Coalition-directed voting comes to Britain?

by Stephen Fisher

This a slightly longer and more detailed version of a post at

David Cameron has argued that a Labour government dependent on SNP support would mean “total chaos”. But the Conservatives are not clear about what they want the voters in Scotland to do about it, and they have failed to mention that coalition-directed voting in England and Wales might be more effective than voting Conservative or Labour.

Malcolm Rifkind and Norman Tebbit advocated tactical voting in Scotland, but John Major argued against. But this is a sideshow. Tactical voting in Scotland may reduce the number of SNP gains by a little but it would remain more likely than not that any Labour led government would need SNP support.

Really what all the scaremongering about is trying to persuade voters in England and Wales to vote Conservative. It is a very negative approach, but it might well work. In keeping with similar findings in other polls, a YouGov poll for last week’s Sunday Times found that when asked to think about the possibility of a Labour-SNP deal, 40% thought that “Labour would do a deal with the SNP, and it puts me off them.” The equivalent figure rises to 50% among Lib Dem voters and 58% for those currently intending to vote UKIP.

A potentially more effective strategy the Conservatives have not yet tried is arguing for what political scientists call coalition-directed voting (aka strategic coalition voting). This is common in countries where coalitions are the norm. It is not particularly about coalitions as opposed to confidence and supply or other governing arrangements, but it is easier to refer to the group of parties that gets to control the government as a coalition.

The idea of coalition-directed voting is that you do not just vote for the party with the policies you like best. You take into account the chances of different potential coalitions and use your vote to try to influence which one wins. For example, in 2009 Christian Democrats in Germany were successfully encouraged to vote for the FDP so a centre-right coalition could replace the previous grand coalition. Somewhat conversely, in the 2007 Danish election the centrist New Alliance gained support from those who were concerned about the far right People’s Party gaining too much influence. There are many other cases.

The overall aim of coalition-directed voting is to influence government policy by voting not just for a party, but for a government.

How could this work for Tory supporters worried about SNP influence? Labour will only depend on the SNP if they do not have a majority even after drawing on support from the DUP, Liberal Democrats and various small parties of the left. The polls, betting markets and both media and academic forecasters all suggest that there is a reasonable chance of either a Tory or Labour led government. So, Conservative supporters might want to increase the chances that a Labour led government does not depend on the SNP while also not much damaging their own chances of forming a government if at all. The obvious way to do that is to vote Lib Dem in constituencies where they have a chance of winning, even if this means undermining a competitive Tory candidate in a Lib-Con marginal.

Tories might be anxious about undermining their own chances of winning an overall majority, which they would be if they got a Lib Dem instead of a Conservative MP. But the chances of a Conservative overall majority currently look pretty small, and if there is a continuation of the Con-Lib coalition the Lib Dem contingent will be much smaller than last time anyway. Tory modernisers might like more Lib Dem influence. The Conservative right will need to weigh up the chances and benefits of Lib Dems moderating Labour with the chances and costs of Lib Dems moderating their own party.

This kind of thinking also applies on the left. Labour and Green and even SNP supporters might want to vote Liberal Democrat to moderate a Conservative led government and limit the chances of UKIP influence, even at the cost of their own MPs.

This, of course, is what the Liberal Democrats in effect argue when they warn of UKIP or the SNP holding the balance of power. In response to claims by Nick Clegg early in the campaign, a YouGov poll showed that 44% of those currently intending to vote Labour agreed with the claim that, “a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would have more heart than a Conservative majority government”. Meanwhile, 46% of those intending to vote Conservative agreed that, “a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have more brains than a Labour majority government”. Probably more would accept the idea that Liberal Democrats would make Tory government policy closer to that for Labour and vice versa. But even with cringe-worthy notions of brains and heart, there seems to be plenty of Conservative and Labour supporters who are open to the argument for coalition-directed voting.

Strangely Nick Clegg undermined this powerful argument somewhat when he ruled out arrangements with either the SNP or UKIP last week. Given the very small number of seats UKIP are expected to win there was only ever a small chance that they would be vital in providing a majority for Con+DUP+LD. But the chances that any Labour led government will need SNP support are large. So to rule out supporting Labour in these circumstances massively reduces the attraction of coalition-directed voting.

It could have been part of the Lib Dem pitch to claim that they would moderate a Labour-SNP arrangement. But now coalition-directed voters from the right will have to guess how likely it is that Labour won’t need the SNP and how likely it is that the Liberal Democrats will defy their leader and join an SNP dependent Labour government. Were it not for this complication, voters of any complexion would not even have to like the Liberal Democrats much for the insurance policy argument to work logically and simply.

Coalition-directed voting can also benefit parties on the extremes as well as centrist parties. The SNP have been arguing that left-wing voters in Scotland vote for them instead of Labour to increase their influence on any Labour-led government. Eurosceptic Conservatives anxious about immigration might want to support UKIP in their target seats to pressure a Tory led government.

Large parties of the moderate left and moderate right are the typical losers from this kind of coalition-directed voting that seeks to move the centre of gravity of any government. The centre and extremes benefit as voters seek to try to push government policy in different ways. This fragments the party system, and in a PR system encourages policy to be close to the preferences of the average voter. With Britain’s first past the post system we might get the fragmentation without the consensual policy.

Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy have been fond of arguing that that there should not be any post-match analysis until after the voters have decided. But voters cannot make properly informed decisions without understanding who would do what deals with whom. There needs to be more information and analysis about potential governing arrangements, not less. And it needs to be constructive; asking parties more about what they have in common and what they might achieve together than about “red lines”. The points of contention might be more exciting to discuss, but programmes for government are mainly built around points of consensus for the governing parties.

If coalition-directed voting is not radical enough, a dramatic and still more effective strategy for the Conservatives would be to offer a grand coalition in the event that Labour might otherwise govern with SNP support. If the Tories are not prepared to do that, then how seriously concerned about the SNP are they?

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Jonathan Jones and Orit Kedar for comments on earlier versions.

Further reading:

Bargsted, Matias A, and Orit Kedar. 2009. “Coalition-Targeted Duvergerian Voting: How Expectations Affect Voter Choice under Proportional Representation.” American Journal of Political Science 53(2): 307–323.

Duch, Raymond M, Jeff May, and David A Armstrong. 2010. “Coalition-directed Voting in Multiparty Democracies.” American Political Science Review 104(04): 698–719.

4 thoughts on “Coalition-directed voting comes to Britain?”

  1. “Conservative or chaos” worked in 1992. Why is to-morrow so different?

  2. Best prediction for tomorrow I have just seen: – Conservatives 304, Labour 255, LibDems 28, SNP 47, P Cymru 2, DUP 8 UKIP 1 ….etc. Interesting 2-3 days ahead!

  3. One scenario posible regarding coalitions:
    C + LD + DUP + UKIP =322
    Lab + SNP + PC + G + R + Hermon =322
    322+322 + SF =649
    Speaker, by Parlament rules, to break the tie in favor of current government, meaning DC stay in No.10.
    Unless Speaker lose his seat (to UKIP or Green), now that could be really interesting!

  4. One scenario regarding coalitions:
    C + LD + DUP + UKIP =322
    Lab + SNP + PC + G + R + Hermon =322
    322+322 + SF =649
    Speaker, by Parlament rules, to break the tie in favor of current government, meaning DC stay in No.10
    Unless Speaker lose his seat (to UKIP or Green). Now that could be interesting!

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