Cities of London and Westminster that there isn’t a sole pro-Remain candidate, but it is pretty fundamental to the values of both parties that Chuka Umunna, who quit Labour over Brexit and anti-Semitism, can stand in opposition to Labour, and to the Labour candidate that they can offer an alternative to a party that implemented the Bedroom Tax. 

Of course, Sunday’s polling suggests that 39 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters would be prepared to vote tactically if they knew their preferred candidate could not win, as would 44 per cent of Labour Remainers for the Liberal Democrats. There seem to be two crucial caveats to this: firstly, at what point do voters accept that their preferred candidate can’t win? Secondly, these statistics still show that most Liberal Democrat and Labour voters aren’t prepared to vote tactically, even after accepting their preferred candidate can’t win.

Speak to any Labour or Liberal Democrat activist and you’ll know there is no love lost between the two parties. Corbyn is not just Jo Swinson’s red line, but that of many party activists, and the same applies in reverse. In seats like Dominic Raab’s or Ian Duncan Smith’s, voters may well be prepared to put aside their differences to oust a high-profile pro-Brexit Conservative. But the fascinating thing to watch come the wee hours of Thursday will be the extent to which each parties’ base agrees with the leadership: that there are issues on which neither is prepared to compromise, even for the sake of stopping Brexit.

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