Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 March 2001
I seem to have upset a few readers with my last column advocating anti-Tory tactical voting in the general election. But I’m afraid I’m not taking any of it back. Not one of the correspondents who has denounced me has come up with a convincing argument against Labour supporters voting Liberal Democrat wherever the Lib Dem candidate won or came second to a Tory in 1997.
Apart from a few who seem to think vulgar abuse is the way to win political arguments, my critics fall into two categories: those who say that Labour supporters should vote Labour everywhere on principle, and those who say that my list of places where they should vote Lib Dem is wrong for some reason.
The first group rest their case on the assertion that there is a fundamental political difference between Labour and the Lib Dems. The problem is that not a single letter-writer has been able to identify it. Of course, there was a chasm on policy between Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance back in the 1980s. But – for better or worse – those disagreements are now ancient history. Since 1995, moreover, it has not even been possible to argue credibly that Labour is at root a socialist party while the Lib Dems are not: the abandonment of Clause Four saw to that. Like it or not, both parties these days are pro-European, pro-nuclear in defence policy and in favour of much the same sort of social capitalism.
What, though, of the accusations that my list is inaccurate? Leaving aside those who offer merely anecdotal evidence – I’m sorry, chums, but feeling in your bones that the Lib Dems have peaked in constituency X or constituency Y isn’t good enough – my critics say I didn’t take into account recent local or European elections in which Labour did better than in 1997.
Well, I didn’t, and the reason is that the local and European election results are a poor guide to the parties’ chances in the general election. Turnout was very low – and the Euro-election was conducted using proportional representation. The fact that Labour did better than the Lib Dems in a particular constituency in the Euro-election where the Lib Dem was second in 1997 shows only that many people who voted tactically for the Lib Dem in 1997 – Green supporters as well as Labour supporters – voted for their first-choice party because they knew their votes would not be wasted under PR. In the general election, those voters will revert to tactical voting, and most will do so, sensibly, on the basis of the 1997 general election result.
So, as Norman Lamont put it so memorably, “Je ne regrette rien.” The case for voting tactically remains as strong as ever – and I couldn’t care less if I’m chucked out of the Labour Party for making it.
Like a lot of other people, I’ll be spending this Saturday afternoon in the pub watching England play football. But unlike most of them, I’ll find it difficult to enjoy it much, regardless of the result – and the same is true of everyone with whom I’ll be watching. The reason is simple: the occasion is a wake for a fine man who has died suddenly and tragically young, Denis Rees.
Many Tribune contributors who wrote for the New Statesman when Steve Platt and I worked there will remember Denis. He was the affable, sports-mad landlord of the Red Lion in Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, which we used almost as an extension of the Statesman office in the years before Geoffrey Robinson bought the magazine. The pub was a tiny place, and when Denis ran it with his wife Brenda it was the best boozer imaginable, with a clientele that was a microcosm of local society.
We spent far too much time there – thrashing out editorial policy, lunching contributors, conspiring to prevent the board firing Steve, arguing politics with the other regulars, watching football and, of course, just drinking. Denis and Brenda, though by no means sympathetic to the Statesman’s politics, became our good friends. The Red Lion was where we celebrated John Major dropping his libel action against the magazine and where we drowned our sorrows after Robinson’s new regime unceremoniously fired us all. It was where we caroused long into election night in 1997, with the door locked and the curtains drawn tight.
It was a sad day when Denis and Brenda sold up and moved up to the Midlands. The pub soon became just another trendy Hoxton bar packed out with wannabe artists. But it was infinitely sadder to hear of Denis’s inexplicable collapse and death a fortnight ago. Everyone who knew him liked him. Here’s to his memory.