Labour, Tories and Lib Dems join forces to halt SNP

Strategic voting is key as rivals look to block Sturgeon’s influence on London

Scottish first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon visits an amusement park in Motherwell. The major UK parties have looked to strategic voting to halt the advance of the SNP. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Scottish first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon visits an amusement park in Motherwell. The major UK parties have looked to strategic voting to halt the advance of the SNP. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images


Alastair Cameron had just arrived home on September 18th last year, the night of the Scottish independence referendum, when he got a telephone call shortly after 9pm asking him to take an elderly neighbour to the polling station.

“I did, getting there just before the polling station closed. I just hoped she voted the right way,” he says, with a smile, as he pushes another leaflet through a letterbox in Baberton on Edinburgh’s outskirts.

Cameron leads Scotland in Union, a group urging tactical voting in Thursday’s British general election, believing “a recovery of moderate, mainstream UK politics” would be “a first step” towards healing last year’s divisions.

Voting tactically means voting against the Scottish National Party (SNP). In Edinburgh South West, in which Baberton lies, it means choosing Labour’s Ricky Henderson, the successor to former chancellor Alistair Darling.

Elsewhere, it means voting for the Liberal Democrats. Occasionally, it means backing the Conservatives. In many cases, it is asking people to abandon the voting habits of a lifetime.

On its success, or failure, hangs the future of Scottish Labour; not in Glasgow, where losses are inevitable, but in places such as Edinburgh, where there could be enough tactical voters to make a difference.

SNP juggernaut

Electoral Reform Society

The argument for many centres on what the SNP will do with a magnified Commons voice. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon says it is about wielding Scottish influence; her enemies argue that she will, in time, use it to bring about a second referendum.

In Edinburgh South West, nearly two-thirds rejected independence. Some were Labour supporters but have migrated to the SNP if a constituency poll reflects opinion accurately.

The gap in Henderson’s support must be filled by Conservatives, or Liberal Democrat supporters if he is to overcome the SNP’s Joanna Cherry, a QC who set up “Lawyers for Yes” during last year’s campaign.

“It is an issue of trust. People who voted No don’t trust the SNP,” says Cameron. “They said the referendum was a once-in-a-generation event. Now it is very clear that they’ve no intention of keeping to that.”

Cameron does not want to be out walking an estate on a Saturday morning, leaflets in hand.

“After the referendum, I wanted to get on with my life. I was quite exhausted by the whole thing,” he says.

However, within weeks of the referendum, it became clear that would not happen. SNP membership surged and David Cameron mishandled the aftermath, linking English and Scottish devolution, even if he quickly backed away.

But, tempers among those who lack sympathy with the SNP have been raised by Sturgeon’s increasingly common habit of speaking for Scotland.

“There is frustration, even anger,” says Cameron. “People keep saying, “We heard [her] saying, ‘Scots this, Scots that.’ She doesn’t represent the majority. She doesn’t represent half,” he adds.

Officially, neither Labour, the Conservatives, nor the Liberal Democrats have formally called on supporters to vote for other specific candidates.

‘Coalition of voters’

Jim MurphyEast Renfrewshire

Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie – who has proportionally the most to gain if the strategy works, since it could save Michael Moore in the Borders and a couple of others – has made similar remarks.

There have been voices too from south of the border, including London-based Scot and former Conservative Scottish secretary Malcolm Rifkind. Tory peer Norman Tebbit and even government chief whip Michael Gove have backed voting for the Liberal Democrats.

Liberal Democrat supporter Peter Cannell, who is distributing leaflets with Cameron, has even gone out to canvass with Henderson’s Labour team in Edinburgh South West.

“My Liberal Democrat credentials have been useful,” he says. “This is my story. Not just tactical voting, but tactical action. The greatest question is independence. If that means ditching party loyalties for a while, then so be it.”

In Perth, Victor Clements of tactical voting group Forward Together says: “If people think it is possible then they are prepared to vote tactically. If they think it is not possible they’ll probably stick with their own.”

From Omagh, Co. Tyrone, Clements has lived for nearly 30 years in Scotland, standing unsuccessfully for the Liberal Democrats in the 2011 Holyrood elections.

“Tories are quite happy to vote for Labour’s Gordon Banks [in Ochil and South Perthshire]. Labour people are quite happy to vote for Tories [in Perth and North Perthshire],” he says.

The campaigns operate cheek-by-jowl on Perth’s High Street; first, Forward Together, then a crowded SNP stall a few metres away, then the Conservatives’ tent a few metres further on again. Clements is no happier than Cameron to be back campaigning: “People think it is a nonsense. We went through this last year. That should have been it, over.”

Conservative councillor Ian Campbell stands along Clements, not with the nearby Conservative stall: “The SNP has disrespected people’s views. People are frightened of another referendum,” he says.

Scottish independence

Northern Ireland

However, his views too were influenced by growing up in the shadow of Ian Paisley: “He was a big, strong personality. After a while people stopped questioning what he did and followed him regardless,” he says.

“We have had that here with Alex Salmond. A big, dominant personality where people took his word as gospel ... I think that is a dangerous thing.”