Voting tactically has become more fraught in the new political order

This piece was first published in The Independent

A surprising number of people are candid enough to admit that they voted Liberal Democrat in previous elections because they simply could not decide between Labour and the Tories. Others like the party’s policies or, more often, its local MP.

But in their strongholds, the Lib Dems have owed a good deal of their support to their status as the most credible local alternative to the Conservatives. Indeed, in most recent elections, tactical voting has nearly always meant backing the Lib Dems to get (or keep) the Tories out. Since the Iraq war, the Lib Dems have also attracted left-leaning voters looking for a safely like-minded alternative to Labour.

So imagine their surprise and delight as the recipient of their carefully calibrated votes strode cheerfully into the Downing Street rose garden with David Cameron. Nick Clegg had been clear before 2010 that he would talk first to the party with the most seats, which for two and a half years had looked like being the Conservatives. But many left-wing voters who voted Lib Dem either to stop the Tories, or as a means of “not-in-my-name” self-expression, were horrified at the effect of their calculated manoeuvre. Or as one such individual more pithily put it in one of my focus groups, “that bit me in the arse, didn’t it?”

No more than you deserve, sir, some would say: if you’re going to vote for a party you don’t really support in the hope that they will behave as you want, you had better prepare to be disappointed. But there is nothing inherently wrong with voting tactically. People can vote as they choose, and for some, stopping what they regard as the worst from happening will be more important than adding to the small pile of ballots for the least uninspiring alternative.

But there is no doubt that tactical voting has become more fraught. If you’re a Labour voter in a Conservative-Lib Dem marginal, do you risk the same disappointment as last time, or vote with your heart and risk letting in an honest-to-God Tory?

Things have also become more complex as the political landscape has changed and new parties emerge. At the same time, voters have more information at their disposal than ever before. My constituency polls are widely reported in local newspapers and are often quoted on candidates’ literature to show that they can win or, as likely, that another party cannot. Some incumbents have even publicised surveys that show that they are trailing, in order to concentrate the minds of their capricious local electorate.

Not only could tactical voting be more widespread than before, its results could be more far-reaching. Indeed the fates of three party leaders – Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Jim Murphy – effectively lie in the hands of the supporters of parties likely to finish a distant third in their respective constituencies.

In Sheffield Hallam, where Mr Cleggis in a close race with Labour, my latest poll found more than three in ten 2010 Conservative voters switching to the Lib Dems to save the Deputy PM, and fewer than half ruling out doing so on the day. And in East Renfrewshire, nearly a quarter of former Tories said they were planning to vote Labour to save Jim from the SNP.

But Labour voters seem less willing to cross the divide to aid Tories in distress. In both Thanet South, where the Conservative Craig Mackinlay will be the next MP if Mr Farage is not, and in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, where Scotland’s only Tory MP David Mundell is under threat from the Nationalists, only 7 per cent of 2010 Labour voters say they will switch to the Conservatives.

There has been considerable recent movement in some seats, as I found in my final round of marginal seats polling, published last week. There has been room for more since the end of fieldwork, not least because of the potential for further tactical switching, as well as last minute changes of heart. But the result, when it comes, may not settle the arguments.

After the last election, some questioned the coalition’s legitimacy on the grounds that, as the Greens’ Caroline Lucas put it, far more people voted for “a combination of the Liberal Democrats and Labour”, who had much in common, than for the Tories. (She clearly didn’t feel that strongly about this, though, or she would never have taken her Brighton Pavilion seat, where far more people voted for “a combination of the Liberal Democrats and Labour” than for her).

But at least in 2010 the Conservatives came first. This time, there is a real possibility of Labour forming a government, whether or not through any formal “deal”, even if they come second in terms of votes and seats. There is nothing constitutionally improper about this, of course. The test for the Prime Minister is to command the confidence of the House of Commons, not come top on the scoreboard.

Yet constitutional correctitude and practical politics are not the same thing. What would it be like for Ed Miliband, with every interview beginning: “Of course, the voters didn’t choose you, did they? They preferred the Tories.” Not all the voters would mind, by any means – but many taking part in my research in the closing stages of the campaign have been astonished that this outcome is even possible. The word they most often use to describe such a scenario is “cheating”. However legitimate a government led by the second biggest party would be, it might have a hard time persuading the people to see things that way.

The outcome will be fascinating, whatever it is. It has been a fascinating election. And whatever happens tomorrow, politics – to the dismay of the voters who have to endure it – looks like being fascinating for a long time to come.

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