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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK

Talking tactics

There will be some tactical voting - but the system will take time to bed in

Dr Michael Dyer, Department of Politics and International Relations, Aberdeen University, examines the issue of tactical voting.

There has been much talk of tactical voting in these, the first elections to the Scottish Parliament.

No doubt some people will cast their ballots not to elect a particular candidate, but more to prevent another from winning - but this will not happen on a widespread basis.

Why? Because people are having to contend with a new system of voting - the Additional Member system - as well as the traditional first past the post.

In Germany, where a system of proportional representation has been in place for some years, evidence shows that as it beds down, and both parties and voters have become more knowledgeable about its properties, tactical behaviour has increased.

German parties

Given that Labour has major advantages to gain from the system which are far greater than those available to the German parties, it would be surprising if the exploitation of the possibilities were indefinitely ignored.

[ image: Donald Dewar's Labour can
Donald Dewar's Labour can "exploit" the system
If a party has little interest in gaining Additional Members, they and/or their voters might adopt tactics to manipulate the system to their greater benefit.

Scotland presents an ideal opportunity for Labour to exploit the more nefarious aspects of this procedure. On the basis on the 1997 General Election result and recent opinion polls, Labour would win only seven of the Additional Members, at a cost of more than 180,000 votes each.

Because those expensively-purchased Additional Members, added to the 56 constituency MPs, fail to give Labour an overall majority, the question arises as to whether Labour might not more profitably use its second votes by throwing them to an "alter ego" or other party.

'Surrogate' party

Labour might have decided not to contest the list seats at all, but instead sponsored a surrogate party, let's call it the (fictitious) Scottish Proper Labour Party (SPLP).

[ image: Jim Wallace's Liberal Democrats would have won 37 seats]
Jim Wallace's Liberal Democrats would have won 37 seats
On the basis of the 1997 voting pattern, the SPLP, not having fought any constituencies, would have taken 35 of the Additional Member places, if all Labour voters had transferred their second votes to this party.

The combined parties, therefore, would have held 91 of the 129 seats in the parliament. Alternatively, had Labour an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, and all the Labour voters had obeyed their leaders, the Liberal Democrats would have taken 37 of the Additional Member seats.

Consequently, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have a combined total of 105 Scottish MPs, leaving the SNP and Conservatives with only a fifth of the representation with two-fifths of the votes.

Having failed to come to imaginative solutions, the Labour Party has simply asked its voters to cast both their ballots for Labour, effectively inviting several hundred thousand of them to waste their votes. (That, of course, is preferable to them voting SNP, from the point of view of the party managers).

Think tactics

Individual Labour electors, however, might think differently; might think tactically.

On the basis of the 1997 General Election result, the 113,000 Labour voters in the North East region - covering Aberdeen (three), Dundee (two), Angus, Banff & Buchan and West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine - would have carried five first-past-the-post constituencies, but not a single Additional Member.

[ image: SNP leader Alex Salmond wants independence]
SNP leader Alex Salmond wants independence
That could well be the outcome of the Scottish election of 1999. Had there been an SPLP, or its equivalent, to which those Labour electors could have transferred their second votes, they would have returned three of the Additional Members.

In the absence of such an opportunity in 1999, Labour supporters might well consider alternatives to "wasting" their votes.

How might a rational Labour voter in the North East, (or for that matter in Lothian, and Central Scotland, where similar conditions prevail), assess the possibilities?

Clearly, a vote for the SNP is out of the question, given that the party is the main opposition to his/her desire for a Labour administration.

'Shilly-shallying' over marriage

The Liberal Democrats in normal circumstances might seem a safer bet, but given their shilly-shallying regarding a marriage with Labour or the SNP, it would be wiser for Labour supporters to cast their second votes for the Conservatives, because the Tories would neither facilitate the creation of an SNP-led administration nor support the use of the parliament's tax-raising powers.

Less partisan Labour supporters, of course, might indulge themselves by supporting with their second votes the Scottish Socialist Party, the Greens, the Natural Law Party, the Pro-Life Alliance, or Canon Kenyon Wright, an independent worthy of special consideration for his efforts in the Scottish Convention - though none of those options has quite the enticement of voting Tory knowing that it helps the Labour cause!

[ image: Tory leader David McLetchie promotes his manifesto]
Tory leader David McLetchie promotes his manifesto
Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and SNP voters, unlike their Labour counterparts must, (apart from Liberal Democrats in the south and Highlands), cast their second votes for their own party.

Their tactical options are more open with respect to the first vote, where traditional considerations apply. Similarly, Labour voters in some constituencies would also be advised to cast a tactical rather than party vote.

The only point all voters have to remember is that the choice is not between a Conservative or Labour-led administration, but between a Labour-led or SNP-led administration.

Renegade MP

There are, however, circumstances where the two-vote system has consequences for first vote choice that are different from those relating to Westminster elections.

In Falkirk West, for example, Dennis Canavan, a renegade Labour MP, is standing against his party, and in a Westminster election non-Labour supporters might be well disposed towards him as a means of embarrassing Labour.

In the Scottish election, however, the defeat of the Labour candidate in Falkirk West is likely to be offset by Labour gaining a seat from the list at the expense of either the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, or the SNP.

Ironically, it would appear rational for Labour loyalists to back Canavan with their first votes, and the the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Nationalists to vote Labour.

There is, therefore, an aspect to the Additional Member System which is not only plain daft but suggests that nothing succeeds like failure.

Dr Michael Dyer, Department of Politics and International Relations, Aberdeen University.

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