Britain in numbers

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October 5, 2022

Tactical voting could leave Tories with just eight northern seats

Exclusive polling shows enough Labour voters would vote Lib Dem, and vice versa, to kick the Conservatives out of power.

By Ben Walker

Britain’s tribal loyalties are not what they used to be. After the expenses scandal, Ukip’s rise, the Scottish referendum, Brexit, and the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson that voters treated as if it was not the Conservative Party, this country is increasingly a nation of swingers. The idea of sticking with a party ’til death do you part has lost its hold, with significant implications for future elections.

But who benefits? At its core, it’ll encourage more fluid voting. For example, alternative parties breaking through, like the Greens in Bristol or the Lib Dems in Sunderland. It will also ease voters into voting tactically more generally. Opting for a party that may not be your first choice, but is a better vote than the alternative incumbent or challenger, is not new to voters but it may prove more common come the next election.

It is tricky to predict the scale of tactical voting, however. The New Statesman has teamed up with the polling company Redfield & Wilton Strategies to ask voters key questions on that very issue* to help us model its potential impact in the next election.

Suppose your constituency has a competitive fight between a candidate from the Conservatives and a candidate from the Liberal Democrats: which party would you vote for?

This question was posed to voters nationally, and overall Britons plumped for the Liberal Democrats over the Conservatives, albeit by just 37 per cent to 34 per cent. In this scenario, Labour was on just 21 per cent. That doesn’t tell us much though. What we want to know is which voters moved where.

Among Labour’s 2019 voters, just 40 per cent said that in a hypothetical Con-Lib marginal they would vote Lib Dem; 51 per cent would stay with Labour and 7 per cent would vote Tory. The regional and age splits are quite nuanced here. London voters would go Tory over Lib Dem, ditto those in the south-east counties. Eighteen- to 24-year-olds would stay with Labour. In the south-west the Lib Dems would clean up, leading the Tories there by 18 percentage points. 

These types of polling questions come with a health warning about hypothetical data, but they can aid us in modelling the next election. They let us look at seats where the Lib Dems are in second and gauge how many Labour voters might switch to help them over the line. We can also use YouGov polling from May to work out movement the other way, although its question was a little less precisely targeted.

Let’s apply what data we have to my Britain Predicts model. The numbers right now are unquestionably eye-popping, but so too is the underlying polling. We have Labour on course for 396 seats. The Tories are on course for just 154, eleven below what they won in 1997. That is without any semblance of tactical voting applied to the model.

If we were to transpose what we learned above onto a seat like Harrogate and Knaresborough, in North Yorkshire, however, things would be different. At the moment, we have the Tories there on course to hold the seat with 35 per cent of the vote. The Lib Dems, the clear challenger last time, are forecast to come away with 32 per cent, while Labour would end up on 25 per cent.

[See also: Who do we trust to run the economy?]

The Lib Dem and Labour figures don’t feel right here, and that’s not my prejudices talking. For Labour's vote share to go up from 10 per cent to 25 per cent in a Con-Lib battleground seat is nonsensical. What would probably happen in reality is those new Labour voters – or most of them, at least, would go Lib Dem. If we allow for tactical voting, using the figures from our Redfield & Wilton poll, we see just that. The Tories would be up just two points on 37 per cent, whereas the Lib Dems, bolstered by a hypothetical Labour vote, would jump from 32 per cent to 42 per cent. Labour would be squeezed from 25 per cent to 13 per cent.

This, in my mind, is a more accurate forecast. It fits in with the polling and how Con-Lib seats tend to operate.

Were we to apply this formula nationally, both for Con-Lib seats and Con-Lab ones, three to four dozen seats would change hands. Instead of 154 seats, the Conservatives would win 117. The Lib Dems would go from the currently forecast 24 to 41. Labour would end up with 408 seats, up 12 on current modelling and more than double what the party won in 2019.

Mapping tactical voting
Seats that would change hands in an election held today (October)
Source: Britain Predicts

These figures exclude Scotland. We don’t yet have reliable data to work out what level of tactical voting would take place to boot out or bolster an SNP candidate in a Westminster race. And these are figures are based on national polling. To be sure of the potentials of tactical voting we need more, finely detailed research. It is a start, however, and it takes us in the right direction.

On current polling, tactical voting would reduce the Conservatives to just eight seats in northern England, three in the capital, a dozen in the West Midlands, fewer than 20 in the south-west, and zero in Wales. Tactical voting would see some voters switch to the Conservatives, without doubt, but the overwhelming majority who would change their vote would change it against them.

*Polling of 2,500 voters in the UK, carried out on 28-29 September.

[See also: Labour voters want lower taxes – and associate the Tories with raising them]

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