“Hold your nose and vote Christian Democrat”, Indro Montanelli wrote in 1976. Montanelli was an independently-minded, secular, intelligent right-winger; he was a great journalist and, for my money, a great man. (He began writing under Fascism, and lived long enough to describe Berlusconi’s Italy as the ugliest he’d ever seen.) But on this occasion he was tragically, horribly wrong. To anyone who might have wanted to free Italy from the influence of the Church, or to curb the flagrant corruption of the Christian Democrats, or to make a break with years of stagnation and spoils-sharing, Montanelli’s message was: don’t risk it. Don’t risk scattering the right-wing vote to the point where the Christian Democrats are no longer the largest single party; don’t risk letting in the Communists by the back door.
The results of the 1976 election were rather odd. Between 1972 and 1976, the vote for the Communist Party (PCI) rose by over 7% (from 27.1% to 34.4%). However, the share of the vote taken by the other two main parties – the ruling Christian Democrats (DC) and their main ally, the Socialist Party (PSI) – stayed almost exactly the same (38.7% and 9.6% respectively).
I’ve never seen these results analysed in any detail; my impressionistic reading is that all three parties gained votes from parties to their Right, but the Christian Democrats and Socialists also lost votes to parties to their Left. On the Right, the Liberal Party (the bankers’ party, essentially) did particularly badly, falling from 3.9% in 1972 to 1.3%.
If right-wing voters had not rallied to the Christian Democrats in this way, it’s not inconceivable that 1976 might have seen the Communist vote overtake the Christian Democrats’. This would have made the continued exclusion of the Communists from power scandalous and ultimately unsustainable. It would also have shaken up the Communist Party leadership, which would have been no bad thing. The Communists at this time were heavily committed to the ‘historic compromise’: this was based on an essentially mystical view of Italian history, in which the Bourgeois Hegemony (Christian Democrats) was about to pass the torch to the Proletarian Hegemony (Communists), by way of a period of co-operation between the two great popular movements (political parties). This intoxicating vision might have been shaken by a swift electoral reminder that the Christian Democrats were in fact (a) one political party among others; (b) a gang of crooks; and (c) a political party whose popularity was on the wane, not least because of (b).
In short, a dispersed Right vote in 1976 might have broken the log-jam of Italian politics. What actually happened was that the Christian Democrats kept the Communists at arm’s length for a couple of years, then discarded them when they had ceased to be a threat. The blocked political system stagnated and festered for another decade and a half, until the earthquake of Tangentopoli pulled the rug out from under the big wheels of the Ancien Regime and oblivion engulfed a thousand mixed metaphors. Voting Communist might not have been a great idea in 1976, but holding your nose and voting Christian Democrat was a really, really bad idea.
In the Morning Star today, a writer whose name I forget (somebody Kotz?) had the following recommendation:
“Hold your nose and vote Labour (with a few exceptions)”
(The exceptions turned out to be Reg Keys, Rose Gentle and Craig Murray, plus Respect and (rather amusingly) the Communist Party of Britain. I suppose you can’t actually tell Morning Star readers to vote against CPB candidates; they’d get letters.)
There are a number of ways to describe this advice; I’m going to try out another one tomorrow. (Because I’ve got a couple of ideas for posts queued up, you understand, not just because I’m fickle.) My word for tonight is ‘insane’. As far as I’m concerned, this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour. Iraq matters – the government’s duplicity over Iraq matters hugely – but these things matter because they shine a light on what this government is really like. This government has pulled a whole range of foul and insane and alarming strokes in the last four years, but they’ve always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren’t directly affected). Iraq is the moment when this government ceases to have the benefit of the doubt; from this point on, there is nothing they can say that we will ever believe.
The trouble is, they’re still there. They’re still occupying the centre ground of British politics, and reshaping it in their own unsavoury, authoritarian, crony-capitalist image; they’re still sustained by having the Left vote in an armlock. (Replace ‘Left’ with ‘Right’ and ‘British’ with ‘Italian’, and you’ve got a precise description of how the Christian Democrats squatted on Italy for forty years.) They have to be shifted – and if they can’t be shifted, they have to be shaken up. The last thing anyone on the Left should be doing right now is encouraging people to vote Labour – not even if the alternative is the Liberal Democrats; not even if the alternative is Respect. Cde Kotz’s recommendation is exactly as good an idea as Montanelli’s was, and for the same reasons.
Don’t hold your nose: inhale the stink. If something smells bad, you don’t have to take it. The clothespeg brigade inveigh against tactical voting, but if the words mean anything they’re the ones who are encouraging it. The message isn’t Vote for what you believe in; it’s not even Vote against what you don’t. It’s something more like Vote for the candidate who is most likely to ensure that the most plausible overall result that you are strongly opposed to doesn’t happen. (Or it might just be Shut up and vote Labour.)
Tactical voting is holding your nose when you vote: voting Labour even at the cost of registering your support for policies you oppose, or voting against Labour at the cost of supporting a party you oppose. It’s not tactical voting to vote for breaking the log-jam, and vote to make it more likely that it breaks to the Left. It’s not tactical voting to vote to replace New Labour with something better.
It’s not tactical voting to make your choice from among the local anti-war parties and candidates, excluding Labour. It’s not tactical voting to vote for a left-wing party against Labour, or even for a slightly-left-of-Labour party. Not even if you believe that the Conservatives will benefit in your constituency; not even if you’ve got a good, anti-war Labour MP. (More on these last points later.)
It’s not tactical voting. It’s principled voting.