18 January 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, January 23 2004

My thanks to Tribune reader John Morgan of Grantham, whose generous letter the week before last demanding that I be fired as a columnist in case I commit a thought crime reminded me that I need to get on with drawing up a list of constituencies in which Labour supporters should vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election.

I would have done it for this week’s column had I not been too busy to get up to speed on the implications of constituency boundary changes since the 2001 election. Rest assured that the definitive list of where Labourites should vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out will appear as soon as I’ve done the number-crunching — unless, of course, the editor takes Morgan’s advice and sacks me first. But you’re going have to wait.

For now, all I can do is restate the case for tactical voting — at least in first-past-the-post elections — to beat Conservative candidates. Morgan seems to think that this has lost much of its power since 2001: “Last time, there was an excuse. This time there will not be.” But I can’t work out what has changed.

Yes, the Tories have a marginally more competent leader than in 2001. Otherwise, they are pretty much what they were at the time of the last general election: a bunch of reactionary, authoritarian, xenophobic, anti-European zealots, out of touch with the modern world, committed to chipping away at the welfare state, hostile to public transport, eltist in eductaion — in other words, the main enemy. And because their leader is marginally more competent they pose a greater threat. Ergo, the case for doing what we can to minimise their parliamentary representation is greater than it was three years ago.

As for the Lib Dems, I’ll concede that they’ve shifted a little to the right since 2001 on taxation: they’ve abandoned their promise of a penny on the basic rate of income tax for education and no longer attack the government for failing to tax and spend enough. But they too are essentially what they were before: a pro-European, anti-Conservative party of the centre-left, with much more in common with Labour than diehards of either party think.

Where the Lib Dems differ with the government, their position is still either more explicitly egalitarian and redistributionist (top-up fees, council tax), more libertarian (asylum policy), more coherently democratic (electoral reform, the House of Lords, the European Union constitution) or more pacifist (the Iraq war). On the issues, Charles Kennedy is closer politically to Labour’s thinking soft left (Robin Cook, Clare Short, Chris Smith et al) than he is to Tony Blair, let alone to the Tories.

I don’t agree with the Lib Dems (or indeed Labour’s soft left) on quite a lot of this. On Iraq, I now think that the centre-left opponents of war (myself included) exaggerated the risks of military action to remove Saddam Hussein — and that the dubiety of the justification for war advanced by Blair and George Bush should not be allowed to cloud the fact that the regime change in Iraq has been a good thing. On top-up fees, the Lib Dems and the soft left are playing a self-indulgent game that endangers a large slice of money coming to the universities that they desperately need.

But that’s beside the point – as indeed is the Lib Dems’ opportunism, for example in earmarking the same tax rise to pay for several spending promises. Taking everything into account, it remains as sensible as in 2001 for Labour supporters to vote Lib Dem at the next general election wherever a Lib Dem is the sitting MP and wherever the Lib Dem came second to a Tory last time. It also makes sense for Lib Dem supporters to back Labour wherever the sitting MP is Labour and weherever Labour came second to a Tory.

* * *

On a different subject entirely, I’ve just received a circular letter from Jeremy Dear, fellow Tribune columnist and general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, imploring me to vote “yes” in a forthcoming ballot to set up an NUJ political fund.

I’m going to ignore his plea and vote “no”, simply because I can’t see why the NUJ needs a political fund. The way the law stands, the only circumstances in which a union must set up such a fund is to campaign at election time for or against a political party. Yet any attempt by the NUJ to back party-political campaigns at election time, even a negative “Don’t vote British National Party” one, would not only compromise the ability of union members to do their jobs as journalists but would also lead to a significant number of resignations (particularly among BBC hacks who are contractually obliged to remain politically neutral).

Dear and other supporters of a political fund insist that they don’t want to use it to back party-political campaigns. But if that’s the case, there’s no point in the fund: any extra campaigning they envisage could be paid for with an increase in ordinary subscriptions. Why don’t they just go for that?