David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour is waking up to the issue of tactical voting

The party recognises the danger that the Tories could win by taking a large number of seats off the Lib Dems. 

Tactical voting is an issue at every general election. The antiquated first-past-the-post system means that individuals are permanently confronted by the danger of "wasting" their vote on their favourite party and allowing their least favourite to win. It will be an issue at this election more than the most. In a close contest, the degree of tactical voting could be one of the key determinants of the result. 

It is Labour that has traditionally benefited most from tactical voting. Lib Dem supporters and others have voted for the party in Labour-Conservative marginals in order to "keep the Tories out". In turn, Labour supporters in Conservative-Lib Dem marginals have voted for the yellows in order to deny the Tories additional seats. The extent of centre-left tactical voting (far greater than its centre-right equivalent) helps to explain why Labour's majorities were so large in 1997 and 2001, and why it was able to win a majority of 66 seats with just 35 per cent of the vote in 2005. 

Over the past fortnight, I have been struck by the number of Labour MPs and shadow cabinet ministers who have mentioned the subject to me. They recognise the danger that the collapse in the Lib Dems' vote could allow the Tories to win scores of seats in which they currently lie in second place (of the Lib Dems' 56 seats, the Conservatives were runners-up in 37). While those Lib Dem MPs with super-majorities may be insulated, many others are vulnerable (though in Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg's seat, it is now Labour challenging for first place). If the Tories win enough to offset most of their losses to Labour (which stands to lose seats to the SNP), they could survive as the single largest party. 

For Labour, this poses a dilemma. It recognises that there are a large number of Lib Dem-Tory contests in which it has made little progress since finishing third in 2010. But it is harder than ever to tacitly encourage, let alone explicitly encourage, tactical voting (as Ed Balls and Peter Hain did at the last election). Ed Miliband's declared ambition is to make Labour a "One Nation" party, with no no-go areas, and the Lib Dems' role in government means far fewer than in the past are prepared to lend them their support. 

An additional complication is that tactical voting could lead Labour to win on seats but lose on votes. Should the Conservatives finish first on the latter, it would be far easier for them to justify remaining in government, provided that they can assemble enough votes to pass a Queen's Speech. 

As the election draws closer, the issue of the tactical voting required to defeat the Tories will become increasingly prominent. The former Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott raised it this week when he donated £300,000 to Labour candidates in Lab-Tory marginals and £300,000 to Lib Dem candidates in LD-Tory marginals to secure a "Labour-led government". The question now is how others address it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.