The efforts of the Lib Dems to establish themselves as the main challenger in the North Shropshire by-election, along with some cases of Labour at a local level failing to field candidates in council by-elections in areas where the Greens and Lib Dems are strong, have helped fuel an unhelpful debate about two overlapping concepts: tactical voting and progressive alliances.
First, tactical voting. That’s when people whose heart tells them to vote for one party lend their vote to another party that they are less enthused about because it has a better chance of beating the party they really dislike. It exists, and it’s a fact of British political life.
In the UK, we mainly think about tactical voting as a mechanism by which anti-Tory voters pile in behind Labour or the Lib Dems depending on which is the main threat to the Tories in a particular seat. But we tend not to notice that it is also used by the Lib Dems against Labour. In seats that are a Labour versus Lib Dem or Labour versus Green contest, the Lib Dems and Greens happily persuade Tories to vote tactically for them so they can beat Labour. This happens at the same that the Lib Dems they are getting tactical votes from Labour supporters to beat the Tories in other constituencies.
My position is quite straightforward. Our task is to try to maximise the Labour vote in every ward and constituency. Where Labour is the main threat to the Tories, we should be asking Green and Lib Dem voters to vote tactically for us. But we have to work for those votes: we can’t expect Green or Lib Dem candidates and activists to roll over and let us steal all their votes. And the same applies in reverse.
The Lib Dems have a democratic right to try to snatch votes from Labour, including through appeals to vote tactically. That’s their job. They are one of our competitors. Voters don’t belong to a party; they have to be earned. But we don’t have any obligation to roll over and let them take votes off of us, because our job as a political party is the same as theirs – to fight for every vote we can get.
The other concept that’s floating about is a “progressive alliance”. There are two variations on this. The first is a tacit one, where anti-Tory parties desist from campaigning hard in seats where another anti-Tory party is better placed to beat the Tories. The second is a more formal pact or deal where candidates are withdrawn and only the party best placed to beat the Tories stands in each constituency.
It’s a fact of political life that parties don’t have limitless resources, be that organising staff, cash or activists, and therefore have to target those resources at their most marginal target seats. It’s very rare, but not impossible, for a Tory seat to legitimately be viewed as a three-way marginal where two opposition parties both have a chance of winning it and will both want to target it. But beyond prioritisation of national resources to the most marginal seats, Labour doesn’t centrally control the amount of local effort or money a CLP wants to put into a less winnable seat.
If a CLP in a less winnable area has the resources to support a nearby marginal and run a good campaign to build up Labour’s vote in their own patch, this should be welcomed. We need Labour to be building its strength everywhere, as efforts in parliamentary elections help win council seats and vice versa. We also discovered in 2010 that national vote share, which includes votes from seats where we are not competitive, is taken into account by the Lib Dems in who they negotiate a coalition with!
There is absolutely no question of Labour not fielding candidates in any constituency other than in very exceptional circumstances, like Tatton in 1997 where all the major candidates backed independent Martin Bell against a Tory incumbent implicated in sleaze. All votes cast contribute to national vote share, which gives a government its democratic legitimacy, and every Labour voter has a right to have a Labour candidate on the ballot paper. In any case, such a move could backfire as recent polling showed that a substantial proportion of Labour voters and an even larger proportion of Lib Dem voters would vote Tory in the absence of a candidate from their own party.
Discourse around progressive alliances may have made more sense in the 1980s and 1990s when the opposition parties were nearer in size. But such a pact would be a very unequal marriage now – the tail would be wagging the dog. The Lib Dems are currently only a quarter of Labour’s strength. There are just 13 seats where they are in second place to the Tories and less than 5,000 votes behind. Labour is now in second place in many seats in the rural south and west of England, historically seen as unwinnable for Labour but prime territory for the Lib Dems. As for the Greens, there isn’t a single constituency in the UK where they are in second place to the Tories. The progressive alliance idea becomes even more absurd in Scotland, where our task as a party is to win back seats held by the regressive nationalists of the SNP.
The other thing that has changed since the 1990s is the positioning of the Lib Dems. It is quite difficult to justify viewing them as potential progressive partners when they enthusiastically embraced a coalition with David Cameron for five years, ushered in austerity and horrific cuts to public services, and reneged on solemn pledges they had made to left-wing voters such as students.
Why should we trust them, and how can we expect Labour voters to feel comfortable backing them, when tactical anti-Tory voters in 2010 saw the Lib Dem MPs they had elected going into government with the Tories? There was a reason the Labour Party was founded in 1900. The Liberals had proved they could not be trusted to represent the interests of the working class and the trade union movement in parliament, and we had to have our own parliamentary representation. 2010 proved that that fundamental reason hasn’t disappeared during the last century and a bit.
Strategically, every vote tactically loaned to the Lib Dems in a by-election helps resurrect a party that wants to destroy and replace Labour in urban areas, and that cynically pays back Labour tactical voting elsewhere by forming coalitions with the Tories to prioritise cutting public services. Do we want the Lib Dems back in business so we have to defeat them all over again in inner London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and all other cities where they were challenging us in the 2000s?
Turning to the specifics of North Shropshire, there’s only one basis for the Lib Dem claim that they are second and Labour should pull out (which isn’t legally possible), back off or condone tactical voting. That’s their own hype. If you loudly declare that you are the main challenger, using dodgy bar charts, in enough leaflets, people start to believe you and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The Lib Dems have no claim to be the main challenger based on general election results. Labour was a clear second in North Shropshire in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Lib Dems only narrowly managed second in 2010. Labour almost won the seat in 1997, the Lib Dems have never been anywhere near it. Their current candidate came third with less than half Labour’s vote in 2019. I’ve seen loads of hype about how “amazingly strong” the Lib Dems are at local council level in North Shropshire. I was therefore somewhat surprised to read the council results from May and discover they didn’t win a single ward in the constituency, and actually lost the only one they had previously held. The fact they can cite council vote shares based on neither us nor them fighting every ward as “proof” they are second actually shows why Labour shouldn’t entertain tacit pacts and not fielding full slates of candidates at a council level.
We don’t need a progressive alliance with minor parties because what Labour is at its best is a progressive alliance in and of itself. Labour is a party sufficiently broad that it can appeal in every region and to every section of the population, not have to subcontract fighting the Tories in rural areas or leafy suburbs to the Lib Dems.
Now that we are seeing opinion poll leads of up to nine percentage points, we know we can win without auxiliaries. We know that there ought to be no no-go areas for Labour and that we must have vibrant campaigning local parties in every CLP. Between now and Thursday, please don’t play into the cynical hands of the Lib Dems. Get behind Labour’s excellent candidate in North Shropshire, Ben Wood, who has been working his socks off.
If you can, get there on polling day. If you can’t, hit the phones using Labour’s Dialogue calling system. Our job is to maximise Labour’s vote, because a high Labour vote, not an easy-to-dismiss Lib Dem by-election flash-in-the-pan, is what will really put Boris and the Tories on notice to quit.