Cometh an election, cometh a debate about the merits of tactical voting. Does it work? How risky is it? Is a choice between the lesser of two evils really the best we can do?
In short succession: 1) Yes, it can. 2) The greater risk is doing nothing. 3) At this stage, it’s more a case of the lesser of six or seven evils.
In 18 days’ time, Scotland will decide whether it wants another referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom. That this election is a referendum on a referendum is down to Nicola Sturgeon but stopping her is down to the pro-Union majority.
If Scotland sends enough pro-Union MPs to Westminster, it will maximise the chances of Sturgeon’s Scexit machinations being thwarted.
Because those who oppose Scexit are split between competing parties, it is likely the Nationalists will again take a majority of seats north of the Border. But by voting tactically for parties that support the Union, the SNP’s opponents can stop a yellow tide building to a tsunami.
First, though, we must define our terms. There are two fully pro-Union parties in Scotland: the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Both oppose Sturgeon’s plans for more constitutional division.
Labour had previously wavered on the Union but now Jeremy Corbyn and his top team have repeatedly said he will give Sturgeon another referendum during the first term of a Labour government. No matter what Scottish Labour or individual candidates say, the SNP and Labour are effectively running on a joint ticket and a cross beside Labour would be a proxy vote for Nicola Sturgeon.
That leaves pro-Union voters, including those who would normally vote Labour, with two parties to choose between. Their goal: minimise the number of Sturgeon and Corbyn MPs elected on December 12.
For Unionist tactical voting to be a success, everyone will have to make sacrifices. Tories living in seats where the SNP and the Lib Dems are the only real contenders will have to set aside their reservations about Jo Swinson and her party’s policy of revoking Brexit.
Swinson is not going to be Prime Minister and unilaterally cancelling Brexit is too unpopular (including with Remainers) to get off the ground. What the Lib Dems can do, however, is take one or two seats from the SNP and prevent them from regaining any they lost in 2017.
Lib Dem MPs are particularly vulnerable and Conservatives unconvinced of the need to cast a tactical vote in certain seats should bear in mind this number: 5,339. That is Jo Swinson’s majority in East Dunbartonshire, and the largest Lib Dem majority in Scotland.
The party leader is followed by Alistair Carmichael (who won Orkney and Shetland last time by 4,563 votes), Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West by 2,988) and Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross by 2,044).
Whatever Conservatives might think of their views on Brexit, the Lib Dems have been absolutely firm in their opposition to another independence referendum. Tories in these seats will have to make a choice: hold their nose and vote Lib Dem or hand victory to Nicola Sturgeon.
Tories will also decide whether the Lib Dems pick up their top target seat of North East Fife, where the Nationalists clung on by a nail-biting two votes in 2017. This seat is a prime opportunity for Unionist voters to unite behind the Lib Dems and oust Nicola Sturgeon’s MP.
There is one seat where considerations of justice surpass cold, hard numbers. Ross, Skye and Lochaber was Charles Kennedy’s seat until he was driven out in a despicable campaign. The Tories came second in 2017, with the Lib Dems not far behind, but SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford was able to hold on by 5,919 votes.
RSL is Liberal country. Liberalism is in the people and the land and convincing locals to revert to the Lib Dems is much easier than asking them to elect a Tory for the first time in generations.
It would be altogether more likely — to say nothing of fitting — for a Lib Dem to bring Blackford down. That can only happen if Tories and pro-Union Labour voters lend their vote to Lib Dem candidate Craig Harrow. (If you want to know his position on the Union, he was the top Lib Dem man in Better Together.)
Making way for opponents is never easy but there is a wrong to be righted here. This one is not a tactical vote, it’s a vote for Charles.
Liberal Democrat voters are furious with the Tories over Brexit. Agonising though it is, Scottish Lib Dems have to approach this election strategically. The choice is not between Brexit and stopping Brexit. The odds favour Brexit happening whether the Tories or Labour ends up the largest party. The Tories for obvious reasons but Labour because, if they keep their promise to hold a confirmatory vote, their leader and Prime Minister will remain ‘neutral’.
Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong Eurosceptic but a cannier one than he gets credit for: he understands that when the Labour leader is silent on an issue, Labour’s traditional base concludes there is no ‘Labour’ way to vote on the matter.
Corbyn already pulled the ‘neutral’ trick in 2016, doing the bare minimum for Remain to signal that Labour people could vote Leave without being disloyal to their party. The result of this ploy was that red heartlands like Doncaster North, which has voted Labour since Harold Wilson was in short trousers, swung 72 per cent behind Leave.
Labour’s promise of a confirmatory referendum isn’t even a People’s Vote. If delivered, it would be a choice between a Corbyn Brexit and Remain. The most recent polling shows Remain’s lead at its narrowest yet — 51 per cent to Leave’s 49 per cent.
A Corbyn Brexit would be scarcely softer than a Boris Brexit (both would end free movement) and in one important regard it would be worse for the pro-EU cause: if some warm words about workers’ rights can tip that 49 per cent over to a majority, Brexit will have been endorsed in two consecutive referendums.
A double mandate would make Brexit stick, whereas a Tory government that presses on without consulting the voters again risks a backlash if things go badly wrong. In those circumstances, the Lib Dems would be ideally placed to lead any campaign to re-join the EU.
To deny the SNP another referendum on separation and see off the threat of a Corbyn Brexit, Lib Dem voters will have to swallow their pride in Tory-held seats like Gordon (majority: 2,607), Angus (majority: 2,645) and Moray (majority: 4,159).
Lib Dem and pro-Union Labour voters might not be inclined to come to the Tories’ aid, but the fact remains: every seat they lose is a seat Nicola Sturgeon gains.
For those pro-Union Labour voters, it is gut-punching to see their once proud party scamper after Nicola Sturgeon’s coat tails, offering to gamble the very existence of the UK for a few pitiful years of power.
No one expects these disaffected electors to abandon their party (as it surely has abandoned them) or to sign up for another. December 12 would be a one-time deal in which they lent their vote either to the Lib Dems or the Tories.
In Edinburgh South West, there are just 1,097 votes in it between the SNP’s Joanna Cherry and the Tories’ pro-Union candidate Callum Laidlaw. If just a fraction of the seat’s 13,000 Labour supporters voted tactically for the Conservatives, an SNP big beast would be felled.
On the opposite coast, if Unionists in East Renfrewshire don’t vote for Paul Masterton (majority: 4,712), Nicola Sturgeon will win that seat. Labour voters (who numbered 14,000 last time) will be the difference between a moderate Tory MP and another Nationalist agitating for a second referendum on Scotland leaving the UK.
The odds are stacked against Unionists and unless they unite and vote tactically, they could wake up on December 13 to their worst nightmare: Corbyn in Number 10 and Sturgeon outside announcing the date of a second independence referendum.