Eastleigh shows why Labour-Lib Dem tactical voting will matter in 2015

With the Tories in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats, Labour will need to consider whether to tacitly advise its supporters to vote for Clegg's party.

The first poll on the Eastleigh by-election, courtesy of Lord Ashcroft, suggests that the contest will be as tight as expected. The Conservatives are in the lead on 34 per cent, three points ahead of the Lib Dems, who have held the seat since 1994 (another by-election). But when all responses are included, rather than those certain to vote, the positions are reversed, with the Lib Dems three points ahead of the Tories (32-29). The challenge for Clegg's party, which holds all 36 council seats in the constituency, will be getting out its vote. 

Labour is in third place on 19 per cent, an increase of nine points since the general election, but far behind the Lib Dems and the Tories. On last night's edition of This Week, Alan Johnson bluntly declared: "Labour aren't going to win." 

Among other things, then, Eastleigh is a reminder that tactical voting will be a major issue in 2015. Indeed, if the Conservatives win on 28 February, it will become an issue immediately. The Tories are in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats and half of those on its target list are held by Clegg's party. If Labour is to prevent the Tories from decapitating scores of Lib Dems, it will need to consider whether to advise its supporters to cast tactical votes. In 2010, Ed Balls and Peter Hain both argued that Labour supporters should consider lending their votes to the Lib Dems in seats where the party couldn't win. But after five years of Clegg and co. acting as the Tories' "accomplices", it is doubtful whether many Labour figures will repeat this call. 

The biggest electoral headache for the Conservatives remains that any collapse in the Lib Dem vote will work to Labour's advantage in Tory-Labour marginals, as was shown in the Corby by-election. If this patten is repeated at the general election, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats - there are 37 Con-Lab marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. 

If they are to stand any chance of winning a majority at the next election or even remaining the largest single party, the Tories need to hope for a partial Lib Dem recovery.

Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue