Tactical voting and the battle to save the union

Unionism in Scotland is at a crossroads and, alongside it, so are the Scottish Conservatives. This was no more apparent than in the muffled, cross-border dispute between Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader and MP, and his Westminster counterparts. In an eyebrow-raising comment, Ross suggested that unionist voters should “look beyond their own narrow party” and use tactical voting to endorse candidates most likely to defeat the SNP. After the Conservatives south of the border clapped back that “this is emphatically not the view” of the Party, he was forced to make an unconvincing clarification that he was, indeed, only referring to supporters of other unionist parties switching their allegiance to the Tories. At a time when the SNP are in turmoil, an altercation over tactical voting might appear an unhelpful distraction to the electorate, but it reveals the dilemma facing the Scottish Conservatives as they approach a general election with a weakened independence movement and an emboldened Labour Party.


The unionist electorate has been no stranger to tactical voting, but now the appeal of this strategy to outwit first-past-the-post is under threat. With an SNP majority on the line during the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections, those opposed to Scottish independence demonstrated a remarkable elasticity at the ballot box; with close to 30% of voters changing their traditional vote to successfully constrain Nicola Sturgeon to a minority. The problem facing Douglas Ross is that the SNP no longer look an electoral threat worthy of ditching party allegiances. The SNP are in turmoil after the arrest of Peter Murrell, their polling is significantly lower than in the run-up to the last set of Scottish elections, and the Labour Party is only five points behind the Scottish Nationalists, as opposed to 29 points behind at the last general election. Non-Conservative unionists simply have less reason to turn to the Tories and the SNP’s weakness might also be fuelling a lurking complacency among those voters, both spell trouble Ross’s leadership and the unionist cause.


Tactical voting is not all that is at stake here; it is a broader anxiety about the appeal of Conservativism in Scotland that can be detected in Ross’s overtures to Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. This is an anxiety that is well-founded for a Scottish Tory party that is watching on as Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are pulling away from the centre-ground on social issues. On the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, Sunak is gearing up to fight the next election on a socially conservative platform, both on the culture wars and alongside hard-line anti-immigration policies, that mirrors the appeal of UKIP and its successors in many parts of England. Douglas Ross knows, however, that this further-right-of-centre politics has seldom made inroads in Scotland, and his Party’s lacklustre performance in the polls indicates that has not changed. Lurking behind the Scottish Tory leader’s comments was a subtle attempt to rebuild a sense of kinship with the other centrist parties in Scotland, while the not-so-subtle rebuke from Westminster might have achieved even more than Douglas Ross would have hoped to; it reminded voters that his Conservative party is not the same as the one being written off by many parts of the electorate.  If his fate is to be any different than the one currently forecast for Rishi Sunak, then he will have to continue to differentiate his Party and leadership from the platform that Prime Minister is cultivating in England.


Douglas Ross knows, though, that Rishi Sunak rapped his knuckles for a reason: talking tactical voting is a political hot potato that could very easily backfire for the Conservatives. Ross has now put strategic voting on the table and has legitimised its use as a political tool that can be employed against the government. As recently as last year’s local elections, the Tories were able to use the suggestion of a tactical Labour-Liberal Democrat pact as a political weapon against those opponents, but this year they have unable to launch such an attack even with dire warnings that tactical voting could see Sunak face losses of over a thousand seats. What is more important for the Prime Minister is that strategic voting is already being touted as decisive for the outcome of the next general election in the crucial Conservative vs Lib Dem and Conservative vs Labour races in English constituencies. Sunak is unsparingly wildly unimpressed that his Scottish counterpart has facilitated media coverage of an electoral strategy that could be gravely more dangerous to the Conservatives than to the SNP. Not least because, now, independence supporters in Scotland have been reminder that they, too, might want to band together and put to one side any inclinations to switch their votes to the Alba Party or Labour, and thereby deny the unionists an electoral breakthrough when it seemed most attainable. Even if tactical voting did successfully row back the wave of yellow on the Scottish electoral map, Labour gains in their place could be what gives Labour a parliamentary majority and flips Downing Street from blue to red.


The survival of both unionism and Conservatism in Scotland is of fundamental importance for Douglas Ross’s politics and career, yet he is observing an electorate that has less motivation to cast their votes with them in mind. Risking a confrontation with Rishi Sunak over tactical voting was, therefore, a gamble worth taking when he endorsed pro-unionist tactical voting. Ross has not seismically shifted any goalposts, but he has set the stage for a greater conversation about the importance of strategic voting when the next general election rolls around. Whether the Scottish Tory leader’s head rolls with it, however, is still yet to be seen.




Featured Image: Number 10 on Flickr

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