As constituents in Oxford West & Abingdon will know, a keystone of Liberal Democrat candidate Layla Moran’s campaign has been to encourage tactical voting from left-leaning voters in order to form a “coalition of the left”. The argument is based on previous election results which suggest the constituency is a two-horse race between incumbent Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood and Layla Moran herself. However, the case for tactical voting is not as clear as first appears. Here’s why.
It’s not as close as the Lib Dems will have you believe. Although only 176 votes decided the 2010 Oxford West & Abingdon election, recent polling in the constituency reveals a much wider gap. Two Ashcroft polls conducted within the past year indicate an 8-11% Conservative lead over the Liberal Democrats in Oxford West & Abingdon. This discrepancy can be explained by two reasons:
- Entering into a coalition with the Conservatives may have lost the Lib Dems much of their student vote, as well as the support that left-leaning voters lent them in 2010.
- In 2010, the Lib Dems were represented by Dr Evan Harris, the constituency’s MP since 1997. Having amassed support over years of representing constituents, his personal reputation likely inflated the Lib Dem vote share in the last election. Layla Moran, without Harris’ local popularity, is unlikely to benefit from the same level of local support.
Hence, the constituency appears a lot less marginal than it was once was, and so tactical voting is unlikely to be as successful as has been suggested.
Accountability is important. A single vote is unlikely to decide an election even in the most marginal of constituencies. However, voting provides opportunity to send a message to politicians. Parties decide their future direction based on how the electorate responds, and voting statistics are scrutinised by party officials. Whether you want to condemn the coalition’s raising of tuition fees, or want to send a message about Labour’s departure from Blairite politics, your vote will contribute to statistics which will be widely interpreted. Moreover, by tactically voting for the Liberal Democrats, left-leaning voters squander the chance to encourage the party to embrace more left-wing policies. It’s worth mentioning that other parties, such as the National Health Action Party, also provide opportunity to send a clear, focused message on specific issues like the NHS.
Long-term impact. “Safe seats” change over time; a disastrous 1983 campaign in the safe Labour seat of Bermondsey was followed by a 30-year long Liberal Democrat majority in the area. Although such a dramatic shift is unlikely in Oxford, a vote for Labour could have long-term consequences in the constituency. By returning a larger Labour vote-share, the self-fulfilling cycle whereby the result of one election is used to justify tactical voting in the next could potentially be broken. And hence, Labour candidates could stand a better chance of winning in the area in the future.
National vote share might decide this election. Polls indicate this is the closest election in decades, and it is likely that the national vote share will be important. Under the first-past-the-post system, the party with the most seats may not be the one with the most votes. Amid rumours that Nick Clegg would rather re-enter into coalition with the Conservatives than Labour (Cameron and Clegg have reportedly arranged their coalition talks already), left-leaning voters might want to consider his careful language on the issue. Speaking to the BBC, his vague promise that he would look to coalition with “the party with the most votes and the most seats” failed to specify which he felt was most important. Therefore, although your vote may seem futile at a local level, national vote shares may prove a crucial factor in coalition negotiations.
By all means vote Layla Moran if Liberal Democrat policies best suit your views and interests. But if you’re considering voting for a party which doesn’t necessarily align with your principles, don’t fall under the pretence that tactical voting will achieve the electoral outcome you want.