The triumph of tactical voting

Hot off the press, Campbell Tickell Partner, Greg Campbell, interprets the General Election 2024.

How did Labour secure nearly two-thirds of the seats at Westminster on over one-third of the votes? How did the Liberal Democrats secure their highest number of seats in over 100 years with a smaller vote percentage than Reform, who secured just five seats? 

Tactical voting

First and foremost, the answer is tactical voting, and highly disciplined and targeted campaigning, which we saw each in their own way from Labour, Lib Dems and Greens. 

The context was a Conservative government in power for 14 years (albeit the first five of those in coalition), tired, ground down and significantly unpopular especially after the past four years. North of the border too, we saw a Scottish National Party in power at Holyrood for 17 years, and mired in problems for nearly two years, alongside criticisms of its governing performance. 

This translated into enough of the electorate willing to support at local level the candidate most likely to see off the Tories, or in Scotland the SNP. 

There were no formal pacts or agreements between parties on such tactics of course. That was left to the tactical voting websites, social media and grassroots campaigns, often combined with analysis from local opinion polls. But there are well-sourced reports of campaigning resources being moved from one seat to another by Labour and Lib Dems in particular. 

Alongside this de facto ‘progressive alliance’, the Conservatives suffered mightily at the hands of Reform, with a backlash at the Tories’ difficulties in being seen to get an effective grip on issues such as immigration. 

‘Transactional’ approach to voting

In general, it is clear traditional party allegiance counts for less in the current environment than in the past. There are clear signs of a more transactional approach to voting for many people, combined with a more sophisticated grasp of how to achieve tactical outcomes under first past the post voting. (It is now fair to assume the prospects for proportional representation being introduced are nil for the foreseeable future.) 

It is of note that Labour’s final percentage of 35% of votes nationally was down several points from the consistent messages from the pollsters throughout the election campaign. Combine this with the low turnout of 60%, and there are several likely contributory factors:  

  • a mix of people believing the polls and seeing less need to turn out with the election seemingly a foregone conclusion; plus the Conservative message of not giving Labour a ‘supermajority’;  
  • a lack of enthusiasm among many at Labour’s steady and unflashy election campaign; and more people hence voting with their heart rather than a tactical view, or staying at home.  
  • Labour was hurt too in some constituencies over its position on the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. 

Lessons for Labour

Where does this leave the new Labour government? The lesson seems to be that the electorate recognises a change from the 2015-19 Labour Party and is willing to give Starmer and co the benefit of doubt, but the deal is not yet sealed. 

The party is planning a 10 year programme and considerable resource and analysis is already going into how they can retain power at the next election in 2028/29. Labour in power will need to deliver real tangible change that voters acknowledge and feel the difference – not easy when there is little money available, at least in the initial stages, with huge and urgent pressing demands for resource – health, local government, housing, education, criminal justice, defence and more. 

And the backdrop will commonly be factors outside the UK’s control: fallout from the US presidential election in November, or events in the EU or in Ukraine, for instance; or indeed macroeconomic or environmental/climate elements. 

The Conservatives

Whither the Conservatives? Long viewed as the most successful political party in the world, having held power longer than any other since the start of the 20th century, their number of MPs reduced to one-third of their previous total, their worst result ever.  

Their leadership campaign will be as much about their continuing debate over party identity as about individual candidates. While the final ballot will be down to the party’s membership (who chose Liz Truss last time they were asked), the choice of the final two candidates will be down to Tory MPs, and since 4 July, there appears more of a balance between moderate and radical elements. The danger for the Tories is that the splits that have dominated their operations over the past four years (and arguably all the way back to the 1990 removal of Margaret Thatcher) will continue. 

The Reform party

This will all impact on the fortunes of Reform. Can the party build its small Westminster base into the major national movement its leadership has trumpeted? Or will it be a minor parliamentary irritant, limited externally by the relative narrowness of its appeal in demographic terms, as its policies on such areas as the health service and the economy come under scrutiny? Will it be able to find ways to broaden its appeal to a younger electorate? And can it seriously take on Labour in the north, as Farage has claimed? 

 It is worth pointing out that centre and left aligned parties received 58% of the vote overall across the UK, and right aligned parties received a total of 39%. A rightward shift by the Conservatives to accommodate or undercut Reform will risk losing further support in their traditional southern happy places. It is striking they lost swathes of seats in Surrey, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.

Centre and left aligned parties received 58% of the vote overall across the UK, and right aligned parties received a total of 39%.

Liberal Democrats

For the Liberal Democrats, the results present a significant opportunity to make more of a mark, and to bury the memories of their time as junior partner in the Conservatives’ 2010-15 coalition. Initially it is likely to mean a combination of critical support for the new government while carving out distinctive positions on key issues, not least with the aim of benefiting from potential further civil war among the Tories, especially if this leads the latter further rightwards. 

The Greens

The Greens meanwhile built on their successes in local elections into real momentum in target areas and turn these into Westminster seats. In the process, the party has positioned itself in some places as the Left alternative to Labour, especially as the latter has felt forced to dilute its climate change proposals. Governments inevitably undergo periods of unpopularity, and the Greens will seek to benefit, especially given their appeal to many younger people. 

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland

For the SNP, the period ahead will involve significant reflection on what has gone wrong for them, as they try to turn around their fortunes ahead of the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections. As to Wales, remarkably there are now no Conservative held seats in the country. Plaid Cymru has strengthened somewhat and will seek to capitalise further on the Tories’ loss of support. 

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, there were some shifts, albeit not hugely significant, though the Democratic Unionist Party has slipped back perhaps unsurprisingly, given their recent travails. Sinn Fein has the largest representation from the region, with seven of the 18 seats. 

One final reflection: it is interesting to note how significant tactical voting proved in the second round of voting for France’s National Assembly on 7 July. 

To discuss any issues raised in this article, please feel free to contact Greg Campbell:

The triumph of tactical voting

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