Whatever the choice, the hard work lies ahead

In just over 24 hours the polls will have closed, and the fun will begin. The nation will have chosen, but unless the polls are very badly wrong it won’t be clear what the nation has chosen. The fact is, until we get the first key constituency results we’re not going to have the slightest inkling how the election has unfolded – and really it comes down to three key questions:

  1. Have the SNP swept the board in Scotland? It is likely that they will advance, but if Labour prove adept at holding on to their seats, Ed Miliband’s bargaining hand is potentially much stronger. I for one suspect that if the option is on the table for a Lib-Lab majority coalition, the two parties would jump at it with both feet – but that will only happen if the SNP advance falls far short of their current polling projections.
  2. Will the Lib Dem vote hold up? Their vote is certainly going to collapse – I am absolutely certain that it will do so in east Oxford – but where they have a sitting MP (and that MP is staying on) it will be interesting to see how well they hold on. If the night is a disaster for them, it may well be a sign the Tories have done enough to win the tranche of Lib/Con marginals they failed to take in 2010. If they’re doing better than the polls, they may well be in a strong position despite their collapse in support.
  3. Will the UKIP bubble burst? This is the biggest variable. So far the UKIP share of the opinion polls has stayed stubbornly at 13%. It is assumed (not necessarily a given, but certainly probable) that a large number of these UKIP identifiers would otherwise have voted Conservative. If they conclude in the quiet of the voting booth tomorrow that they dare not take the risk, then the Conservative vote share might prove substantively higher than the opinion polls are suggesting. If it holds up however, then the Conservatives can probably wave goodbye to any hope of a clear majority.

In deference to the opinion pollsters, who frankly have had the second most horrible job of this election (after all the poor souls actually standing for office) they are quick to remind us that there are too many variables to accurately predict the outcome – they are stressing they are making projections (ie. this is what the result would be based on current polls) rather than predictions – they aren’t any more confident than the rest of us. And top of the list is the assumption that the SNP have Scotland bought and paid for – I certainly expect them to advance, and I think the main parties have a lot to learn from how the SNP energise their supporters – but it is not a given! Every vote really is going to matter – and I have unashamedly urged readers to vote Conservative wherever they live, because in such an uncertain environment it is the only way to ensure the continuation of a government with a coherent plan for the economy.

That said – I would now like to sketch out two scenarios, which show that regardless of the outcome, there is work to be done, and we all need to be ready to stand up and pitch in.

In scenario one, we have a badly hung parliament, where at least two parties (or at worst, more than three!) are required to form a majority government. It will be hellish for the MPs, but more importantly it means our electorate will be fractured beyond all recognition. The task then will be for parties, activists and voters to learn how to adapt to the new political reality – and not least to divine if this is a short term tremor, or a long term shift. In either event, in the chaos there is an opportunity to shape the future of British politics, and that shape will be determined by those who show up – whether for good or for ill.

In scenario two, the Conservatives win a majority, or close enough to a majority to safely govern for the foreseeable future. First of all, there is no way Labour can win a majority – the SNP are doing too well in Scotland, and the Conservatives too well in England. The best Ed Miliband can hope for is to reach a deal with the Lib Dems. Secondly – even if I wake up on Friday to find (to my intense relief) Britain has stayed with the Cameron government, the battle is not won. This election campaign has been fraught, grisly, and notable for the failure of not just the parties, but even the pundits and the voters to reach beyond their core support. There is a huge opportunity for any party and politician brave enough not simply to rise above the demonisation that has arisen in political life, but to stand up to it. I touched on this theme a few months ago – that basic respect has left public life. There is a gap in British political life for someone who has the integrity to stand firmly and unashamedly for their principles, but treat their opponents respectfully.

That is why the result of tomorrow’s poll is only the beginning – the real work begins on Friday morning.

There’s no such thing as tactical voting

With commentators insisting the election is close (to which I include myself), it is inevitable that you are going to hear talk in the media about tactial voting – which can be defined in short as ‘voting for a preference other than your first preference, to attempt to bring about a more preferable outcome.’ In one of my earliest posts I explained how this comes about – in systems such as First-Past-the-Post the only thing that matters is which party finishes first, and so voters of parties with less chance of winning (historically the Liberal Democrats) ‘loaned’ their support to the most preferred of the two parties most likely to win, to try and prevent their least favourite candidate from winning.

The most obvious place that this is potentially going to take place in the 2015 election is in Scotland, where the three pro-Union parties might encourage their supporters to vote for whichever candidate is most likely to prevent the SNP from winning locally – as shown in this example. In 2010 I was asked by my friends to comment on tactical voting, partly because I was foolish enough to mention that my MPhil Thesis was on the subject of Tactical Voting, and partly because of the Tactical Situation in Oxford, where Oxford West was a Lib Dem/Tory marginal, and Oxford East was a Labour/Lib Dem marginal. On that occasion I shared the distinction I used in my research – expressive voting means you vote for your first preference, even though by voting differently you might have secured a better short-term outcome. Tactical voting means you vote for a preference that is not your first, in order to secure a better short-term outcome. I suggested then that it was up to the individual voter to decide which priority was more important.

Five years on, I am now convinced that tactical voting does not exist, except in the strictest sense of an academic measurement. The reason for that is that I think there is a single measure that applies to all political activity, and especially to teh act of voting – pragmatic voting.

I will use membership of a political party as an example. If you show me a person who agrees with 100% of their party’s political platform, you are showing me a one-person party. Politics is about building formal and informal coalitions of like minded people, who share agreement on enough important issues to band together and attempt to achieve their programme. A necessary part of that action is accepting that parts of the programme will not be 100% to your taste. It is a pragmatic consideration. And it is true for party members across the UK – not all of them will like their party leader; they will think their current policies are too right or left wing, or not right or left wing enough – but they still loyally ask their friends to vote for their party. It is not tactical, in the sense that it is the first choice of the options available to them, but it is a pragmatic choice – and not least one that carries the cost of having to defend policies and persons regardless of how your friends will perceive you.

But surely, you might say, those poor voters who want to vote Liberal Democrat or Green or UKIP are voting tactically when they instead vote Labour or Conservative? I contest that this is only true insomuch as it is used as an academic measurement. In practice, every voter does exactly the same thing – make a pragmatic choice. The Liberal Democrats are the perfect example of this – their strategy over time focused on persuading their votes to keep voting for them, forsaking the short-term outcome for a longer term outcome. And in many seats it paid off – they overtook Labour in some seats to become the main opposition to the Conservatives, or they overtook the Conservatives to become the main opposition to Labour. And from that base-camp, they became the beneficiaries when there was a swing against the incumbent, and thus able to win seats that years before seemed unwinnable.

In short – there’s no such thing as a tactical vote, because there is no such thing as a non-tactical vote. Every vote is pragmatic – from deciding whether to impact the short-term outcome or the long-term outcome; to deciding if you are voting for the best candidate, or the best party; the best party, or the best party leader; the best group of party MPs, or the best party policies … and many more variables.

I cannot advise you how to use your vote in light of that. Some of you may decide to favour the short term – perhaps because you live in Scotland and cannot risk your local MP belonging to the SNP. Some of you may favour the long term, voting for the party in third place last time around (as I am doing in fact!) so that they might challenge in future. I would simply say that every vote is a tactical and pragmatic choice – so know what you value, know how to make it more likely and make your vote count!

The dangers of the split electorate

Recent opinion polling has shown just how much the British electorate has fragmented – and perhaps the biggest shock of all is the extent to which the SNP is potentially poised to breakthrough in Scotland, and deprive Labour of several seats it had presumed to be safe. Based on latest polling averages which I entered into Electoral Calculus, I got the following projection of what the composition of the House of Commons might look like:

Hung Parliament

Projected seats based on opinion poll averages.

Having observed in my earlier post that a government needs 326 seats to win a majority you will notice the evident problem – not only do Labour and the Conservatives fall far, far short of a majority, it is mathematically impossible for two parties (apart from an unlikely grand coalition of Labour and Conservatives!) to collectively form a voting bloc of 326 seats. This is genuinely new territory in British politics.

It isn’t my intention to use this post to comment on the polls or on how votes convert to seats – those are two different stories! Instead I would make the following observations:

1: It will be almost impossible to form a stable coalition. The government would be formed by whichever one of the two largest parties could pull together a deal with enough MPs to support the government. The most simple would be with the SNP and Lib Dems – but that presumes that both parties are willing, not only to join a coalition, but moreover to sign to a coalition agreement with concessions made to every party, and the policy platform largely dictated by the largest party. That is highly unlikely given their diverse platforms.
2: A confidence and supply agreement is likely. This simply means that a party agrees to support (or in the very least, not vote against) major government items of business, such as the Budget or votes of no-confidence. The Lib Dems have been stung by a coalition government, and are unlikely to want to be a human shield again for either Labour or the Tories. The SNP meanwhile are entirely motivated by achieving maximum benefit for Scotland, and they know full well they are most likely to get that by winning concessions case-by-case.
3: Such a Parliament would be highly unstable. Our best comparison is the 1974-79 Parliament, where Labour had a minority government. When they lost the support of the Liberal Party, they had to broker deals with the smaller parties (Ulster Unionists, Scottish/Welsh Nationalists) to get their business through – and it was exhausting and unstable. It would be next to impossible to plan a coherent programme of government without having the security of a cohesive majority
4: There would be a huge risk of side-deals. To scrape together the necessary 326 for a given vote, the government may well just have to buy off as many MPs as required. With UKIP, the Green Party, and the various Northern Irish parties involved, that could quickly become complicated and or expensive – again, you would not have a coherent, cohesive or wise programme for goverment.

In view of this, I predict that if the result was as outlined above, the government would be forced to hold a fresh election very soon after the first election, to ensure some form of stable government. I’m still inclined to think however that the dangers set out above will concentrate the minds of the electorate – and however angry voters may be, they do not want to wake up with either Ed Milband or David Cameron being held hostage to fortune by the smaller parties.