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Not clever tactics

Nick Parrott explains why tactical voting won’t produce the results some on the left hope for.

The result of the general election is not in doubt. The only question is the size of the Labour majority and that will in turn determine the authority of Blair and his corresponding ability to push through more Blairite ‘reforms’. The implication for the left is that they should vote against Labour and hope to thus stop Blair. With this particular narrative, many on the left seem to have suspended their normally critical faculties.

It is not necessarily surprising that such a narrative has gained ground. Blairite outriders hope that it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy – when a decent-sized majority is achieved, it will by then be a given that it represents a personal mandate for Blair and that he will therefore derive the authority from it to drive through whatever his next set of plans are.

What is a bit more puzzling is why on earth anyone on the thinking left would go along with it. There are two objective reasons that are used to justify the thesis.

Firstly, it is argued that the rebellious MPs are mainly in safe seats, while the 1997 intake are loyal Blairites, so the lower the majority then the fewer Blairites and the more rebels. A nice line, but it lacks the merit of being true. The most hardcore rebels are mainly (but not entirely) in safe seats but their numbers are too small to make a significant impact on all but the narrowest of majorities.

But the far more significant category are the occasional rebels, those who participated in some or all of the major rebellions of this Parliament – foundation hospitals, top-up fees and the war. These MPs are disproportionately in marginal seats, mainly the very marginal seats that would be the first to go – mainly because these seats were largely ignored when the leadership were vetting key candidates in 1997.

These MPs represent the centre of gravity in the Parliamentary Labour Party – they will go so far in the name of unity and electoral pragmatism but no further. Without these people, the rebellions would be more limited to the hard left and thus both politically less credible and numerically weaker. Given the mathematics of the PLP there would be little more chance of rebellions succeeding with a majority of eighty than there would with a majority of a hundred and eighty, assuming a uniform swing.

Furthermore, the hand of the Blairite MPs would be immeasurably strengthened by the weakening of the centre ground and this could have serious implications given the third of the vote reserved for MPs in leadership elections. All of these facts suggest that the Blair premiership – and succession – would not be particularly threatened by a reduction in the majority.

But what if a large Labour majority is achieved? Would it be an endorsement of Blair as TV advocates argue?

In fact such an outcome is likely to be despite, not because of, the most Blairite elements of the manifesto – and that should be the counter-narrative that the left seek to implant now. A Labour victory will be down to the hard work of good local MPs in those marginal seats and probably a decision in the minds of voters that they would rather have more investment in public services from Gordon Brown than illusory tax cuts from Michael Howard.

The only reason that Blair should be able to derive any personal authority from the size of the majority is if this idea has already gained widespread currency and acceptance – which is not a bad reason for Blairites to spin that line but is hardly a reason for the left to help create this self-fulfilling prophecy.

The basic assumptions of the argument are also somewhat flawed, not least the idea that the Tories are dead in the water. At the time I write the polls give Labour a lead of two or three points, with the Tories benefiting from an increasingly aggressive right-wing populist campaign.

The Blairites may over-estimate their strength in this regard, and again the left seem to have gone along with their analysis. A campaign to ‘keep the majority down’ could have unexpected consequences for all concerned – and it is worth remembering that in 2001 the polls over-stated Labour’s lead by an average of 6.9% compared to votes actually cast.

Either way, within a year of the election there will be an event that really will determine Blair’s authority, assuming Labour is re-elected. The referendum on the EU Constitution, as with all referendums, will be a defining moment for a Prime Minister who takes on leading the campaign themselves. It is after the referendum that Blair will either be able to push forward a whole new raft of policies, or be constrained – if he can stay in power at all.

The ‘tactical voting’ argument also seems to be based on the idea that a viable progressive alternative exists, usually the Liberal Democrats. I view the rise of both liberalism and Liberalism as one of the biggest threats that socialism faces in Britain. It will suffice to say for now that the Liberal Democrats are far from being an answer for the left and that Blair would rather compromise with the Peel Group than the Campaign Group.

All things considered, what passes for a ‘tactical voting’ in this instance doesn’t strike me as very clever tactics at all.

So, what do I advocate? Well, as a left-wing Labour candidate standing against a right-wing Liberal Democrat I would quite like progressive voters to vote for me, and for activists who are unwilling to help out their Blairite MP to come and give me a hand with some leafleting rather than stay in and watch the telly.

But, perhaps I’m biased. And perhaps far more useful would be to ensure that in the many marginal seats where left-wing or soft-left Labour MPs are re-standing, there is a concerted effort by activists to get them back into Parliament – that really would be good tactics.

Nick Parrott is Labour PPC for Kingston