Why anti-SNP tactical voting may not work
There are online campaigns, instructing people in various seats how best to use their vote to thwart the SNP. On twitter, there is a politically illiterate movement, using the hashtag #SNPout (quite odd, as they're not actually "in" government in Westminster), suggesting we vote for either the Lib Dems, Labour or the Conservatives to keep the dreadful nationalists out. I'm not sure I could countenance a tactical vote for the Tories simply to keep out a party whose policy standpoints have far more in common with my worldview than the Conservatives do, and I'd imagine many Scots feel similarly.
As a feature of the flawed First Past the Post electoral system, tactical voting is a phenomenon likely to stay with us for some time. However, we have to ask the question: will tactical voting keep the SNP from a significant role in UK government?
The latest opinion poll from The Guardian gives the Conservatives 277 seats, Labour 269, the SNP 53 and the Lib Dems 25. This would mean the Tories remain the largest party, but unable to secure a working majority with any single party other than the SNP. A Tory-SNP deal is hugely risky and difficult for either party to sell; a Tory-Lib Dem-UKIP-DUP alliance is impractical on so many levels. The combined total of 322 for the Labour and SNP combined is just short of a majority (326) but could be workable.
Let's take a look at the current state of play. Prior to the dissolution of Parliament this week, Labour had 257 seats, with the SNP 6. This gives them a combined total of 263, of which 46 are Scottish seats. Focusing on Scotland, let's say for the sake of argument that the SNP does as well as polling suggests and take 36 seats from Labour, leaving them with 4. That still gives a combined total of 46. The seat currently held by "independent" Eric Joyce will assuredly be won by either the SNP or Labour, taking the total to 47.
Admittedly, the SNP are also likely to make gains from the Lib Dems - even if they were to take all of our seats that gives a combined Labour-SNP total of 58. This could be telling. But would anti-SNP tactical voting really prevent the SNP holding the balance of power?
Let's take the 11 Lib Dem held seats out of the equation and focus on the 47 currently held by Labour or the SNP. Neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives are seriously targetting these. Voting Labour to keep the SNP out may well prevent the return of an SNP MP in that constituency, but it will do nothing to influence the overall combined total of Labour and SNP seats. It will not diminish the arithmetical probability of a Labour-SNP deal being the most liekly and workable option after the election.
From the pespective therefore of diminishing the potential of the SNP involvement in the next government, voting Labour to keep out Nicola Sturgeon's party is relatively futile. Even if Labour somehow managed to keep two-thirds of its seats in Scotland (about 26) the SNP still look set to reduce the Lib Dems' seats - even if they took only 6 of the 11 that would give them 26 seats - still possibly the third largest party at Westminster.
The seats currently held by the Lib Dems are of greater significance to the overall arithmetic. Any gain by Labour or the SNP will add to the core of 47 seats inevitably won by one or the other, making a deal between those parties more likely. In these seats I can therefore understand the principle of tactical voting to some degree, although I note at least one pro-tactical campaign is suggesting voters in Michael Moore's seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk and Alan Reid's Argyll & Bute constituency vote Conservative - which could allow the SNP to come through the middle. I appreciate that Alex Salmond is clearly a love-hate figure and that Gordon will inevitably see a great deal of tactical voting, but in many other Lib Dem seats Labour will also fancy their chances of unseating our incumbents (e.g. East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh West) which complicates the picture further.
What will actually determine whether an SNP-Labour deal is workable is not the strength of the SNP in Scotland but that of Labour in England and Wales. That is the key battleground. The Labour-Lib Dem and Labour-Conservative marginals will prove decisive. The SNP and Labour in Scotland will have a combined total of around 50 seats, but whether they will have a combined strength of anything near to 326 MPs across the UK depends on how well Labour performs - and whether they can persuade people to vote tactically for Ed Miliband.
The Conservatives realise this, hence their anti-SNP rhetoric looking to scare English voters into voting anything but Labour. The evidence is that, while an unintended by-product is the strengthening of the SNP in Scotland, that tactic is working with those it is aimed at. The majority of voters in England, apparently, find a Tory-Lib Dem coalition more palatable than a Labour-SNP one.
There does remain the tantalising possibility of Labour emerging as the largest party with something like 295 seats, and being possible to work with either the SNP or the Lib Dems to achieve either a majority or something very near to the required 326. This is less likely, as it requires both Labour and the Lib Dems to exceed expectations. Even in such circumstances, however, would Labour's instincts be towards the Lib Dems or an SNP whose policy positions are probably more closer to their own? Would they opt for a more formal coalition (as the Lib Dems would prefer) or a looser agreement (which would suit the SNP)? As many within Labour clearly dislike the notion of coalition, I'd put my money on the latter.
No doubt tactical voting will have a huge impact on the UK election - in Conservative-Lib Dem marginals especially - but the idea that any pro-union Lib Dem voters should seek to support either the Labour or Conservative parties (especially in seats where they have an incumbent MP) is an absurd one. There also needs to be a sense of proportion - amongst all the scaremongering about what the SNP, the Greens or UKIP might want to do - about what they can actually achieve. Minority parties cannot simply impose their will upon government - if that was true we'd have had a proportional voting system, an elected House of Lords and a mansion tax introduced in this parliament.
I'm not one for tactical voting, as I prefer to see the General Election in terms of 650 local contests. That said, we all vote with a view to the national picture, and I for one see many worse possibilities than the SNP working with the Labour Party to ensure workable government. But, even if you perceive that as the ultimate nightmare scenario, the real threat to that eventuality is Ed Miliband's inability to project himself as a real alternative to David Cameron.