With Theresa May’s Tories expected to win a landslide next month, left-leaning parties and activists have once again been calling for a ‘Progressive Alliance’ to help reduce her majority and, in some cases, unseat hard Brexiteers.
Proponents of this strategy seem to have convinced themselves of its effectiveness by adding up all the support for the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties and presenting them as a bloc of voters who share, 100%, their world view and will reliably rally behind a shared cause.
The problem with this mindset is that voters aren’t so easily corralled and the reasons they vote are complex. Whatever activists might hope, voters won’t and don’t move themselves around like Tetris blocks to suit other people’s wants.
This is not just assertion on my part – last year, here in London, we held a large, constituency based exercise – the election for a new Mayor of London – which proves it.
As their party is typically the loudest of all advocates of electoral pacts, let’s look at the way Green party voters behaved in last year’s contest.
The party’s candidate, Sian Berry, picked up 150,673 first round votes. At the same time as they voted for their preferred candidate, every voter was given the chance to vote for a second preference – someone they’d like to win if if their perfect choice didn’t make it through to the second round.
So how did Green party voters use those second preferences?
London Elects helpfully published a breakdown of how every valid second preference was cast, in the table below the second preferences of Berry’s backers are shown in row 1 (click the image to view a larger version).
Berry’s supporters cast 142,850 valid second preferences, including 3,826 for her which don’t get counted under the contest’s rules.
The big figure which everyone always spots is the 71,027 votes (row 1, column 7) cast by Green supporters for Labour’s Sadiq Khan which, if you move back two columns, dwarfs the 14,496 votes picked up by Zac Goldsmith.
A further 18,697 votes were cast for the LibDems, like Labour an essential component in the Progressive Alliance.
But even though the Greens were clear in their rejection of Zac Goldmsith’s campaign, and even though activists spent a lot of social media time bigging up Khan despite a decision by the party not to officially endorse him, the Tory candidate still picked up 1/10 of the 2nd round votes cast by Green supporters.
And non-Labour and LibDem candidates took a full third (49,300) of the total Green 2nd preference yield – including 898 votes for the BNP, and 2471 votes for UKIP, parties who are unlikely to be part of the Progressives’ joint effort.
Maybe we could be generous and assume Sophie Walker’s Women’s Equality Party would join the anti-Tory league, that would reduce the ‘non-progressive’ tally of Green 2nd prefs last year by a further 16,601 votes.
But it still leaves a sizeable number of Green backers who opted not to back the parties needed to try and oust the Tories.
The same’s also true of Liberal Democrat voters, 23,704 (row 9, column 5) of whom didn’t share Caroline Pidgeon’s distaste over Goldsmith’s campaign and preferred him to Sadiq Khan. 4,356 LibDems also backed UKIP’s Peter Whittle (row 9, column 11) to Sadiq.
(If you’re wondering why Zac and Sadiq’s total votes differ between the middle and final section of the table its because the middle section contains the second preferences from their own supporters and each other’s – neither of which are counted in the final round. If you remove both rows 5 and 7 from their tallies you’ll see they correspond with the end figures)
Of course, the London Mayoral election isn’t the same as a Westminster election, it has a different electoral system, candidates campaign as much on their personality as their party and the constituency is so vast that local issues won’t play as big a role as they would in a Westminster election.
(If you’re minded to add, ‘plus the alliance still worked, Sadiq won’ you should remember that he outpolled Zac in the 1st round without the overt help of any other party.)
The figures also can’t tell us whether backers of parties who don’t appear on the ballot paper will bother coming out to vote for a nominated partner, though you have to assume many wouldn’t.
But what they definitely do show is that people don’t move in homogeneous, hive-mind blocs and that an electoral strategy which relies on every Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat voter coming together in common cause to oust, block or thwart the Tories is doomed because many voters don’t play ball when given the chance to do just that.