For Tomorrow (II) – When you need cover

These posts on tactical voting – and, truth to tell, this blog – grew out of a thread on dear old Tom Watson‘s blog. What struck me most about that thread (linked below) was the weakness of the arguments against tactical voting – or rather, the argument, singular. If you don’t vote Labour, you’ll make it more likely that we’ll have a Tory government. You don’t want that, do you? No? Vote Labour, then. Sorted. Followup questions got the same response:

What if I want to send a message to Blair by reducing Labour’s enormous majority?
Don’t do it – you don’t want a Tory government, do you?
What if I’m in a safe Labour seat and I want to send a message to my MP by reducing his or her enormous majority?
Don’t do it – you don’t want a Tory government, do you?
What if I’m in a safe Tory seat, or a Tory/Lib Dem marginal?

To be fair, you wouldn’t necessarily expect an impartial discussion of the pros and cons of not voting Labour from a Labour MP, let alone a recent appointee to the Whips’ Office. But the thinness of Tom’s argument seems symptomatic. Paul Anderson has recently written a summary of the issues – nip over and read it now, it won’t take long. I’ve known Paul, & respected his judgment, for the best part of two decades, but really – this is awfully thin stuff. Prefer the Tories to Labour? No? Well then, vote Labour. Sorted. Paul’s not a Labour Party apparatchik, and he’s certainly not a fool or a dickhead (that would be me, apparently) – so what’s going on?

I caught a couple of minutes of Alan Milburn on World at One the other day. He was asked whether Gordon Brown would still be in his current job after the election. He dismissed the question, and rightly so, as it’s obviously not the kind of thing someone like Milburn can decide; you could even see it, kremlinologically, as a slight to Brown that the question was asked. Anyway, Milburn took the opportunity to say what he wanted to say, which was that this election was going to be all about turnout. The Tories were banking on turnout being low generally, so that they could deploy Lynton Crosby’s black arts to get their voters to come out and vote, effectively winning by default. So Labour needed to get turnout up as well, which meant that Labour voters needed to get out there and vote Labour.

The risk of low turnout hitting Labour harder than the Tories seems real; all the same, I felt – as with Tom Watson’s posts – that something was missing here. The key was the reference to the Crosbyfication of Tory campaigning. What the Tories are doing is identifying the (much-diminished) range of political positions whose resonances are only, or primarily, Conservative, and hitting them hard. The results are often quite alarmingly vile, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft pointed out the other day; if Labour recovers in the polls, we could even see the Doomsday Option of an open appeal (as opposed to coded ones) to the Tony Martin/Enoch Powell vote. But that’s not the argument I want to pursue here. The point is that, tactically speaking, what Crosby and the Tories are doing makes perfect sense. If you’re sure of your supporters, you bank their votes and attract new voters by broadening the message. If you think your supporters are drifting away, you call them back by appealing to your core values – and if some of your core values have been poached by the other side, you keep looking until you find some which haven’t.

This explains why the Tories are currently campaigning as the Nasty Party. It also explains why Labour are feverishly working to drum up their own support by reminding us of the party’s role in building the NHS and the Welfare State, its overriding belief in equal treatment for all, its fierce commitment to social justice, its historical roots in the struggle of working men and women for decent conditions, its philosophical birthright in the thought of Morris and the Webbs and Tawney, its proud record in the struggle for democratic and liberal socialism…

Except, of course, they’re not. This is partly because the New Labour project isn’t about consistent political principle, let alone history. In the piece I quoted above, John Lanchester suggests that Labour under Blair adopted “the same maxim that the Tories had used for most of the 20th century”, aiming “to do everything necessary to win power and then, once in office, to do as much as possible of the stuff it wanted to do consistent with not frightening the electorate and losing the next election”. This isn’t quite sufficient – it doesn’t say anything about the nature of ‘the stuff it wanted to do’ – but it says something about the thinness of Labour under Blair. What do they believe in? Gaining power and keeping it, so that they can achieve what they want to achieve. (I remember an extraordinary discussion of EMU on the BBC news, with Andrew Marr blandly repeating that Blair’s reason for wanting Britain to join EMU was that it would be “his legacy” – we should do it, in other words, because he wanted to be the person who had made us do it.) And why should we vote for them?

This is only half a story, though – after all, the thinness of New Labour doesn’t logically preclude a cynical appeal to Labour values. (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Michael Howard isn’t really a bigot, come to that.) The other key aspect of the New Labour project is that it’s built on a battle within the party – and a battle which the New Labour cadre don’t quite believe is over. Back in 1997 I suggested that New Labour began with “the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from”: convulsive, because they couldn’t give any quarter to Old Labour in any of its forms; triumphant, because they won. The trouble is, that’s made it very difficult to answer the question of what Labour is: all we can say for certain is that it isn’t what it used to be.

Hence the thinness of Alan Milburn’s and Tom Watson’s and Peter Hain’s and, I’m afraid, Paul Anderson’s arguments: rallying the core Labour vote isn’t just difficult for New Labour, it’s the one thing they can’t do. What remains is an empty, moralistic appeal – you ought to vote Labour because, well, you ought to. You’re on the Left, aren’t you? You want a Tory government, do you? No? Right then, vote Labour. Sorted. I’m reminded of nothing so much as the Beat’s dissection of patriotism in the song “I am your flag”, from their extraordinary second album Wh’appen?:

Yes, I’ll be down your street again quite soon
But don’t ignore me when I wave at you
For although I’m looking rather sad
I’m all you’ve ever really had
And when you’re desperate you will hold me,
Hold me to that

Another four years of Tony Blair with a three-figure majority? Frankly, I’m not that desperate.

One Comment

  1. Bill
    Posted 2 April 2005 at 10:35 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, the answer to that mantra is an appeal to Eugene Debbs: “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it, than vote for something I don’t want and get that” At least we could fight another day.

    Anyway, I’m not so sure that Labour is that vulnerable to low turnout. Perhaps new Labour MP’s are, the contested seats, but it does seem that Labour has a vast hinterland of pitifully low turnouts that are rock solid – their safest seat is Bootle and that gat around 50% turnout, with no Tories in sight.

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