Alasdair-McKillopAlasdair McKillop, author and recently joined Scottish Labour member, looks at the phenomenon of tactical voting and sees trouble ahead.


The succession of polls predicting a commanding victory for the SNP has prompted a number of responses. The direction of travel hasn’t altered greatly but the wall on the road ahead looks to be even more fortified that previously imagined.

The Conservatives have sought to exploit the prospect for party political advantage in the hope that a Labour government reliant on some degree of SNP support will drive wavering Liberal Democrat and UKIP voters into their arms. The rhetoric is growing increasingly detached from political and constitutional reality, as evidenced by recent interventions from Boris Johnston and Sarah Vine.

There is a sense that seeds are being planted in the hope that they will quickly grow into gnarled trees casting an dark shadow on the legitimacy of a Labour-led government following the General Election. So much for the need for stability.

The thought of a UK Government reliant on the SNP might be unpalatable for many and there’s no point skirting around the observation that there will be qualitative differences between a government reliant on the SNP and one reliant on the support, for example, of one of Northern Ireland’s unionist parties.

But that is not to say such an arrangement would be illegitimate, as more level-headed unionist commentators such as Alex Massie wearily recognise. Indeed a Labour government reliant on the ebbing and flowing support of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Social Democratic and Labour Party would be a more accurate reflection of political realities across the UK than a majority Conservative government.

The other significant response to predictions of SNP triumph have been moves to encourage tactical voting. These have progressed from low level chatter to the likes of Nick Clegg and Sir Malcolm Rifkind appearing to endorse the approach.

Activity has been detected in constituencies including Dundee West, Perth and North Perthshire, and Gordon, the constituency Alex Salmond hopes will serve has his launch-pad back to the House of Commons. Those promoting the idea, including groups such as Scotland in Union and United Against Separatism, hope it will be an attractive proposition even in constituencies without the prospect of such a big scalp. A YouGov poll conducted for the former found one in seven respondents were thinking along these lines.

The logic is obvious and the attraction understandable. The SNP’s commanding position is directly linked to the referendum campaign. With its post-referendum surge, it has demonstrated that it was the meat and bones of the Yes Scotland campaign, with almost all other campaign groups little more than accessories and fancy clothing. Polling would suggest it has successfully managed to hold on to a very large proportion of those who voted yes despite the party’s own argument that the General Election is not about Scottish independence. The ranks have been swelled by thousands of people looking for an establishment to vanquish but seemingly relaxed about the fact the same party also forms what is a dominant Scottish Government.

Tactical voting seeks to revive the binary logic of the campaign by creating the conditions for 59 mini referendums across Scotland on 7th May. According to the SNPOUT website, unionists should support the Conservative candidate in ten constituencies, the Liberal Democrat candidate in seven and the Labour candidate in the remainder as they are the best-placed to defeat the SNP representative.

Supporters of the SNP will bristle at all this but there are also reasons for unionists to question the underlying wisdom, or lack thereof.

First, tactical voting is just that: a tactical measure. It’s not a long-term strategy for fashioning a political settlement that will accommodate Scotland within the union framework. As such, it is essentially a blunt instrument, the equivalent of trying to fend-off a gale force wind with a hammer.

Furthermore it is an acknowledgement that the post-referendum period has been fundamentally mismanaged by the pro-union parties. Individually and collectively they have failed to devise a way forward that removes the constitutional question from the forefront of Scottish politics. A degree of mitigation might be provided if one were to argue that minimising SNP gains at the General Election is but a prelude to the establishment of a UK Constitutional Convention, a proposal contained in a number of party manifestos, although not the SNP’s. If this is the case, the approach is not being effectively publicised.

Regardless, by pursuing tactical voting complacency is invited and complacency is the enemy of the hard-thinking required to craft the type of UK-wide constitutional settlement that, alone, will give unionists the degree of security they expected following the referendum.

Second, tactical voting, through its assumptions and likely legacy, can’t help but contribute to what some are referring to as the Ulsterisation of Scottish politics. This analogy shouldn’t be overplayed: There are no pronounced ethnic or religious differences between supporters of independence and the union in Scotland. But the weight of the constitutional issue is similarly distorting all other political considerations.

Tactical voting is not an unthinkable or unheard of act in UK politics, despite the first-past-the-post election arguably acting to minimise its effectiveness. The Vote Swap website exists to encourage Labour and Green suppers to exchange votes in order to defeat candidates, while in Northern Ireland a level of tactical voting will take place for the candidate in each constituency best placed to defeat the most-likely candidate representing the other lot.

A tactical vote, however, necessarily elevates a certain issue above all others and thereby imbues it with importance. Otherwise, why else vote for a candidate you wouldn’t support under normal circumstances? It would be a sad irony if those hoping to side-line the constitutional issue by stymieing the SNP only serve to worsen the bad-blood on both sides through their chosen means of achieving that end.

The impulse driving tactical voting might evaporate as soon as polls close but it’s also possible that it won’t be so quickly forgotten. Indeed, there is the possibility that it might harden sufficiently to form the basis of a dedicated unionist party to fight future elections, not least the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament for which the SNP might produce a manifesto containing a pledge on a second referendum. Such a party would, weighing the probabilities, have one of two fates. Either it would fail by further splintering the pro-union vote or it would be successful and Scottish politics would be reduced definitively to a long-war, a zero-sum game on the constitution in which the nationalists would only have to triumph once.

There is a final objection that might be raised. The tactical voting campaign is unlikely to prove successful, at least in sense of preventing widespread SNP gains. This is an assessment shared by John Curtice. The campaign, despite the determined efforts of the blogger Effie Deans and others, has failed to develop a meaningful profile to date, not least when measured against the intricate planning and level of message saturation required to co-ordinate supporters of at least three parties.

But by its mere existence, it offers countless grist to the SNP’s mill while offering to magnify still further the extent of any SNP gains. This is the stuff of future nationalist myth: not only will the SNP have made unprecedented gains, likely leading to it having an important influence in the shape of the next UK government, but the increasingly patchy public memory will recall this was achieved despite the combined forces of conniving unionism.

By promoting tactical voting, the SNP’s opponents are offering it a double victory and its ego is hardly in need of sustenance as it is.