The Truth About Tactical Voting

A voter places a ballot paper in the ballot box at the polling station at Market Hall in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, as the General Election got underway across the UK.

Chris Napier

In the past I’ve written quite vociferously against the concept of tactical voting, specifically with reference to the First Past The Post system used in Westminster elections because it endorses a broken system and effectively keeps smaller parties that you might agree with more in their ‘small party’ box.

However, looking at the upcoming Holyrood elections in May, the different system used in Scotland means that the argument for and against tactical voting is quite different so the topic is well worth revisiting. First however, it is prudent to remind ourselves how the elections for Holyrood actually work…

How the Additional Member System Works

The Scottish Parliament is elected using a form of partial proportional representation called the additional member system which is intended to provide a more proportional parliament, giving smaller parties a greater chance of winning representation while still keeping the local link provided by constituency representatives.

It achieves this by using two votes, one to select a local constituency MSP and one to select your regional list MSPs.

The constituency vote uses the First Past the Post system as used in Westminster elections, with the candidate standing in the constituency who receives the most votes winning the seat. This effectively means that many seats are ‘safe’ and unlikely to change hands, while most others will only have one or two plausible winners, effectively robbing many voters of real choice but this is somewhat balanced by the second vote.

Scotland’s 79 constituencies are grouped into eight regions, each with between eight and ten constituencies and the ‘regional list’ votes are counted across a whole region. Each region has seven list seats which are allocated one after the other with every party (or independent candidates) total number of regional votes divided by the number of seats they have already one plus one (as you can’t divide by zero) including constituency seats.

This system allows parties who would have been underrepresented under First Past the Post rules to gain representation and should, in theory lead to a diverse and pluralistic parliament which is unlikely to produce a majority government. However, the wave of support for the SNP since 2011 has shown that a single party majority is still very possible under this system.

For more information you can check out Wikipedia and the Electoral Reform Society.

The Case For Tactical Voting

The nature of the election means that there are separate arguments for voting tactically with either of your two votes, so we’ll deal with them separately.

Constituency Vote
The constituency votes for Holyrood tend to only be contested by major parties or independent candidates (as the regional list is a far happier hunting ground for smaller parties) and with the polls almost universally predicting a near SNP wipeout, the question of tactical voting in the constituencies is very much one of unionist supporters being willing to hold their nose and vote for the party most likely to stop the SNP.

However, following the general election results in May I can’t see many Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat voters being willing to vote for their former ‘Better Together’ colleagues, even in the name of stopping the SNP.

Regional List Vote

This is where it gets interesting. The nature of the AMS system and the likelihood that the SNP will dominate the constituency vote means that it becomes relatively difficult for the SNP to win additional members*.

As such, there is an argument that SNP voters could ‘lend’ their second votes to another pro-independence party such as the Scottish Greens, RISE or Solidarity, raising their chances of gaining more/some representation at the probable cost of a unionist MSP, thereby increasing the pro-indy representation in parliament.

* As if the SNP win all the constituency seats in a region, their regional vote will be divided by between nine and eleven before any additional seats are allocated, usually meaning them need at least 54-66% of the regional vote to be in with a chance of an additional list MSP.

However, there are a few problems with this theory.

Firstly, it is not a locked in certainty that the SNP will win all the constituencies – sure, the polls tend to indicate that they will at least come close, but the polls were predicting a hung parliament with Labour in with a shout of being the largest party in May, so you can only rely on polls so much.

Furthermore, in 2011 the SNP also won an additional list MSP in the North East Scotland region despite winning all the constituency seats, so it’s eminently possible that the same could happen again aross the country, especially with a fragmented vote for the other parties.

Secondly, it’s hard to be certain which pro-indy smaller party is best placed to benefit from your tactical vote.

On balance, the Scottish Greens are the obvious choice, already polling in line to win between 8-12 MSPs and another few % on the regional list could easily push that number higher to the point of making them the largest opposition party ahead of Labour and the Conservatives. Wouldn’t that be a thing to see?

That said, RISE are a bit of an x-factor in this equation, with the media profile and momentum of the new alliance making them a more compelling electoral force than the Scottish Socialist Party which is their immediate predecessor. With that in mind, a few tactical votes thrown in their direction might well be enough to push them over the line and win an MSP in a few regions which would be a great thing for the plurality of the Scottish parliament and a massive comeback for the left in Scotland.

Solidarity are of course the vanity project of a misogynist and convicted perjurer who threw his own party – and the whole of the Scottish left – under the bus to have his vainglorious day in court and as such, nobody should vote for them.


All in all, I wouldn’t recommend voting tactically, if only because it’s almost impossible to do so intelligently as the mathematics involved are complex and your calculations will always be based on polls which have been proven to be fallible.

Instead, I would counsel everyone to use their regional list vote to support the party which you most agree with. If you’re an unreserved fan of the SNP government then stick with them and if you’d prefer to see more progressive options represented in Holyrood, then cast your list vote for whichever from the Greens or RISE most appeals to you. The same applies to supporters of Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the plethora of other parties that might end up on the ballot.

By voting with your true beliefs, you ensure that the results of the election are a true reflection of where the country is at and even if your vote doesn’t result in an extra MSP for your chosen party, a ballot cast in honest support is never truly wasted.


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