Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 January 2005

There seems to be a growing consensus both in the Labour Party and among the left-of-centre commentocracy that tactical voting against the Tories — a crucially important factor in the 1997 and 2001 general elections — is a thing of the past.

Of course, the reasons the Labour stalwarts and the liberal columnists take this line are very different. For the commentators, the crucial thing is that they believe the government is so disliked that hardly anyone whose first preference is Lib Dem would dream of voting Labour now — and they detect a trend of anti-Labour tactical voting.

For the Labour people, at least the ones I’ve spoken to, what has happened to render anti-Tory tactical voting obsolete is that the Liberal Democrats have declared war on Labour in its urban heartlands in the past couple of years, which makes it imperative that Labour fights back vigorously.

I can see the sense in both points of view. The pundits are surely right that Labour is going to find it much more difficult than in 1997 or 2001 to persuade Lib Dem supporters to vote Labour this time, for all sorts of reasons, the most important of them the Iraq war (though I’m sceptical about the claim that disaffection with Labour is at such a pitch that protest voting will become widespread). And after the Brent East, Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South by-elections and the 2003 and 2004 local elections, it’s perfectly understandable for Labour to decide to face up to the Lib Dems in seats it holds.

But — you could tell that was coming, couldn’t you? — this is not the whole story.

On one hand, the fact that it’s going to be much more difficult for Labour to persuade Lib Dem supporters to vote for its candidates in seats it holds doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try. Indeed, given how important tactical voting against the Tories was in 1997 and 2001, it would be utterly idiotic for Labour to give up on Lib Dem tactical voters. It still needs them — just as much as it needs to persuade its core voters not to vote in protest for the Lib Dems or Respect or anyone else.

This means that Labour cannot afford go too negative on Charles Kennedy and his pals. It has to make it clear that, whatever differences it has had with the Lib Dems on the war, both parties are essentially on the centre-left. And it needs to offer something tangible to liberal opinion to keep the Lib Dem tactical Labour voter’s juices flowing: my choice would be an elected second chamber. In most places with Labour MPs, the message should be no more negative than “Vote Lib Dem and you’ll let the Tory in”.

On the other hand, it remains an incontrovertible fact that the Lib Dems — for all their rhetoric to the contrary — are not realistically targeting many Labour seats. They are in second place in 31 of the Tories’ 100 most marginal seats but second to Labour in only seven of its 100 most marginal. For the Lib Dems to increase their representation in the Commons, they need to beat Tories, and for that they need Labour supporters to vote tactically for their candidates. They also need Labour tactical voters to retain many seats they now hold, most of them in the south where the Tories are their main challengers.

This, however, is where it gets really complicated, because the Lib Dems are rather less interested in getting 20 or so extra MPs than in holding the balance of power in a hung parliament — and for that they need either a giant advance (which isn’t very likely, though you never know) or for the Tories to take a lot of Labour seats but not enough to win a majority. Which means that the Lib Dems, as well as needing Labour tactical votes, also — pay attention at the back! — now have an interest in their supporters voting tactically for the Tories in Labour-held seats where the Tories are second.

So what should Labour supporters do in Tory-held seats where the Lib Dems are the closest challengers or Lib Dem seats where the Tory came second in 2001? They could decide to vote for sure-fire Labour losers to scupper Kennedy’s dream of holding the balance of power — but that would merely improve the chances of the Tories winning a parliamentary majority.

Sorry, folks, but I still think that is the worst possible outcome at the next election — and the best way of avoiding it is to vote tactically against the Tories again. So vote Labour wherever there is a sitting Labour MP or a Labour came second to a Tory in 2001 — and vote Lib Dem wherever there is a sitting Lib Dem MP or the Lib Dem came second to a Tory in 2001. Nothing else makes the remotest sense.

* * *

Finally, on a completely unrelated subject, I’ve spent more time than I should over the holiday writing and editing entries on Wikipedia (click here and follow the instructions), the free online encylopedia — because I discovered rather a large number of entries on the left in Britain, particularly those on the mainstream Labour left, were well below par. I’ve had a go at the worst I’ve come across, but there’s a lot more to be done. Tribune readers, get in there. It’s fun.

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