April 11, 2023 - 5:15pm

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross caused controversy this weekend by suggesting that Conservatives should vote Labour in key seats to stop the SNP and thus save the union. “We will always urge voters to back the Conservatives,” he said. “However, the electorate is sophisticated and aware of the dynamics in individual constituencies.”

His comments have since been dismissed by a spokesman for the party in London, who asserted that Conservative voters should support their local candidate whatever the circumstances. He reportedly called Ross’s idea “emphatically not the view of the Conservative Party”.

But isn’t Ross just being honest? Tactical voting pacts have been whispered about for years in Scotland and have occasionally been successful (Labour’s Jackie Baillie is believed to owe her narrowly won Holyrood seat to loaned Tory votes). It also illustrates how Conservatives are willing to set aside party differences to preserve the UK just as the separatists are to rend it asunder — a determination which hasn’t always been evident in the recent past. 

The SNP hardly has grounds to criticise the practice, either. Indeed, the SNP-Green alliance in Holyrood is a cynically pragmatic arrangement. The former’s enthusiasm for environmental issues and the latter’s for Scottish independence were fortuitously discovered at the precise moment when the Holyrood arithmetic made plain the mutual benefits of such a deal. And the Scottish Greens have their own track record of urging tactical voting, as they encouraged their supporters to do so in 2017 to stop the Tories.

As a strategy, tactical voting certainly makes sense, at least in theory. There are many constituencies in the central belt of Scotland for which the Conservative candidate is on a hiding to nothing, and several in the borders and northeast where the same could be said for Labour. Ten SNP Westminster MPs have majorities of less than 10% and could be vulnerable — especially given the party’s current difficulties, or “growing pains” as Nicola Sturgeon calls them.

For example, a potential by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, where the SNP has a 5000-strong majority over Labour and the Conservatives, could prove ripe for tactical voting. Were the Tories to cede their votes to Labour, Keir Starmer’s party could win by a narrow margin. That potential contest could be the first test of Ross’s plan.

But will it work in practice? The evidence (Jackie Baillie’s election) suggests Tories might be prepared to grit their teeth and vote Labour; but if Ross is hoping for reciprocity, he may be disappointed. The Tories, for many in Scotland, excite feelings that go beyond ordinary political antipathy and verge on the pathological. Sturgeon declared that she “detested the Tories” in one of her last interviews as party leader, thus writing off 20% of the population. Many feel the same. 

Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour, has also poured cold water on the idea of his party giving the Conservatives a helping hand, saying that he rejected any idea of a pact but will gladly accept what he sees as a Tory surrender. So it might end up being, as a spokesperson for the Conservatives was quoted as saying, “a one-way street”, with the effect limited to getting a few Labour candidates over the line. 

In any event, the plan is a hard sell for moderate Tories who might be put off by Labour policies. One noteworthy example is Labour’s support for the currently stalled Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which the party whipped its own MSPs into backing. 

The idea goes to the heart of what the union really is. A meaningless abstraction; a shared identity to be preserved at all costs; or a dynamic, mutually beneficial, multi-faceted arrangement? If it’s the last of these, then the advantages clearly need to be better explained.

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.