I've been having a polite dispute this morning with someone on Twitter who takes issue with my view (a view that is arithmetically indisputable, by the way) that ranking unionist candidates in the local elections cannot possibly do any harm as long as you rank all pro-indy and independent candidates ahead of them. The objection raised was that SNP strategists have decided that it shouldn't be done, and that they must know what they're talking about. Well, possibly, but I think it's more likely that we're dealing with a cultural issue here - we're just not used to preferential voting in this country, and as a result we don't know how to talk about it. Party stalwarts instinctively fear that it's somehow the thin end of the wedge to even concede the possibility of giving a seventh preference to the Lib Dems, but it really isn't. Indeed, giving a party a seventh preference is arguably more contemptuous than not ranking them at all.
Let's turn the argument around - is there any benefit whatsoever in instructing voters (or recommending to them) to only vote for the SNP and not to rank any other candidate? I can only think of one - namely that it heads off the risk of voter error. In other words, there's a danger that an SNP supporter might literally not even notice that there are two or three SNP candidates in the ward, and might jump ahead and accidentally rank other parties ahead of the second or third SNP candidates. There's no denying that's a genuine issue, but to base your whole strategy around it smacks of being scared of your own shadow. There's also an element of treating the voters like idiots. Surely it's much better to properly educate people about how a preferential system works, and to get the message across that some parties have more than one candidate per ward? If you don't do that, there's just as big a danger at the other extreme - that people will not even realise that it's a preferential system at all, and will simply put a big 'X' against the name of only one SNP candidate. That's almost as bad an outcome if you're trying to get two or three people elected.
It's highly unlikely that all of the parties will stand in my own ward, but if they did, this is roughly how I would rank them -
4) Other pro-indy parties
5) Independent candidates
6) Liberal Democrat
Having ranked the two SNP candidates first and second, I would be sure - literally certain - that my vote will not budge from the SNP column until both of those candidates are either elected or eliminated. But if it gets to the point where both have indeed been elected or eliminated, I have no intention of then abstaining in a straight contest between the Greens and Labour, or even between the Tories and Labour, for the final seat in the ward. Abstaining is exactly what you're doing if you don't use your lower preferences. More specifically, if you don't rank other parties ahead of the Tories, you're effectively saying you're cool with having a Tory councillor in some circumstances - and why on Earth would you be, when Theresa May is framing these elections as an unofficial vote on the constitution?
The person I clashed with this morning also voiced the worry that lower preferences for unionist candidates would somehow be misinterpreted as "unionist votes", and would be exploited by Theresa May. That fear is completely baseless. There is a long-standing convention under the STV voting system that the popular vote is calculated using first preferences only (indeed it's essentially impossible to do it any other way).
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