The Voting Tactics That Could Cost Boris Johnson His Majority
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, reacts during a general election campaign visit to the JCB Cab Manufacturing Centre in Uttoxeter, U.K. (Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)

The Voting Tactics That Could Cost Boris Johnson His Majority

(Bloomberg) -- He was Tony Blair’s ultra-loyal spin doctor in the era of New Labour. But in this week’s U.K. election, Alistair Campbell is calling on voters to back the rival Liberal Democrats -- all because of Brexit.

“Voting Labour will just help the Tories,” Campbell wrote in a leaflet to electors in the district of Wokingham, a small town 40 miles west of London where Labour and the Liberal Democrats are vying to oust John Redwood, a leading advocate for leaving the European Union. “We all need to put aside our traditional tribal loyalties. The stakes this time are far too high.”

The Voting Tactics That Could Cost Boris Johnson His Majority

With the Conservatives leading in the polls, Boris Johnson looks set to get the majority he needs to take Britain out of the EU. To stop him, Remainers will have to encourage tactical voting on an unprecedented scale. Their challenge will be to persuade people to vote for the candidate most likely to beat the pro-Brexiter in each district, rather than the rival they have long supported.

The problem for Brexit’s opponents in this election is that the pro-EU vote is split between Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats, the two main opposition parties. So far, both parties have disagreed over how to stop Brexit, and neither has been willing to give way to the other’s candidates. By contrast, Johnson has managed to largely unite the Leave movement behind him after Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party withdrew more than 300 candidates from the race.

“The Remain parties have failed the Remain movement,” said Naomi Smith, chief executive officer of Best for Britain, an anti-Brexit campaign group which has set up a website to advise EU supporters on how to vote tactically. The “inability of Corbyn and Swinson to work together means that Remain voters have to do their job for them.”

The Voting Tactics That Could Cost Boris Johnson His Majority

Small Shift

Smith reckons only a small shift in voter behavior is needed to swing the wider result. Many of the U.K.’s 650 electoral districts decided by as little as a few hundred votes. For the Conservatives, 36 key battleground seats will be decided by less than 1,000 votes in each of them.

The Voting Tactics That Could Cost Boris Johnson His Majority

Fearful of complacency setting in among his supporters, Johnson warned on Tuesday that tactical voting could cost him the election. “The danger of another hung parliament is clear and present,” he was due to tell supporters in Staffordshire, northwest England, according to a transcript released by his office. “There are sophisticated and well-financed attempts underway to prevent a Conservative majority through tactical voting.”

That still looks a long shot. Historically, the effect of tactical voting has been only marginal in British general elections. The effort in this election risks being hamstrung by a lack of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, disagreements over which candidates to back, and competing efforts to promote tactical voting that only cancel each other out.

The absence of any co-ordination between the parties has been a source of frustration to some pro-EU candidates. In Canterbury, Liberal Democrat Tim Walker withdrew from the race shortly before nominations closed because he didn’t want to divide the Remain vote and allow the Labour-held seat to fall to the Conservatives.

“Pretty Inadequate”

“You have to be pretty inadequate just to keep soldiering on in these hopeless seats,” Walker said in an interview. “You can’t win, and you’re just helping to install another Brextremist in the Commons.”

Walker was promptly replaced as a candidate, but he wasn’t the only Liberal Democrat to withdraw. In Beaconsfield, northwest of London, Rob Castell dropped out to clear the way for Dominic Grieve, a prominent remainer running as an independent after being ousted from the Conservative party. The Liberal Democrats, which came a distant third in the 2017 election, aren’t contesting the seat, leaving it to Grieve, Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens to duke it out.

Wider efforts to give anti-Brexit candidates a clear run in each constituency have faltered. The Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens agreed that only one candidate from any of them would run in just 60 districts. But absent from that agreement was the Labour Party, which has insisted on running a full slate of candidates.

So it has been left to tactical voting websites like Best for Britain’s or the People’s Vote’s to recommend which candidates Remainers should support. But they haven’t always agreed on which party to back -- nor have they been consistent themselves. At the end of November, changed 83 of its recommendations, according to the Guardian. Now the two sites say their recommendations differ in only five districts.

Liberal Democrats

Complicating the equation further has been the slow decline in the popularity of the Liberal Democrats over the course of the campaign. Where they might have seemed a credible challenger at the start of the campaign, they look less so now.

Jolyon Maugham, a prominent voice in the Remain movement who has been promoting Best for Britain’s website to his 175,000 Twitter followers, admits deciding the right candidate to support can be difficult.

In the marginal constituency of Putney, a London suburb, Maugham campaigned for his personal friend and Liberal Democrat candidate Sue Wixley at the start of the campaign, as recommended by Best for Britain’s website. Now, after what he calls Swinson’s “catastrophic campaign,” the site has updated its recommendation to Labour.

“If Sue asked me to go canvas for her today, I might find that really quite difficult,” he said. “For people whose principal concern is Brexit in Putney, on the evidence today, they should be voting Labour.”

Campbell, too, stresses his effort to rally support for the Liberal Democrats is purely a matter of business. “I will be voting Labour this time too, because where I live they are best placed to beat the Tories,” he wrote.

Back in Wokingham, a look at the electoral math shows the limitations of tactical voting. At the last election, the combined vote of the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates wouldn’t have been enough to dislodge Redwood. For that to happen, support for the Conservatives needs to start evaporating under the heat of Brexit.

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