How worried should be the Conservatives about tactical voting? In the wake of the rout at the local elections, one of the stories was the way that voters seemed to be coalescing around the ‘anti-Tory’ option; were that to happen in a general election, all sorts of exciting things might happen.
Such speculation is grist to the mill for hacks and wonks alike, allowing as it does innumerable pegs for articles and endless excuses to play around with maps and data.
Yet precisely for that reason, we ought perhaps to be a little cautious about over-egging it. Even in the recent run of unusually exciting general elections, the results seldom (albeit, not never) reflected the wildest projections.
In part, this is because the smaller parties often struggle to translate effective strategies from local or by-elections into the much more resource-intensive arena of a general. Dr Patrick English, of YouGov, explained:
“We also expect a fair whack of the Lib Dem and Green vote from the 2023 locals to go to Labour at a general, and depending on how (in)efficient that is vis-a-vis Lib Dem/Green v Tory seat battles, that might play in the Conservatives’ favour across significant bits of the Blue Wall/East of England.”
Conservative MPs doing the media round after the locals also suggested that many Tory voters had stayed at home, rather than switched, and may come out in 2024. Dr English notes that:
“We didn’t see much evidence of a ‘third place squeeze’ though at the 2023 locals, so it’s unclear if there is any ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ tactical voting emerging beyond the ‘are Lib Dems or Labour stronger around here’ effect that we’ve noticed since 2019 already.”
Yet according to pollsters I spoke to, the main reason not to overstate its significance – for the next election, at least – is simply that, unless the Government manages to close the polling gap significantly between now and polling day, it simply won’t decide the outcome.
Effective tactical voting (or substantial “negative partisanship“) could apparently cost the Conservatives an additional 20 to 30 defeats. Painful, to be sure – but smaller by some margin than the Labour seat leads implied by current polling.
In the event of a close-fought election, which due to the electoral system could hinge on a few hundreds or thousands of votes in the tightest constituencies, voters prioritising defeating the Tory candidate becomes more threatening. But also, surely, somewhat less likely, as such a scenario implies that Rishi Sunak has achieved at least a marked rehabilitation of the Government’s reputation.
However, there is more at stake at the next election than just who gets the keys to Number 10. Even if the immediate impact of significant anti-Tory voting is just a somewhat bigger bruise, it could end up lasting a lot longer – and turn a nasty shade of yellow.
The Liberal Democrats would certainly be the chief beneficiaries of any serious tactical voting, for they are well-positioned as challengers in a clutch of seats where Labour is simply not competitive. (The Greens may get there sooner or later, as Peter Franklin wrote yesterday, but aren’t there yet.)
Not only could this threaten Conservative incumbents in seats the party won during its massacre of its junior coalition partner at the 2015 election – it could see them start to take chunks out of the blue wall too.
The Government’s failure to do anything about London’s housing crisis means the capital is now starting to export voters into its wide commuter belt; as Dr English noted on this site, the average age in these constituencies is declining, even as the national average age continues to climb.
Pollsters we spoke to identified the M25 ring and surrounding areas as the key danger point. Not for nothing did Sir Ed Davey kick off his party’s local election campaign in Berkhamsted, my home town, a very nice part of the (soon to be former) South West Hertfordshire constituency which until just a few years ago returned Tories almost exclusively at county, borough, and town council level.
Obviously the stronger the challenge in areas like that, the fewer resources CCHQ can direct to Labour-facing constituencies.
But worse, in the long run, is that once such seats are lost it may prove very difficult to get them back; consider the decade of forlorn attempts by Tories in areas such as Hazel Grove in Manchester, or much of the South West, to recapture once-safe Conservative seats which fell in 1997.
Without the burden of government, Davey’s MPs are free to be all things to all people, striking pious notes at Westminster about housing, refugees, and what have you whilst working very hard to ensure that no homes, holding centres, reservoirs, or what have you end up in their constituencies. A tolerant, progressive Britain, yes – but Keep Little Whingeing Special.
Say what you like about this approach, but it is maddeningly effective. Last time it took the Coalition to break the spell, and the Lib Dems are not likely to repeat that mistake anytime soon.
This danger does not attend exclusively on tactical voting, of course. The same process which saw the Conservatives crack the red wall could crack the blue too; the realignment giveth, and the realignment taketh away. Our electoral geography could look very different in ten years to what we’ve been used to.
But if CCHQ does want to hold on to the very broad coalition Boris Johnson marshalled behind the Conservatives in 2019, it may need to pay more heed to the yellow peril than a narrow assessment of its likely impact on the Downing Street horse race would warrant.