Tactical voting

The 2019 general election should put to bed fruitless arguments about “vote-splitting” says Gavin Corbett.

Of the many dispiriting things about the UK election in December 2019, one of the most energy-sapping was the endless chatter about tactical voting. It happened across the board, of course, but a particular feature was the relentless insistence by many SNP activists that Greens should “stand down” to make it easier for SNP candidates.

In the end the Greens stood where we could (in my own branch we contested all the seats in our area) and didn’t where we were not able to. There is a climate emergency, which is the most pressing issue facing our world, and this parliamentary term takes us almost halfway through the period which the United Nations has said is critical for action. It would be a dereliction of our duty not to seek to make that the election issue it should be. In the end we contested 22 seats in Scotland, about what we normally do in a UK election. I would like it personally if we stood in far more – all of them, really – but we are a decentralist party and I get that many branches see UK elections, especially those called at short notice, as our least fruitful elections.

Tactical voting”, or “vote-splitting”, to give its more aggressive phrasing, is, of course, a product of the absurd “first past the post” electoral system: a system where a party at UK level can claim an uncontested mandate to “get Brexit done”, on 44% of the vote (the situation in Scotland is even more glaring with SNP winning 81% of the seats on 45% of the vote). However, such is the prominence of the UK elections that the language bleeds over into other elections such as those for Scottish Parliament, where proportional voting is in play or, most weirdly of all, council elections which use Single Transferable Votes (where “tactical voting” just doesn’t mean anything). So now is a good time to try to nail just how unhelpful the whole debate is.

The premise is this: voters should put aside who they would really vote for in order to vote for someone who is less worse than the third person who might otherwise be elected.  There have been various versions of this over the years; the players change but the message is always the same: the Greens should unilaterally back down in favour of some other parties who all fundamentally remain chained to indiscriminate growth and an economic model which is fuelling the destruction of our natural world.

Leaving aside the morality, there is something deeply patronising about the argument. It assumes that voters are simply passive pawns who can be shuffled around at will by political strategists in their short-term board games. It assumes that voters align only on one issue. As I show below, voters are more fluid and discerning in their choices. For every person who says to me that they have been persuaded by tactical voting arguments I also get people who are utterly committed to the urgency of the green message, who want to vote accordingly, and are dismayed if they can’t. It is not our role, as a party, to deny them that choice. For those who choose to vote tactically, so be it. For others: let’s make the choice available.

That is the argument in principle, which applies whatever the context; whatever the electoral arithmetic. It has a darker side and also a warning for the SNP even as it continues to crest a wave of its highest popularity. For years, SNP members used to complain bitterly of the dead hand of entitlement displayed by Labour in Scotland. An assumption of a right to votes which bred complacency and arrogance. Looking at where Labour lies now it is a stark reminder of where complacency and presumption lead. Like the pigs at the end of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” the SNP needs to watch for the signs that it is becoming that which they used to decry.

But the evidence also doesn’t stack up. I had a look through some of the Scottish results from December.

As an appetiser let’s take two very very tight SNP-Lib Dem contests. In Dunbartonshire East there was a Green candidate which still resulted in the SNP candidate displacing the UK Lib Dem leader. However, over in North East Fife, there was no Green candidate, but still the SNP incumbent lost the UK’s most marginal seat to the Lib Dems.

The main interest is in Tory-SNP contests. Being parochial for a moment, in my own patch, Edinburgh South West, Joanna Cherry has won three times for the SNP. On two occasions, 2015 and 2019, there were Green candidates. On those two occasions, her majority was 8,000 and 12,000 respectively. In 2017, when there was no Green candidate the majority was only 1,100.

Looking more widely, the Tories held 13 seats in Scotland prior to December 2019. In each case, in 2019, the SNP was the main challenger. In six of the seats, the Tories held the seat: in none of them were there Green candidates. Of the seven which the SNP won from the Tories, one, Stirling, had a Green candidate. Of the other six, the SNP majority was higher than the highest Green vote in Scotland, with one exception, Gordon.

The SNP beat the Tories where they got more votes than them and didn’t beat the Tories where they got fewer votes than them. The presence or absence of Greens on the ballot paper was not a factor.
So looking at the evidence, it is quite clear that the vote-splitting argument is wrong in principle and wrong in fact. It is exposed as little more than an SNP ruse.

That’s the case even if the arithmetic varies. It didn’t happen this time but there will, of course, be times, past and future, when the Green vote is higher than that margin between rival parties, including, as in the case of Caroline Lucas in Brighton, where Greens top the poll. If so, get used to it. It’s politics. Greens and SNP may have a shared view on Scotland’s constitutional direction, but on many other matters, we offer distinctive choices: on economics, energy, transport, local government, ecology and much else. That’s why the Greens are a separate party and stand as such.

So let’s see the back of such arguments for good. By all means, argue that one party is better than another, based on track record, policies, vision or quality of candidates. Whatever. But don’t preach that one party should quit the field simply to make it easier for another party. If that continues then the example of Labour is there as a warning of what happens to parties who treat voters as an entitlement.

Gavin Corbett has been a Green councillor in Edinburgh since 2012 and a Scottish Green Party member for 30 years.