Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 March 2010
Several people have asked me over the past few months when I’m going to outrage the readers of Tribune by publishing a list of the constituencies where Labour supporters should vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election to keep out a Tory. That’s what I did in 2001 and again in 2005 – and I’ve never found a better way of filling the letters page with indignation and bile.
I regret nothing, but this time it’s different. It’s not that I no longer believe tactical voting against the Tories. If I had a Lib Dem MP and the Tory was in second place last time with Labour way behind in third, I’d almost certainly vote Lib Dem on May 6 (or whenever it is). I’d probably vote Lib Dem if I lived somewhere with a Tory MP where the Lib Dem came second last time, too.
It’s just that I can’t be bothered to make a big thing of it, let alone spend hours putting together a list, because, well, it doesn’t really matter in the same way now. In 2001 and 2005, the general election results were never in doubt: everyone knew Labour was going to emerge with comfortable Commons majorities as long as it got the vote out. But in both elections anti-Tory tactical voting appeared to be a serious opportunity to do major damage to the Tories – and doing damage to the Tories has been the most honourable cause in British politics for three centuries.
In 2001, there was an outside but genuine chance that, with a good showing for the Lib Dems in parts of rural England where Labour trailed badly, the Tories could be reduced to the status of third party nationally. It didn’t happen, but there wasn’t a lot in it, and, boy, was it worth dreaming.
In 2005, the picture was different. But even in 2005 there were many Tories who appeared vulnerable to anti-Tory tactical voting, among them Michael Howard in Folkestone (if Labour supporters from 2001 voted Lib Dem) and, lest we forget, David Cameron in Witney (if Lib Dems from 2001 voted Labour).
All right, defenestration of the likes of Howard and Cameron was always wishful thinking. The point is that 2001 and 2005 were both elections in which anti-Tory tactical voting was a potentially destructive offensive weapon. This time it isn’t. The Tories are now on the march, and in nearly every part of the country the priority for Labour and for the Lib Dems is to hold on to as much as they can of what they’ve got. To complicate the picture, no one quite knows precisely who’s got what. There are significant boundary changes, and the number of retiring MPs is unprecedented, largely because of the Commons expenses scandal. Eighty-seven Labour MPs have announced they are quitting, and the whips expect another 10 to go before polling day.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have moved to the market-liberal right under Nick Clegg, and are markedly less open to social democratic ideas than they have been for more than 25 years. In local government, they have made opportunistic alliances with the Tories. The prospect of Clegg going into coalition with Cameron is plausible in a way that Charles Kennedy joining William Hague or Howard never was. The battlefield has changed.
This doesn’t mean abjuring anti-Tory tactical voting. The Lib Dems are still (just) of the centre-left, and many of their sitting MPs are much better than the Tories who would inevitably replace them if they lost. The same is true of the brave band of Labour MPs who have decided to fight again rather than walk away.
What of the new candidates, though? Well, they need some research. So far, the Sunday Times has managed a cretinous 1987-style red-scare piece claiming that Labour is selecting dangerous militants. “We found that 53 per cent either declare themselves to be a member of a trade union or have links to leftist groups in the party such as Compass, the Grass Roots Alliance or Save the Labour Party,” the paper declared last weekend. The same day, the Sunday Telegraph made a lot of the role of the Unite trade union in pushing its people into safe seats, though the author, Andrew Gilligan, couldn’t quite work out whether they were being granted a favour or being pensioned off.
The reality as I see it is more mundane: nearly all the Labour candidates so far selected are much what you’d expect in the circumstances – no porn-movie directors, no big-name media academics, lots of clean hands who have earned their chance through years of work in the unions, local government and NGOs, a few retreads. The Lib Dems, with the exception of the porn movie director, are the same: overwhelmingly local government and NGO worthies.
So – same old same old, but different. Tactical voting when you’re on the defensive doesn’t require lists, and the Lib Dems can look after themselves. Labour needs a concerted campaign in seats it holds, with a simple message: “Keep the Tories out: vote Labour”. Anything else is superfluous. It’s backs-against-the-wall time.