Craig Murray suggested the other day that I should take a look at how people who vote for unionist parties are using their lower preferences in local council elections. There's probably not much point in examining what's been going on over a long timescale, because a) it would be an enormous undertaking, and b) what we're really interested in is the pattern since the referendum, to see if there's any clue as to who might benefit from tactical voting next May. So let's concentrate for now on the most recent by-elections.
Probably most interesting is how Labour voters are behaving, because even in these darkest of days for the party they still have considerably more voters out there than the Tories or Lib Dems do. At the Elgin North by-election yesterday, the Labour candidate was the last to be eliminated, so his votes could only be transferred to either the independent candidate or the SNP. This is how they split -
Given that the SNP won the election, it's clear there was a disproportionate anti-SNP (or pro-independent) leaning among Labour voters as compared to the ward's electorate as a whole, but the difference was fairly mild. They certainly weren't going against the SNP as a bloc.
The Troup by-election in Aberdeenshire two weeks ago was effectively an SNP-Tory battle (which the SNP won comfortably), but the Labour candidate was eliminated at an earlier stage of the count, so his votes were transferrable to the SNP, the Tories, the Lib Dems or an independent. This is the breakdown -
Liberal Democrats 31
Given the unpopularity of the Lib Dems these days, it's probably significant that Labour voters preferred the party of Clegg to a winning SNP candidate. On the other hand, there's no evidence here that they preferred the Tories to the SNP - albeit we can't be sure where the greater number of transfers would have gone if the Lib Dems hadn't been an option. The North Coast and Cumbraes contest may help in that regard, because Labour votes were only transferrable to the SNP, Tories or an independent -
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this suggests that many Labour voters don't like either the SNP or the Tories very much, and are happy enough to find any sort of alternative to both. To the extent that they did exercise a preference, it was for the Tories - just - but again we don't know what would have happened if there had been a straight choice.
It's also worth remembering that Labour are very much down to their core vote at the moment, so the numbers above aren't telling us much about the behaviour of Labour voters from the 2010 general election, many of whom will have given their first preference vote to the SNP in these contests and had done with it. I also very much doubt if Labour sympathisers who voted tactically for the SNP in the last general election in places like Perth to keep the Tories out will suddenly find that they now prefer the Tories to the SNP.
As for Tory voters, well....it's a somewhat clearer picture. Here's what they did in Elgin North -
And in Oban North and Lorn -
And in North Coast and Cumbraes -
And in Midlothian East -
So Tory voters consistently prefer Labour to the SNP by some distance, and in one case even prefer Labour to the convenient option of plumping for neither of the traditional "enemies". Unlike Labour voters, then, Tories have enthusiastically fallen into line with their party leadership in viewing the other main unionist party as an ally.
OK, there are any number of people out there who once upon a time would have been considered "natural Tories" and who now vote SNP - but they're likely to have made the jump a long time ago, not since 2010. (We know that because the Tory vote hasn't slumped any further in recent years.) So the above numbers do tell us quite a lot about the attitudes of people who voted Tory in 2010.
By the way, if I'd done a post specifically about Elgin North, the headline would have been either 'Lousy Labour Earn Elgin Earbashing as Serene SNP Slide to Success' or 'Sturgeon Steals the Elgin Marbles', but I decided to spare you.