Greasy Pole: On tactical voting

Here is something else for all those bewildered and dispirited Labour supporters to blame on Blair and his government. In their glory days of 1997 and 2001 voting was a happily uncomplicated business, requiring them only to go to their local polling station and plonk their cross against the name of their New Labour candidate, then go home congratulating themselves on participating in the drive to raise living standards, make everyone healthier and more secure, tackle global poverty and climate change.

But since then it has been borne in on the most starry-eyed Labourite that their party is not only unable to make good on its promises but has carried through other, unpromised and unwelcome, policies like cutting single parent benefit and hounding those on incapacity benefit, imposing student tuition fees, introducing the market into the NHS and other public services, taking part in the invasion of Iraq. All of this makes voting, for many a Labour supporter, a matter fraught with indecision. There has been an anguished debate from which has emerged – or rather re-emerged – the concept of tactical voting. This means voting for a second choice candidate – like a Liberal Democrat – in the hope that this will influence the Labour government to change its policies. This is a sight more complex than simply opting for their first choice candidate.

A jolt

The case for tactical voting has recently been stated by John Harris in his book So Now Who Do We Vote For?, in which a Labour ex-minister outlines his dilemma:

And why don’t we like Michael Howard? Partly because of his right wing record when he was home secretary. But we’re more right wing than Michael Howard was. I’m not saying I want the Tories, but how bad would it be? The thing is, the Labour party needs a fright.”

Harris concludes that in Labour heartlands like Scotland, Wales, South Yorkshire and London “the Blairites need a jolt”. He discusses some of the other parties – the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green, Respect – which, if they amassed a considerable vote, would administer that jolt. This line of reasoning does not recognise the futility of voting for one unsatisfactory party in order to disturb another. After all it is not so long ago that voting Labour was sometimes used to give a Tory government a jolt. There must be another, more hopeful, more enduring method.

A rather desperate-sounding parliamentary group under the name of “Impeach Blair” has campaigned to get Blair on trial for his part in the Iraq war and the deceptions he practised in that cause. The idea made very little progress, which is probably just as well because Blair may have been able to defend himself successfully on the grounds that he was only following precedent. For example there was Neville Chamberlain who in 1938 came back from Munich holding a piece of paper which, he claimed, was a guarantee of peace in our time, although even as he spoke this country – and quite a few others – were busily preparing for war. Then there was Anthony Eden, who in 1956 lied to the House of Commons when he denied that, in order to justify the attack on Suez, there had been a conspiracy between Israel, France and Britain to collude in the Israeli invasion of Egypt. Blair might point out that Eden, far from being prosecuted, was elevated into being Lord Avon. An acquittal would undoubtedly follow.

Standing in Sedgefield

As a result the group turned its attention to an idea dreamed up by Adam Price, a Plaid Cymru MP who is threateningly rumoured to be a brainy maverick, to persuade someone to stand against Blair in his Sedgefield constituency. This person would need to be – rather like Martin Bell in Tatton in 1997 and Blair in his younger days – of impeccable character and antecedents and to be allowed a clear run by the other parties, to focus the anger against Blair effectively enough to unseat him. As we write nobody has been found to take this on. Sedgefield has been rock-solid Labour for over 90 years; the people there are apt to refer to Blair as “our Tony” (perhaps as the people of Tatton called Neil Hamilton “our Neil” before they threw him out in 1997) and in 2001 they gave him a majority close on 18,000.

It would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a sitting prime minister to be opposed at an election by a single candidate. This did happen in 1945, when Winston Churchill’s seat at Epping was contested by Alexander Hancock. The other parties had agreed not to stand in Epping, as a “mark of respect” for Churchill, but there were unacknowledged advantages for them in allowing “the man who won the war” to have a free ride to Westminster. However there were people who did not accept this; most prominent among them was William Douglas-Home whose brother, then Lord Dunglass, was Chamberlain’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, closely involved in the Munich negotiations which effectively handed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Douglas-Home was an ardent fan of Chamberlain and a bitter critic of Churchill; during his time in the Army in the war he fought three by-elections in opposition to the manner in which the war was being conducted. In September 1944 he refused an order to participate in the “mopping up” of the German army in Le Havre, on the grounds that this would result in heavy civilian casualties – which, when the attack came, did happen. Douglas-Home was court martialled, discharged from the Army and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment with hard labour.

Contest in Epping

With this background Douglas-Home was an obvious possibility to ignore the party truce and stand against Churchill at Epping. He did at first intend to do this but then withdrew, which allowed Arthur Yates, another soldier (although not one who disobeyed orders; the Daily Mail affectionately described him as “an earnest, hardened and freckled young man”) to stand in his stead. The Army flew Yates over from Austria for his nomination but he arrived too late, which left the field to Alexander Hancock, who got his name on the ballot papers as an Independent. Hancock was a local farmer; Churchill dismissed him as “somewhat crackpot” and it is true that he did have an unusual approach to politics.

To begin with he confessed not to have any desire to become an MP or to deny that to Churchill. When he was asked about his chances of defeating Churchill he shrugged “could anyone?” His principal objective was to publicise his “philosophical plan” under which “able bodied” people would do about an hour’s compulsory work each day to provide the essentials of life and spend the rest of the time producing non-essentials. It might have occurred to the more reflective voters in Epping that the plans put forward by the other parties for trying to control British capitalism had little more than did Hancock’s to commend them in terms of relevance and effectiveness. At all events over 10,000 of them voted for Hancock, or perhaps that was, in fact, tactically against Churchill, who survived with a majority of around 17,000.

Sadism and masochism

If someone is willing to offer themselves as another Alexander Hancock it will be in response to the widespread anger and disgust at Blair and the fact that his party’s record in government has led to many ex-supporters feeling they are disenfranchised. Labour’s election manipulators are already worried about the possibility that they will lose some seats by default because a lot of its supporters will be unable to summon up enough enthusiasm even to vote. To such people the prospect of a candidate taking on Blair one-to-one in his own territory has its attractions. If the unthinkable happened sadists might find pleasure in the downfall of a politician as plausible, dishonest and obsessive as Blair. But what then? Blair was after all once the great young hope of the Labour Party and of millions of people outside the party. What reason is there to suppose that a successor would be any different, any more acceptable? Why should we believe that another party, brought to power through tactical voting, would be any more successful? What hope is there that it would be useful to concentrate on one problem, one leader, one election? The working class persist in choosing between different versions of the same weary, discredited palliatives for capitalism’s problems. This is not sadism; it is masochism and it will be a massive relief when it stops.


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