We have been here before in general elections. Campaigns to herd the electorate towards voting for certain candidates or parties they might not usually consider – so as to achieve a desired outcome – are becoming ubiquitous. In this election tactical voting is being encouraged to a record degree to try and deliver a certain result on the issues of Brexit or preserving the UK, but the effectiveness of such initiatives is difficult to prove and may even prove counterproductive.
Thanks to the first-past-the-post system of voting, which rewards the candidate with the most votes with victory – voters have to think whether or not to vote for the party they are attracted to or, because their favoured choice will most likely lose, switch to a party best-placed to stop the candidate they dislike the most.
In the last two general elections there have been attempts to direct Unionist voters in Scotland to vote for particular candidates calculated to have the best chance of defeating the SNP. In the 2015 SNP tsunami that swept practically all Unionist MPs away the anti-SNP message proved futile. In 2017 there was a modest recovery where Labour, Liberal Democrat and most successfully the Conservatives, won many seats back for unionists parties. Nevertheless, the results cannot be easily credited to tactical voting campaigns; the truth is more likely the political messages of redirecting Nicola Sturgeon back to her day job and seeking to kill any chance of a second independence referendum are what drove voters to deprive the SNP of 21 seats.
Since that time the issue of Brexit has come to dominate the UK’s political landscape like no other that people can remember, so it should be no surprise the issue of leaving or remaining in the EU is now the defining factor for many voters. It is, after all, the key reason that the government sought to call the election in the first place.
The beginnings of a Remain Alliance that would seek to corral opponents of Brexit to vote for only one candidate were mooted earlier this year but took substance in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election when Plaid Cymru and the Green party agreed to give the Liberal Democrat candidate a free run. It arguably helped the Liberal Democrat win, but there were other factors at play, not least the Conservative HQ putting forward the former incumbent Chris Davies who had already been dismissed as an MP after a successful petition for recall by constituents.
That Remain Alliance has now been agreed for the general election in some 60 constituencies with the aim of ensuring a remain parliament by depriving the electorate of the chance to vote for parties they might normally support.
The tactic has its mirror image in Nigel Farage suggesting a non-aggression pact with Conservatives so that they agree not to fight each other where they might be reasonably expected to defeat Labour or other remain candidates. Without this the chance of Brexit could be lost.
There can be no doubt the Conservative leadership is rattled by the popularity of the Brexit Party which may attract enough votes away from Tory candidates for either Labour or Liberal Democrats to win by default. The mantra of “Vote Brexit –get Corbyn” has thus gone out and a lobbying campaign calling on Brexit Party candidates to withdraw has been launched.
Saturday’s Daily Mail listed 50 Brexit Party prospective parliamentary candidates with their email addresses urging readers to write to them encouraging them to stand down. Such public demands may have been calculated to be morale-sapping, but I know for a fact it only redoubled the resolve of PPCs to submit their nominations. It was a back-handed compliment recognising the Brexit Party is talking truth to power and revealing Tory strategists’ fears the public will accept Nigel Farage’s message that Boris Johnson’s deal is not Brexit.
If one believes the general election should be defined by leaving or remaining in the EU – effectively turning it into a second referendum – then it becomes true that two parties that believe in leaving the EU will split the leave vote if they both field candidates. Splitting the vote works both ways, for no one party has ownership of Brexit.
It is the height of arrogance and a conceited sense of entitlement to believe, as the Tory party argues, that splitting the vote can only be caused by one party and not the other. If it is possible to argue “Vote Brexit – Get Corbyn” is a risk for those that want to stop the Labour leader receiving the keys for 10 Downing Street – then it is also true that in seats where the Tories have not an earthly but the Brexit Party is riding a wave of popularity built on voters abandoning Labour then the possibility of “Vote Tory – get Corbyn” becomes real.
I ask the reader, is it not the most absurd prospect of this election that the Conservative high command is promoting the possibility of Corbyn winning 20-30 marginal seats out of 650 because they cannot bring themselves to withdraw in favour of Brexit Party nominees who are better placed to defeat Labour?
The reality is the Conservative strategists want to ensure there are no Brexit Party MPs elected on 12 December – and have elevated that mission as their top priority ahead of even beating Jeremy Corbyn.
They have taken this decision because they can seen what happened in Scotland when Labour’s core vote abandoned the party in favour of the SNP – and fear the same phenomenon in England and Wales in favour of Farage’s candidates.
Labour voters going over to the Brexit Party in, say, two dozen seats could start the beginning of a realignment of British politics. Over a period of a few elections a Labour Party perceived to be gripped by extremism and anti-Semitism could be devoured by Liberal Democrats attracting remain supporters and the Brexit Party attracting leave supporters – and in doing so also attracting Tory voters who want to bring about necessary change (such as abolishing the Lords) that Conservative MPs are intrinsically resistant to.
The Conservatives are therefore focusing on grounding the Brexit Party before it takes off – even though this will be of benefit to Jeremy Corbyn.
Tactical voting is never as easy at it might seem. My advice, is the Conservatives should be careful what they wish for.
Brian Monteith MEP is chief whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament.