David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.