I GREW UP in a little village in Banff and Buchan. The local MP lived nearby. He was a Conservative. Altogether there were 22 Conservative MPs in Scotland. There were two SNP MPs. What happened? The answer is simple, there was tactical voting.
After the traumas of the 1980s, the Conservatives were condemned as the “nasty party.” From then on Labour, Lib Dem and SNP voters would gang up to make sure that the Tory always lost his or her seat. Scotland is one of the best examples of how well tactical voting can work. It got the Conservatives down to no seats at all in 1997 and to one seat in 2010. This handed the SNP one of their best arguments and is a primary cause of the growth in support for independence. Remember all the times they went on about England voting Tory, but there being only one Tory in Scotland. That’s their grievance and it was caused by tactical voting. So don’t let anyone say that tactical voting doesn’t work, or that it’s somehow an illegitimate tactic. This is how democracy has long worked in Scotland.
I had hoped that having decisively voted No in the referendum, Scotland could have got on with the rest of our lives with ordinary political/economic debates. But this was not to be. The SNP put us all through years of turmoil, but they have refused to accept the result. They remain a single issue party dedicated to achieving independence. They only want more devolution in order that it will make Britain unworkable. They don’t want devolution to succeed in making Britain a better place. They want it to fail and to topple into independence. They have shown themselves to have no respect for the rules of democracy, because fundamentally they believe that a decision is democratic only if they win. They will keep on like this until they achieve their goal. But No voters who cooperated so well during the referendum campaign can cooperate again. We can punish the SNP for ignoring the fact that we voted No by a large margin.
No other party has ever tried to break up my country. No other party has behaved in such a nasty undemocratic way as the SNP. So let them be the new “nasty party.” Never again vote tactically for the SNP as huge numbers did in 2011. We’ve all learned that lesson surely. Rather let all No voters vote tactically against the SNP everywhere. There is no political goal more important to me than keeping my country intact. If we all send the SNP a message via the ballot box, it is just possible that they might begin to focus on ruling Scotland rather than breaking up Britain.
There is one seat in particular where tactical voting has the power to bring about a major defeat for the SNP. This is the seat where I live now, Gordon. Remember when Alex Salmond appeared to retire from politics on the morning he discovered unexpectedly that he’d lost the referendum. He also ruled out another referendum for a generation. But that didn’t last long. Soon enough he began plotting a return to Westminster. It has to be said he is the favourite to win in May. Gordon has long been a Lib Dem seat held by the well-liked Malcolm Bruce, but he’s now 70 and deserves a long and happy retirement. We all know that the Lib Dems are in trouble in national polls. They have an excellent candidate in Christine Jardine, but, of course, she’s nowhere near as famous as Salmond. So she has a fight on her hands to retain the seat for the Lib Dems and for Better Together or might we say #GordonTogether?
How should no voters respond in Gordon? The one thing we must do first of all is to agree who has the best chance of defeating Salmond. Let me explain the reasons why that candidate has to be Christine Jardine. Tactical voting works best when there is a candidate from the centre. It’s much easier to persuade Labour and Conservative supporters to vote for the Lib Dems than for each other, not least because they know it is highly unlikely the Lib Dems will form the next UK government. Most importantly however we all need to vote for Christine Jardine because she’s the only one who has a chance of beating Salmond.
The odds quoted by bookmakers recently are as follows:
Salmond (SNP) 1/6
Jardine (Lib Dem) 5/1
Davy (Labour) 33/1
Clark (Conservative) 50/1
We learned during the referendum campaign that bookmaker’s odds are far more reliable than polls. As soon as I saw these odds, I immediately realised that we all have to back Jardine. Why though should Salmond be such a favourite in a seat that has been held by the Lib Dem’s for decades? The reason clearly is that bookmakers do not believe that we will vote tactically in sufficient numbers, neither for that matter does Salmond. Let’s surprise him twice in one year.
The big problem with tactical voting is that we are competing with each other as well as cooperating. Labour voters want a Labour government and so do Lib Dems and Conservatives. Everyone wants others to vote for them tactically, but no-one wants to return the favour. But tactical voting only works if we are all generous. If Labour and Conservative voters would vote for Christine Jardine, they should do so with the expectation that they too will be helped elsewhere.
A few weeks ago there was a poll that suggested that Labour might lose all but a few seats in Scotland. So many former Labour supporters have deserted to join the SNP that they will struggle to maintain anything like their 41 seats unless they get help from other No voters. Let’s be honest if Labour could beat Salmond in Gordon, they would win a landslide in Scotland and wipe out the SNP on their own. Labour party supporters must above all be realistic of where they have the best chance of success. It’s not in Gordon.
The Conservatives could well remain stuck on one seat or even lose that unless they get help from other No voters. On the other hand with the help of Better Together friends they could well win seats in places like Perth and North Perthshire that they would otherwise lose. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the Conservatives could in this way win 5-6 seats in Scotland, but they can’t do so on their own. It is therefore in Conservative interest to help the Lib Dems win Gordon, not only to keep out Salmond, but so that they can begin their own recovery in Scotland. The Conservatives too must pick the seats where they have their best chance. It’s not in Gordon. Salmond would just love to have the Tories as his main challenger. Always do what your opponent least wants. The one thing he fears is that we all get behind Christine Jardine.
But how in general are we to determine fairly which party has the best chance of winning a particular seat? This will all have to be done informally. There obviously won’t be any formal pacts. But that’s not how tactical voting works anyway in this country. Rather there can be local arrangements. But how do we work out who to vote tactically for? We must do so with a combination of polling and bookmakers odds. We should all vote tactically for the Better Together party that already holds a seat, or for the party that came second last time in a seat held by the SNP. There may be room for some local negotiation, but remember if we squabble we just split the No vote and let the SNP win by default.
Some people think it is strange to suggest that Conservatives should vote for Labour or vice versa. I don’t think so. Of course they want different UK governments, but they equally and above all want to defend Scotland’s constitutional status as a part of the UK. Moreover, there are seats in the Central Belt where the Conservatives have no chance whatsoever. Why not therefore help Labour and at the same time hinder the SNP? Better a Labour MP than one who wants to break up our country. The same argument goes for certain rural parts of Scotland where only the Conservatives or the Lib Dems have a chance. Why waste a vote for Labour when it could result in another Better Together MP being elected?
In theory we could make it so that the SNP would have to win 50 per cent of the vote in every seat in order to win it. That would be very difficult to achieve, especially in parts of the country like Aberdeenshire which voted 60 per cent for No. Of course, not everyone will vote tactically, but if enough of us do, we can turn Gordon into one of those election results that everyone remembers. Imagine what it would be like if Alex Salmond found himself beaten by Christine Jardine. Imagine him driving away and someone taking another photograph of him looking glum. This would be a result that would eclipse the defeats of Chris Patten and Michael Portillo. It would also seriously damage the SNP’s chances of causing mischief in Westminster.
If we each fight our own campaign in Gordon, Salmond will win. But if we could just turn the SNP into the new “nasty” party and remember how well we worked together last summer, we can cause a major upset. I will be campaigning for the Lib Dems and Christine Jardine in Gordon, but at the same time I will be campaigning for the Conservatives in places like Perth and Labour in places like Glasgow. Join me in making the next election one that makes Scotland’s position in the UK more secure rather than less secure. In the end if we can’t cooperate to defeat Salmond in Gordon, we may as well give up cooperating at all. In that case I’ll campaign for my party, you campaign for your party we’ll split the No vote and the SNP will be the winners. The one thing they fear is if No voters gang up on them, because they know from the referendum result that they are outnumbered nearly everywhere.
This article first appeared on Effie's blog Lily of St Leonards which ThinkScotland is pleased to recommend.