Tactical voting


Britain’s Conservative Party suffered a spectacular defeat in the General Election of 4 July 2024.  Britain’s electoral system, and the roles played by the media and opinion polls, resulted in tactical voting on a huge scale – against the government rather showing than a strong surge of support for any alternative.  Governments elsewhere have also been rejected by voters recently.

The election results reflected what the British people did not want.  Britain’s political parties now need to revive public support for a positive way ahead.  The political system is at a turning point.

The election results

Sir John Curtice wrote about The dramatic Tory decline behind Labour’s landslide:

“..the worst Conservative result in history in terms of seats, with the party on 121.”

“Labour have secured their landslide on a lower share of the vote (35% in Great Britain) than won by Tony Blair in each of his three victories, as well as the 40% won by Jeremy Corbyn in 2017.”

“..the Lib Dems were able to win a record [72] seats, despite their vote only increasing by half a point across the country. Their 12% of the vote is still well down on the 23% the party secured before they entered the coalition government in 2010.”

“Reform did especially well in seats where a high proportion of people voted Leave in 2016.”

“The SNP have suffered a serious drubbing. Their share of the vote is down 15 points, while Labour’s is up by 17 points north of the border.”

“The Greens have recorded their best general election performance yet, and will likely win 7% of the vote across Great Britain, increasing their seats from one to four.”

“Turnout is well down compared with recent elections, falling by eight points to 60%. This will be the second lowest turnout ever in a UK election since 1885. Only the 59% in 2001 was lower.”

“All in all this looks more like an election the Conservatives lost than one Labour won.”

Global factors made it very difficult for any incumbent party to overcome voter anger about the ‘cost of living crisis’ engendered by the twin economic shocks of the coronavirus pandemic and the increased fuel prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Several countries have been affected:

●  Emmanuel Macron’s party has lost power, and the French left celebrates as far right faces surprise defeat.

●  In Germany the Far-right celebrate beating Scholz’s party.

●  A new far right Dutch government is sworn in after Wilders election win.

The timing of the UK election appears to have been prompted by a glimmer of economic hope.  On 10 May 2024 it was reported that the UK economy is improving but people may not notice.

“Will people be grateful for a turning point? Or will they focus on years of sluggish growth and declining living standards before that?

The economic hangover from the worst health crisis in a century and the worst energy crisis in a generation was always going to be tough, but the economy now appears to be returning to normal. And if sustained, that is a marked improvement.”

Rishi Sunak relied on the overall economic performance rather than people’s felt experiences.

Opinion polls, the media, and the electoral system

Media speculation began on 22 May 2024, as soon as the election was announced.  The Telegraph announced that Rishi Sunak has made the greatest gamble of his career: “The future of the Conservative party, and the country, now rests on a slim piece of good news. It may not be enough.”  The newspaper’s poll tracker commented on “Conservatives falling as general election looms”.

Results from opinion polls were anxiously analysed during the campaign, with some wild predictions.  One poll on 19 June predicted a Tory wipeout: “party on track to slump to 53 seats, with around three-quarters of Cabinet voted out”.

Opinion polls also featured in campaign leaflets, which encouraged tactical voting.  They featured bar charts claiming who can win your seat – and some were very misleading.  “Around half of leaflets seen this year by Prof Milazzo’s Open Elections project contain tactical messages, up from 25% in the 2019 general election” and “there are lots of different possible numbers you can point to to support a message of tactical voting – and parties will pick whichever suits them”.

Possible ways ahead for the political parties

The public hadn’t sent any positive messages about what it wanted, except a clear desire for change.  Political parties now need to position themselves to win support:

●  Reform UK made a big impact – winning a 14.3% share of the vote, but only 5 seats. It came second in 98 other seats.  Its website claims that “We are ruled by an out of touch political class who have turned their backs on our country.  Reform is the alternative.  Only Reform will stand up for British culture, identity and values.  …Only Reform will secure Britain’s future as a free, proud and rich nation.”  This agenda is typical of ‘alt-right’ nationalism (and it is notable that Farage was immediately congratulated by Donald Trump, who is a kindred spirit).  And Farage doesn’t want to join the Conservative party – he is trying to grow his own party.

●  The Labour Party won 411 seats, giving it a working majority of 181 seats, yet it did not increased its vote share. It had run a very cautious campaign, emphasising the need for change rather than releasing policy details.  Starmer now needs to build support for himself and his party in office, by delivering better public services and improved living standards.  The Rachel Reeves Mais Lecture in March 2024 showed that Labour has a clear vision for how to achieve economic growth – to pay for the changes needed:

“…the three pillars of a strategy for broad-based and resilient growth. Growth that we can achieve. Growth that we must achieve.

First, stability – the most basic condition for economic security and international credibility.

Second, investment – fostered through partnership, between dynamic business and strategic government.

And third, reform – to mobilise all of Britain’s resources in pursuit of shared prosperity.”

●  The Liberal Democrats also gained many more seats without having won many more votes. Their election manifesto claim that “Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to elect a strong local champion who will fight for a fair deal for you and your community” defines a role for the party – but they also need to articulate their values clearly and explain how they are different from other parties.  Freedom and empowerment of every individual, and an emphasis on local political power, are distinctive themes that might resonate with voters.

●  The Conservative Party is in turmoil. Rishi Sunak has resigned and there will be a leadership contest.  The party knows that it is unpopular, but it now needs to decide which way to turn:

  The bookies’ favourite to succeed Rishi Sunak, at the time of the election, was Kemi Badenoch. She has been described as a Key figure tipped for future leadership: “A small state Conservative, Ms Badenoch cites Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher among her political heroes” – but the country has decisively rejected Thatcherism after 14 years of it.

  Suella Braverman, the former Home Secretary, suggested that the party should welcome Nigel Farage, but Boris Johnson warns Tories not to merge with Reform: “We don’t need to try to absorb other parties, to try to acquire their vitality like a transfusion of monkey glands.” (Johnson is a discredited politician, but he has a wonderful way with words – describing Nigel Farage as “the cheroot-puffing Pied Piper of Clacton”.)  Perhaps she and her supporters might leave the Conservative Party and join Reform UK.

  Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s article on the future of Conservatism, after Boris Johnson’s departure, argued that “the Tory Party urgently needs to rediscover the principles that made it so dominant in the first place …an acceptance of the responsibility to improve the economic and social wellbeing of the people as a whole. This last objective has often been described as the One Nation aspiration”. If the party were to regroup around One Nation values, it might attract more public support.  (Johnson had expelled MPs with those values.)

  The leader selection process is crucial. A leader chosen by the Conservative Party membership might not appeal to the broader electorate, and the party could stay in the wilderness for a long time if it chooses unwisely.

What do the British people want?

The value of having a democratic political system is that people should be able to choose their government.  They express their preferences by voting in elections.  Smaller political parties are at a great disadvantage in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system though, so people resort to tactical voting against parties that they dislike if their preferred party would be unlikely to win in their home constituency.  Electoral reform, with some form of proportional representation, is desirable – so that people can vote for the party they prefer.  That can only happen in time for the next election if the Labour Party agrees to it, because it has a huge majority.


  • Michael Radcliffe

    I am unconvinced by PR. I am convinced that FPTP must be abolished. A Royal Commission has been proposed but this will just kick the issue into touch. Much better a two stage approach. First by legislating that no elected MP can take his place in the Commons without +50% of all votes cast. This ensures that the governing party or coalition has +50% of all votes cast – the popular vote. It also ensures that all votes cast count. Such a change would remove the inequity of the FPTP system we have now and would result in stable government. This can be followed by the second stage; a Royal Commission which will be costly and time consuming. During this period an assessment can be made of the benefits of the +50% system in the first stage.

    Whatever change is made requires a referendum. The first stage is undeniably sound and has a high probability of success in a referendum. The second stage is unlikely to succeed as it will be difficult for the electorate at large to understand and will most probably be torpedoed by the major parties, as in the last referendum on electoral reform.


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