Dead Men Left

Monday, February 21, 2005

Against tactical voting

Former government advisor gone bad, David Clark, continues his one-man crusade:

Reversing the tide of inequality was never going to be easy, but New Labour has failed to halt it, while Blair ridicules the idea that it even matters. The public realm is cast as inferior to the private sector and its ethos caricatured as antediluvian. Civil libertarians are dismissed as "bleeding heart liberals". The 1960s are written off as a ghastly mistake. Immigration is discussed in tones intended to appease racism, not challenge it. Promises on student fees and Lords reform are casually broken. And that's before we get to Iraq.

A fair summary, excluding Iraq, of the Blair governments' records and why quite so many Labour voters are so bitter. Clark's recommendation, and it is one that is gaining some ground, is to vote tactically.

Tactical voting in 1997 ensured more Tories lost their seats than the simple swing to Labour would predict. Voters carefully targeted Tory marginals, and switched from their preferred (third-placed) party, whether Labour or Lib Dem, to maximise the chances of knocking an incumbent Tory out of office.

There are, however, serious problems with this. Though he saves his animus for the splurge of tactical voting websites, Chris Applegate sums up some of those serious when he writes that, "Tactical voting... only try to solve the symptoms rather than the cause."

Underlying the belief in tactical voting, for all the vague appeals to empowerment and activism, is a deep-rooted conservatism. To vote tactically is to reduce politics to the Westminster politicians' base level: only votes matter, and only votes for proper politics really matter. It accepts the status quo ante and the limitations it imposes. Under present circumstances, this means accepting the Thatcher's dictum: There Is No Alternative: either the free market is the model for society, or there is nothing.

Many of those failing to appear at the polling booths, and it is likely to be a great deal of us, will have shrugged their shoulders and opted for the second choice: nothing. The appeal of tactical voting to thoroughly disenfranchised ex-voters will be limited in the extreme.

In a perverse way, Iraq might give the issue some bite. Iraq is the one point at which clear and unequivocal differences emerge between the major parties. The frothingly anti-Blair site, Backing Blair, demands an anti-Labour vote in all constituencies, everywhere to unseat the man, largely because of Iraq.

I share much of this deep and bitter and regrettably personalised loathing for the man, for he manages to embody in his lanky frame almost every single one of the worst vices stereotypically attributed to "Middle England": the selective belief in meritocracy, the obsession with house prices, the woeful cultural conservatism hiding a real contempt for working class people, the vacuous ersatz "spirituality", the belief in the White Man's Burden... and so on.

The one such vice he does not hold is the absence of saloon-bar racism. Blair generally delegates this to some minion, Blunkett springing to mind. But it is an important distinction; better a wooly belief in "multicultural" values, however ruined by Labour's slide on immigration and support for the "war on terror", than the ill-concealed racism of the Right.

That's largely the reason why it is simply impossible to advocate voting anti-Labour. Factor in the dwindling numbers of decent(ish) Labour MPs, who have opposed the war on Iraq, tuition fees, the abuse meted out to strikers and all the rest of it, and the "anyone but Labour" strategy looks plainly irrational.

But this is where Iraq matters. Our response to the war can either be to support the status quo - and so support "reclaiming Labour", or the Lib Dems - or it can be to treat it, as hundreds of thousands have done, as marking a clear break with the past. Opposition to the war on Iraq did not come out of nowhere. Two million people do not, generally speaking, march on any issue in Britain without good reason. The anti-war movement grew out of the swirling oppositions to a hundred and one other discontents this government has produced. The homemade placard on February 15th, two years ago, reading "Beds Not Bombs" summed the process up: the opposition to the war on Iraq was directly a response to the failure of Blairism and the cavernous gap between official and popular politics.

If we treat this opposition as break, under severe strain, with the status quo, then we cannot now urge a retreat, back to the existing set up. Tactical voting is a request to do precisely that; a denial that any break is possible - despite all the evidence that it is already occurring, both Left and Right - and a refusal to engage with the possibilities it offers.

What sense would it make, for example, for socialists, on a tactical voting basis, to urge a vote for the Conservatives or the Lib Dems in Bethnal Green? A clear left-wing alternative to the arch-Blairite MP is standing, and is in with a good chance of winning the seat. Yet on previous performance, a tactical vote would force a choice between vapid yellow and vicious blue.

This is to deliberately pick the most extreme example, but the processes at work in Bethnal Green are happening elsewhere. New or rejuvenated organisations of the Left have started to fill the gap between the official political consensus and the aspirations of many. Whether they win seats or not is less important than what they can continue to put in place on the ground. It's old-fashioned politics, but building political parties has never been about instant hits in elections: helpful as these are, even in times so dominated by centralised media the individuals who can organise and persuade are what can persistently deliver the goods. It needs patient work on the ground, and an ability to see these elections as one step on the way - not the sole focus of activity.

Either these new forces continue to grow, through the election and beyond, or we are left with the desperate possibility of - not just Blair still as Prime Minister - but an unfeebled, voiceless opposition.