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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.