Tactical voting could blow up the Tories — if Brits can understand it

LONDON — Britain’s Conservatives look set for an election pasting this year. But anti-Tory campaigners want to make sure it’s a knock-out blow.

As a general election looms, a host of flashy campaigns are springing up trying to convince Brits to vote tactically. Under the U.K.’s winner-takes-all system, that means asking voters in tight seats to hold their nose and cast their ballot for a candidate with the best chance of knocking out a Conservative, even if that candidate wouldn’t be their first pick.

A flood of sophisticated online tools, backed up with data from expensive polling campaigns, are promising to help show voters where they can use their tactical edge.

There’s just one problem: skeptics say British voters just aren’t clued up enough on the finer points of the country’s system to get tactical voting really firing.

“This will be the ninth general election I’ve worked on in one capacity or another, and I think certainly for most of them, if not all of them, there has been talk of this being the tactical voting election,” says Joe Twyman, director of polling firm Deltapoll.

Indeed, polling shows British voters continue to lack an awareness of the basic information needed to make tactical voting work. A survey carried out by Deltapoll last year found just 52 percent of voters could correctly identify the winning party in their local area. That dropped to 19 percent when asked who came in second.

The proportion of voters who knew both of those facts, plus the margin of victory in their seat, and lived in a constituency where tactical voting could actually make a difference, was just one percent, Deltapoll found.

After much hype about tactical voting in previous elections, Twyman reckons it could “again be a case of the dog that failed to bark.”

That won’t stop determined campaigners from trying to give the Conservatives a kicking.

Getting clued-up

Organized tactical voting has been around in the U.K. since at least 1997, when a campaign group called GROT — an acronym for Get Rid Of Them — first sent leaflets through the post trying to build an anti-Conservative coalition. Political scientists still hotly debate how big a role tactical voting really played in the 1997 election. But the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s center-left third party, racked up an extra 28 seats that year as Tony Blair’s Labour romped home.

Advocates see parallels between 2024 and 1997, where poll after poll shows deep dissatisfaction with a Conservative government long in power — and where they believe voters could be tempted to set aside party loyalty and vote for anyone who can oust a Tory in a tight race.

Best for Britain is one of the groups hoping to make tactical voting matter at this election — and it’s got a clear aim in doing so.

Advocates see parallels between 2024 and 1997, where poll after poll shows deep dissatisfaction with a Conservative government long in power. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As one of the loudest backers of a second Brexit referendum back in the day, the campaign group has since restyled itself. It’s hoping to build a coalition of progressive MPs keen to bolster ties and push for a better trading relationship with the European Union.

The group has run tactical voting campaigns in the last two elections and it’s now putting the final touches on a new high-tech platform. As well as a clear voting recommendation, this year’s tool will try to address some of the knowledge gaps voters face.

It’s promising information on voting deadlines, the types of photo ID that will and won’t be accepted at polling stations, and key stats on things like local crime rates and hospital waiting lists.

“It’ll tell you where to place your vote tactically to have the best chance of either voting out the incumbent Conservative or beating the Conservative challenger,” the group’s chief executive Naomi Smith explains.

Smith says much of the analysis will be driven by sophisticated multi-level regression (MRP) polling. The group, she says, is planning to conduct a major survey and provide their recommendation as close to polling day as possible, while still allowing enough time for postal voters to get the advice.

But the campaigns boss admits they’ll also be injecting some human takes too. “Where there is an incumbent who we’d define as a progressive MP, they will get the recommendation rather than what the data might say,” Smith says.

‘Deep-rooted problems’

Best for Britain is just one of several campaigns set to launch their own tactical voting tools in the run-up to this year’s vote. Expect major ad campaigns and media voices like former TV host-turned-anti-corruption-warrior Carol Vorderman deployed to try and raise the public’s awareness of the practice.

Yet some see the push for tactical voting as a depressing sign of how Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system can force voters into making choices they wouldn’t normally want to.

Jess Garland at campaign group the Electoral Reform Society says the practice exposes “deep-rooted problems” with the U.K.’s way of choosing governments. “Voting should be about choosing the candidate you most agree with rather than head-scratching over who has a realistic chance of winning,” she says.

Despite those concerns, tactical voting campaigns will forge ahead. There is an apparent willingness among opposition parties to scale back their campaigning efforts informally in seats where the Tories are vulnerable and another candidate has a better chance.

In two by-elections last year, a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats was seen as crucial to Labour’s success.

Last month, the Times reported that a group of local voters in the Conservative stronghold of Totnes had launched a series of events akin to an American-style primary in a bid to establish which opposition party had the best chance of unseating Sunak’s candidate. While the local Labour candidate failed to take part in the process, it’s a sign some voters may be taking strategic voting more seriously.

A group of local voters in the Conservative stronghold of Totnes launched a series of events akin to an American-style primary in a bid to establish which opposition party had the best chance of unseating Sunak’s candidate. | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

‘They’d happily vote Labour’

Within the parties themselves, there’s a mixed mood on how big a role these tools will play as the campaign hots up.

A Labour parliamentary candidate, granted anonymity like others in this article to speak freely about campaign planning, said they are “reserving judgement” about the potential scale of tactical voting.

And, they argued, a recent redrawing of British parliamentary constituencies may have in fact made it easier for voters to simply vote with the heart and do away with tactical voting.

“[This seat] now includes an area that was strongly Lib Dem at the last election,” the Labour hopeful said. “We’ve been working it hard and we’ve already had several people on the doorstep telling us they’d only supported the Lib Dems at the last election because they felt that was their best option if they wanted to remove their Tory MP.”

“The impression we came away with was they’d happily vote Labour at the next election because we are now the party with the best chance of taking that from the Conservatives,” the Labour candidate added. “We’ll be doing our best to spread that message ourselves, but there is no question that more engaged voters will be checking out these tactical voting websites too.”

At least for now, the Conservatives aren’t sounding too spooked. A Tory strategist accused campaign groups like Best for Britain of being “somewhat naive” about the tribal nature of British politics. “If Labour and the Lib Dems agree with each other they would merge and be one party — but they’re not doing that,” the strategist said.


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

A Conservative minister meanwhile said the boundary changes — which represented a big shake-up of the map the 2019 election was fought on — had actually made it harder for opponents to work out who now has the best chance to unseat them.

“It isn’t clear who the main opposition to the Conservatives is,” the minister said. “I don’t know in [my seat.]”

Sam Blewett contributed reporting.