Jo Swinson Jo Swinson speaking at Lib Dem conference, March 2018. Photo: Flickr/Liberal Democrats

Tactical voting benefits the Lib Dems and is a block to a people-powered movement for change, argues Dragan Plavšić

Let’s suppose you’re a Labour voter living in a constituency where the Tories and Lib Dems are the front runners and Labour a distant third. Labour isn’t likely to win the seat. Why not vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out? Why not vote tactically?

There are three key reasons why tactical voting is a bad idea.

The first is that tactical voting is really a roundabout way of boosting the Lib Dem vote. In some seats the Lib Dems will be appealing to Labour voters to vote tactically to keep the Tories out, but in other seats they will be appealing to Tory voters to vote tactically to keep Labour out. This means Labour voters who vote Lib Dem to defeat the Tories will find themselves voting for a party (they don’t believe in) which is elsewhere chasing Tory votes to defeat Labour (the party they do believe in).

The sum of all this gets us again and again to the same place, which is that tactical voting is a form of electoral expediency that can only benefit the Lib Dems. This is crystal clear from the electoral pact they have just concluded with the Greens and Plaid Cymru, which effectively seeks to gerrymander voters into tactical voting. As has been noted, the pact ‘is designed to benefit one party only – the Lib Dems. They are standing alone in 43 out of the 60 constituencies chosen, the Greens 10 and Plaid 7.’

The second reason tactical voting is problematic is that it is premised on the idea that the Lib Dems are somehow ‘better’ or more progressive than the Tories. 

But to think the Lib Dems are ‘better’ is to mistake their true nature. They are the reserve party of the establishment. Historically, they are the old Liberal Party of Gladstone (originally a Tory), Lloyd-George who presided over the slaughter of the First World War and the younger Churchill who as Home Secretary deployed troops against striking Welsh miners (before skipping off to the Tories). 

Even Charles Kennedy’s very modest tack to the left never really rang true, and Nick Clegg was able with ease to bring the Lib Dems back into order to become as much the party of austerity as the Tories in Cameron’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.

Jo Swinson is nothing if not a Cleggite. An employment minister in the coalition government, she supported Clegg’s cynical betrayal over tuition fees, voted for the notorious bedroom tax, backed the public sector pay cap, opposed tax rises for the rich, voted against a ban on fracking and supported foreign military intervention, for example in Libya. And let’s not of course forget that she wants a statue of Thatcher in Parliament Square.

The Tories are wolves, but the Lib Dems are wolves in sheep’s clothing. With the Brexit Tories under Johnson currently out of sync with a Remain establishment, the Lib Dems glimpse an opportunity to shed their reserve status in order to replace them as the favoured party of the establishment. This glimpse has provoked in them a boosterism which is as comical as it is duplicitous. Contrary to claims by disaffected Blairites (aka ‘Lib Dems in Labour clothing’), there is nothing remotely progressive about helping the Lib Dems become the new Tories.

The third reason tactical voting is a bad idea is that it is a narrowly electoral way of thinking because it prioritises voting and winning seats above all other considerations. Of course, we want Labour to get as many votes as possible, to win the election and form the next government. But there needs to be more to this election than just voting and winning seats. 

In other words, this needs to be an election that is not merely about capturing votes but also about capturing hearts and minds, that shifts mass consciousness decisively to the left. More specifically, it needs to be an election that helps mobilise a movement capable of rallying to the defence of a Labour government, as and when the establishment seeks to undermine it. Or if not elected, then one that will be better ready locally and nationally to fight back against a Johnson government.

Such a movement means getting everyone everywhere to vote Labour regardless of whether a given seat can be won, because a movement cannot afford to respect constituency boundaries or become ensnared in tactical electoral considerations if it is to be true to itself. On the contrary, it needs to pull working people together above all on the basis of their common interests. In this election, a Labour vote is an opportunity to bring left ideas to communities where they have been absent for decades and to link those communities together. Voting tactically by voting Lib Dem defeats all this.

Tactical voting isn’t just an attempt to boost the votes of the Lib Dems, a party that cannot in its essentials be differentiated from the Tories. Nor is it just another way of undermining the Labour vote. It is also a block to a people-powered movement with the self-belief and self-confidence to struggle for the changes we desperately need.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).