During last week’s This Week programme Michael Portillo introduced the tactical voting issue to which Nigel Farage’s response could have been better. It’s probably one of those events where you come away with a feeling that your preferred side of the argument just won but this little crossing of swords wasn’t going to change any opinions when there was an opportunity to do that.

Just to refresh your memories Michael Portillo said that in the 2015 (general) election UKIP will get enough votes to, probably, prevent the Conservatives from getting a majority and therefore there would not be a referendum on Europe. Nigel’s response then became a little too combative and defensive and critically he used the word ‘rubbish’ to denigrate Michael’s comments and as a result he failed to prosper from the opening presented. One look at Michael Portillo’s smug expression at this instant reveals the internal satisfaction he was feeling in ‘suckering’ Nigel into an injudicious answer. Clearly a ‘hit’ had been scored. Nigel then continued explaining that UKIP take votes from all sides to which Michael responded that such an explanation did not make his comments rubbish and he was absolutely right.

Up until that point Nigel was doing fine but he then committed some debating errors which tend to undermine any good bits of your argument. One was to use language inappropriate to a serious debate, others were raising his voice (a mistake that Michael also scored upon) and failing to recognise when a valid point had been made.

The purpose of this little article is to present an alternative type of response and suggest a couple of debating techniques that might help future speakers generally and to deal with the nub of the tactical voting question because we do not have a cohesive response to that at the moment. My feeling is that it will be a powerful weapon in the hands of both Labour and Conservative opposition by continuing the suggestion that UKIP has no chance of gaining a parliamentary seat and as a consequence any vote for them would be a waste but more importantly is likely to grant your least favourite candidate a victory. Vote UKIP get Labour in Conservative dominated seats and Vote UKIP get Tory in the Labour heartlands. It is a powerful, if negative, message and if we do not find a way to successfully counter it we’ll suffer at the ballot box.

This will be a question that all of us will have to know how to answer as it will be there and even if it doesn’t come up on the doorstep or through debating forums we should raise it so that we can then answer it.

But firstly let’s go back to the This Week episode and suggest some alternative responses. Michael Portillo is a seasoned debater and highly proficient. He presents a TV persona of calm independence, honesty and reasonableness. He is clearly highly intelligent and portrays a sense of moderation. His natural attributes, coupled with having both TV and ministerial experience make him a difficult person to wrong foot. The program had reached the point where Michael said:

In the 2015 (general) election UKIP will get enough votes to, probably, prevent the Conservatives from getting a majority and therefore there will not be a referendum on Europe

In any debating forum it is important to recognise valid parts of an opponent’s argument even if it is only the very smallest bit. By doing this you demonstrate that you have been listening and are not dogmatic in your own view. It also ‘softens’ the opponent because everyone likes to be agreed with. So an initial response would go something like this:

“Michael, you raise an important point. You might even be right but equally you could be completely wrong. This election is over a year away and even though you might want this scenario to be true you have no more idea about what will happen in the future than anyone else, do you?”

After having neutralised an argument in part by agreeing or partially agreeing with some small part it is generally a good idea to counter with a question that must elicit agreement from your opponent. Nobody can sensibly claim to know the future so he must agree that he too cannot. In reality, his experience and general awareness probably does make him a better predictor of events than the man on the street but he cannot say that, particularly on TV. After his agreement you continue:

“I know we have a lot of work to do but parties have broken the mould before: there was a time when there was no Labour party. I know it doesn’t happen often and recent experience might suggest that a coalition of some description between the existing parliamentary parties is a likely result but, to be honest, for some years now there has been virtually no difference between Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties on any of the major national issues and people do want change.”

Whatever is then said you should continue in the following vein

“The 1910 election could be seen as a breakthrough for the Labour party and they did that by persisting with policies that people really wanted and that were not going to be enacted by anyone else. We have exactly the same situation now. With even just 30 seats in 2015 we will be in a position to pressure the government of whatever persuasion for a referendum on the EU and control of immigration. Let people be absolutely certain that with no UKIP presence in Parliament these things will not happen.”

Referring to a time, any example will do, when a party achieved a significant parliamentary presence for the first time just confirms that it is clearly possible. The scornful patronising approach as adopted by Michael (simply a tactic) of ‘no chance’ is scuppered completely by examples of when it has happened. Presenting all of the other parties as being essentially the same in that none of them will do what the people of this country really want marks UKIP as different and a real choice. If challenged also about the use of a future prediction a useful counter in this case is to say:

“I’ve not met anyone who believed David Cameron will keep his word because he has already gone back on the same promise. As for the other parties, they have already declared their complete betrothal to the European ideology wherever that may take us.”

The debates will continue but how will you answer this question in the pub or at home or on the doorstep or even when making a speech or that very privileged position of getting to air your views on the broadcast media?

Some options and a tag line:

  • The other parties would have you believe that it isn’t possible for UKIP to have a parliamentary presence even though it clearly is, as other new parties with new ideas have done so before.
  • Encouraging tactical voting is the weapon of the establishment. They are saying ‘no change’ and they really mean it.
  • If you want change you have to change something. The wonderful thing about democracy is it can completely overturn the establishment despite their wealth, power and influence.

And the tag line:

If you don’t vote for what you want you definitely won’t get it.

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