15 March 2005


Up to now, I’ve not bothered to take issue with the arguments of people who back protest voting against Tony Blair in order to reduce the Labour government’s majority in the forthcoming election – but the chorus of voices insisting that it’s the best way to get Blair replaced after the election by Gordon Brown is growing louder, and the tone of quite a few emails I’ve received of late suggests that some of them think I might be sympathetic. So it’s time to make it clear that I'm not. Like Tom Watson MP (click here), I think protest-voting against Labour is a very bad idea because it could help the Tories back into power.

Now I know a Tory victory is highly unlikely, as Phil Edwards argues here. Labour is sitting on a giant Commons majority that could be overturned only with a quite extraordinary change in voting patterns; and Labour is clearly ahead in the opinion polls.

But are the opinion polls right? I really don't think they are. Every conversation I have about politics tells me that enthusiasm for the government is at an amazingly low ebb, among working-class voters even more than among middle-class ones.

In my own experience, Labour has got an Ipswich council-estate problem far more than it has an Islington dinner-party problem. My hunch is that, unless Labour gets its finger out, a vast number of people who say they will vote Labour will actually not bother to vote and that on a very low turnout the Tories will do much, much better than the polls suggest.

As things stand, we could be looking at a general election that mirrors the European elections, but with voters who backed UKIP then now voting Tory. I don’t think the Tories will win a Commons majority, but with a well-run populist campaign they just might – if Labour fails to mobilise on the doorstep, which is by no means impossible.

Even if the risk of an outright Tory victory is small, in other words, it is not negligible, and I think it's irresponsible to take it. I’m not a massive fan of the Blair government or indeed of Blair himself. But the government is not as bad as some of its more hysterical critics on the left make out. I wasn’t in favour of the war against Saddam Hussein, but have to admit the Iraqi elections have given hope to the Middle East. I didn’t want top-up fees, but they’re better than a university spending freeze. I’d prefer a PFI hospital to no hospital. And so on.

And although I’ve never particularly liked Blair, I don’t think that ditching him for Gordon Brown is any kind of panacea. No one has yet convinced me that a Brown government would be significantly better than Blair’s.

Nor, more important, has anyone convinced me that a Tory government led by Michael Howard would be anything other than a great deal worse than Blair – ultra-xenophobic, authoritarian, even more wedded to the nostrums of the Daily Mail.

So the priority at the next election is not to hasten the fall of Blair by voting selectively against Labour in some places so that Labour's majority is reduced – it would in any case be impossible to orchestrate a campaign that could be sure of such an outcome – but to keep the Tories as far from power as possible, which means anti-Tory tactical voting as advocated by tacticalvoter.net.

As for me, well, I was going to volunteer for Ooona King's campaign to have a go at George Galloway – and I might yet do so – but I'm now minded to stick to trudging the streets of Ipswich knocking on doors for Labour. It should be a safe seat, but the mood in the boozers and shops and streets makes me worry.

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