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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
TACTICAL VOTING is when a voter supports a candidate other than his or her sincere preference in order to prevent an undesirable outcome. In most cases it means voting for the candidate you think has a chance of winning, not necessarily for your favourite candidate
For example, in 1997 large numbers of Labour, SNP and LD supporters voted for whoever would defeat the Conservative candidate. In seats where Labour was the leading challenger to the Conservatives, Labour support went up by 3 points above the national average and LD support fell by 2 points below the average. In seats where the LDs were the leading challengers to the Conservatives, LD support went up by 2 points above the national average and Labour support fell by 3 points below the average (Curtice, ‘Politics Review’, 1997).
In 2015 - Unionist supporters in Scotland had a tacit agreement to all vote for the candidate most likely to beat the SNP candidate in their constituency, but it didn’t happen. Conservative voters voted tactically for Lib Dems in Sheffield Hallam to keep Nick Clegg in his seat as the Lib Dem most likely to form a coalition with them. There was also some tacit tactical voting in seats where UKIP might have won, with Conservatives and Labour sometimes voting for each other to stop that happening.
Tactical voting is mainly seen in explanations of what is known as the voting context model of voting behaviour, in which voting decisions are seen to vary depending on the nature of the election and the circumstances surrounding that election.
A good example of this is a very strong Conservative identifier lives in a very safe Labour local council ward which is part of a marginal Liberal Democrat -Labour Parliamentary constituency within a marginal Conservative-Liberal Democrat European constituency. He might abstain in the local council election as his vote won’t change the result and he won’t vote Labour, vote Liberal Democrat in the Parliamentary election to make sure Labour doesn’t win (this is tactical voting), and vote Conservative in the European election as it is proportional representation so his vote will count.
By-elections often see tactical voting occur. Voters might vote for their second favourite candidate. They may do this if they know that their favourite candidate is likely to lose, and they are keen to spoil the chances of another candidate. For instance, a Labour voter in a safe Conservative seat might vote LD if the Labour candidate has little chance. The national publicity which a By-Election gets means that they are better able to make a judgement.