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Will AV be less ‘fair’ for the ‘sophisticated’ UK voters?


Themes: Economics and policy

Dr Lionel PageNew research shows that ‘sophisticated tactical’ voting cost the Conservatives their UK General Election victory in 2010 – so will AV be any fairer when tactical voting is more difficult?

A new research paper by Dr Lionel Page, Associate in Finance at Cambridge Judge Business School and a Senior Research Fellow at the Queensland University of Technology, and Stéphane Dupraz of ENSAE Malakoff in France, reveals that tactical voting definitely did cost the Conservatives an outright win at the last election.

The research paper “Identifying tactical voting on polling data: the 2010 UK general election”, reveals that the Conservatives lost up to 37 seats because of tactical voting. We see that Liberal Democrat voters switched to Labour but paradoxically the party nationally ended up forming a coalition government with the Conservatives.

Dr Page, currently based in Australia, explains:

“We estimate that between 20 and 37 seats were lost to the Conservatives due to tactical voting, mainly Liberal Democrats switching to Labour. The Conservatives were only short by 21 seats for an overall majority. Tactical voting did cost the Conservatives a majority government. It is paradoxical that Liberal Democrats voting for Labour cost the majority to the Conservatives and this led to the first coalition government since the Second World War but between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.”

The new research analysed actual data from the 2010 General Election rather than using previous survey methods which rely on asking people what they did and how they voted. Dr Page found that newspapers got their tactical voting guides wrong, as did the parties themselves and some trade union guides, although these were slightly better. Surprisingly, voters themselves using their own ‘uniform swing’ analysis were more accurate. Dr Page said:

“Actually parties were pretty OK in their predictions. It is well-known that tactical voting is significant in British elections; between five and nine per cent is usual. But people may be unwilling to tell you actually what they did – people may prefer to say they have an ‘honest’ vote not an ‘instrumental’ vote, so you may always doubt the label of tactical voting from surveys. So we looked at the polling data, rather than ask people what they did.

“It is surprising that the newspapers’ tactical voting guides offered inaccurate information about where to find the marginals. They looked at the 2005 data and the seats where Labour were just ahead of the Conservatives, but the national uniform swing data before the election was estimated to be around six to eight per cent. As a consequence the real marginals were not where Labour was just ahead in 2005. The voting guides were talking about lots of seats which were already lost for Labour and they were missing out others that really were marginals.”

The bookmakers, who used the national uniform swing analysis and who took into account local factors such as the expenses scandal or incumbency, were more accurate in their predictions said Dr Page:

“It is well-known in economics that bookmakers are good at forecasting because they have to make money out of it. Their predictions were better than the voting guides and the national uniform swing model, and they provided more precise information about which candidates would win.”

Dr Page goes on to say that the political parties did, in the last week of the campaign at least, identify the marginals but their spending did not always have the impact intended.

“There is a clear peak of spending from the Conservatives in the marginal but there is not a peak of the vote for the Conservatives where they spent more money in the longer term and this is puzzling. Maybe one effect of the spending is to give voters the knowledge that they are in a marginal because of all the leaflets and information they receive. You decide how to vote, but not necessarily for the party who sent the literature.”

Those glossy leaflets that came through their door may just have given that bit more information to voters and enabled them to become more ‘sophisticated’ by realising that they were in a ‘marginal’ constituency.

The approach of ‘identifying tactical voting by using the actual polling data’ from the 2010 UK General Election shows conclusively that not only did tactical voting cost the Conservatives the victory they desired at the last election, but also that if AV confuses voters, the ‘sophisticated’ voter may end up with less choice than they did by using their votes ‘tactically’.

Dr Page, has published previous research which has revealed to us that referees favour clubs from their own country, and that X Factor contestants are more likely to win if they appear second from last or last.