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  1. Election 2024
10 June 2024

Want to be a Conservative MP? Come to Scotland

Voters anxious about the Union could help save the party from oblivion.

By Ben Walker

How important will tactical voting be in this election?

General estimates suggest a few dozen seats can change hands purely as a consequence of tactical voting. In by-elections we’ve seen it work for Labour. Take Mid Bedfordshire in 2023: after the resignation of Nadine Dorries, Labour overturned a Tory majority of 24,664 to win with 34 per cent of the vote, aided by tactical votes from would-be Liberal Democrat and Green voters.

But Scotland is its own political micro-climate. It experienced some of Labour’s polling surge in 2022 – but the effects were much less pronounced there than in England. The Scottish National Party is still, mostly, in first place. And the Scottish Tories are down. But unlike in England, they are certainly not out. How might tactical voting play out in an environment like this?

Tactical voting does not follow the same fault lines in Scotland as it does in England. In Mid Bedfordshire, those with progressive inclinations voted tactically to prevent the Tories from keeping the seat. But in Scotland the motivating factors behind tactical votes are different: they are more focused on the state of the Union than progressive or conservative politics.

For example, a pro-Union voter in Scotland – no matter how progressive their politics – is not going to plump for the SNP. Scottish Tory voters are notably willing to cast tactical votes for Labour – because preservation of the Union is the voter’s ultimate goal. In fact, Conservative-Labour tactical voting may end up being an under-appreciated feature of the campaign.

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The proportion of Labour voters willing to go Tory isn’t a mirror image of Tory voters willing to go Labour. There is greater reluctance in the former. But even weak levels of tactical voting from current pro-Union Labour supporters (who might, in small amounts, transfer their vote to the Tories) could help the Conservatives cling on in a number of rural seats. It might even expand their numbers.

So here is what the Britain Predicts model, on the new boundaries, shows right now: with zero tactical voting you get 28 SNP MPs to Labour’s 24. That would mark the SNP down from 47 in 2019, and Labour up from one. The Scottish Tories would come away with two seats, down from six in 2019. Boundary changes should cost the Liberal Democrats their North East Fife seat, but they should hold on to their other two (after accounting for this election's constituency boundary changes).

Introduce a tactical voting component and the numbers shift. Instead of retaining just two seats, the Scottish Tories could hold off the SNP in each of the six seats they currently hold. And Labour could be bumped up by two. The SNP could fall from 28 to 20 seats.

This assumes a weak level of tactical voting. The rather dramatic difference in seat totals with and without tactical voting isn’t a model consequence. Rather, it’s the fact that so many seats in Scotland on current polling are coming down to the wire.  

We can’t predict the scale of tactical voting with certainty. But we know in theory that it can and probably will grow. Voter loyalty to traditional brands isn't what it once was. Ukip, Boris Johnson, Brexit and the question of independence have all disrupted traditional patterns.

Tactical voting will shift a few dozen seats at the next election. But it could move more. In Scotland it could save the Tories from oblivion. It might even allow them to advance. Against the grain, in Scotland of all places.

[See also: The Conservative Party may not survive this election]

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