So, the election campaign’s finally started and Labour and the Conservatives are neck and neck in the polls, give or take a % either way. On mature reflection I’ll no longer be surprised (as I said earlier) if their majority on May 6th is less than 100, but I will be surprised (and gratified, frankly) if it goes below 60. Protest voting is still very much on the agenda, I’d say.
That said, there are still some unanswered questions about protest voting. Primarily, what is it for – what are we trying to achieve? (By ‘we’ I of course mean ‘people like me’ – in this case, committed left-wingers who have voted Labour at some stage in the past and now want to offer New Labour as little support as possible. If that’s not you, some of this discussion may read a bit oddly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Are we trying to elect the Tories? Well, er, no. If there were any realistic chance of the Nasty Party being elected, a lot of us would be scared back to Labour toot sweet. We’re voting against Labour because we know that an awful lot of people will be voting for them. That’s a pragmatic calculation, and arguably a cynical one; I don’t think it’s necessarily dishonourable.
Are we trying to bring about a hung parliament, which would give the power to make or break a government to the Liberal Democrats, who would refuse to sustain a minority government, which would necessarily lead to the introduction of PR, which would make calculations like these tedious and irrelevant (not that it wouldn’t bring a whole new set of calculations)? Mu. Too many subordinate clauses. I don’t personally despise the Liberal Democrats as much as some, but I don’t trust them much further than I could throw Lembit Opik. Besides, a hung parliament is still a fairly unlikely outcome.
Which leaves the goal – a realistic goal, I think – of reducing the (almost inevitable) Labour majority from 60-70 to 30-40, say. In passing, I think we should forget any thought of differential protest voting, using resources like the Public Whip to identify the real Blairites and punish them accordingly. This is a blunt instrument at the best of times, as Chris points out. Moreover, the sad fact is that the parliamentary Labour Party contains damn few consistent rebels. The numbers dwindle further when you add other reasons for voting against particular MPs – Diane Abbott is nobody’s Blairite, but her record on the former Yugoslavia was hardly any less shameful than Douglas Hurd’s (google “Committee for Peace in the Balkans”, although you won’t find much). To be blunt, the problem is a large majority of Labour MPs in the Commons; it’s only going to be addressed by reducing that majority.
But what would that get us, apart from making the Whips work for a living and preventing another disaster like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which isn’t nothing)? The obvious answer is, of course, “Blair out”. I wonder about this; I wonder if anything short of a hung parliament would loosen the man’s grip on power. But let’s go with it: on May 6th Labour is returned with a majority of 35 (say), and on May 7th the knives are out for Blair. And then what?
When I first started thinking about this scenario I came up with all sorts of possibilities involving four- or five-way internecine warfare within the Labour Party: Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)… It could get extremely messy, and extremely interesting in terms of who would come out owing favours to whom. It won’t, though, for the simple reason that Blairites are serious about power (as, indeed, are Brownites). As soon as Brown emerged as the front runner (i.e. almost immediately) the Sensational Tony Blair Machine Without Tony would swing behind him, and it would all be over bar the shouting.
At this point I tend to agree with Paul Anderson’s astringent take on protest voting – is that it? We’re doing all this for Gordon Brown? To which I think the answer is: no, we’re doing it for Tony Blair. We’re voting against Tony Blair and all he stands for, in the knowledge that Gordon Brown is more likely to reap the benefit than anyone else. There won’t have been a massive public endorsement of Brown, after all; he’ll begin his premiership on sufferance (especially if there’s been a clear swing to anti-war parties – including opportunists like the Lib Dems).
That said, there is something deeply unsatisfying about encouraging the Left to place any kind of trust in Brown, and a pure anti-Blair vote isn’t much better. There’s a point here about the sheer weakness of the Left, which I’ll return to in another post. For now, I commend Meaders’ dissection of Tariq Ali’s defeatism and heartily endorse this comment in particular –
it is not enough to make voting decisions based solely on the Iraq war, and especially not when rewarding an essentially pro-war party. We have to think longer-term, about rebuilding left-wing political organisation in opposition to all the parties of neoliberalism and war
(Although I don’t, actually, think Respect is any part of the answer. Sectarian, moi?)