When second choice isn’t the worst choice

In Tory/Lib Dem and Tory/SNP marginals, Corbyn-supporting Mark Perryman argues, Labour voters’ second choice is one worth having.

I live in Lewes, East Sussex, since 1997 a Tory/Lib Dem marginal. There’s never been a Labour MP for the constituency, ever; the party mostly comes a distant third, with the Greens even further back.

I’m an active member of the local Labour Party here, a Corbynist, I edited the book Corbynism from Below. No, I’m not a personality cult-follower, but I broadly support a politics, and a leader, who for the past six weeks Jo Swinson has been loudly declaring would be as bad for Britain as Boris Johnson. Weirdly, given that locally the Lib Dems are desperately pitching for my, and other Labour supporters’, tactical votes.

For the duration of the campaign, with the full support of Lewes Labour Party, I’ve been organising local members to go to the Sussex target seats we can win: Hastings, Crawley and East Worthing. We call these ‘tactical campaigning charabancs’, carload after carload travelling to canvass in winnable seats rather than in our hometown, where we can only lose. In the cars there are those who support tactical voting, and those who most certainly don’t. But the journeys aren’t rancorous, rather, we’re all just happy to be doing something practical to secure a Labour victory in these vital marginals.

Meanwhile back in Lewes there are Labour members, including some from the charabancs, throwing everything into an energetic campaign behind our excellent candidate Kate Chappell. Kate has been the undisputed star of the hustings, there’s been canvassing teams of stalwart Labour voters out and about, the media work has been of an unprecedented standard, and I’ve helped out with an expanding social media presence.

There is a strong and credible case for all this effort. To build a local base, a platform to make local council gains – there’s not been a Labour Lewes town councillor for the best part of thirty years – and, of course, the argument that Labour voters have a right to vote Labour. Not forgetting that the Labour tactical votes that delivered a Liberal Democrat MP, the well-liked Norman Baker, saw him in 2010 enter a coalition with the Tories.

On the list of the top twenty Lib Dem target seats, Lewes is number ten. Of the twenty targets, thirteen are Tory-held, and in most – seats like Richmond Park, Cheltenham and Winchester – Labour comes a distant third, much like us in Lewes. North of the border it’s a similar situation in relation to the SNP. Of their top thirty target seats, eleven are Tory-held, and in most – seats like Gordon, Angus, Moray – both Labour and Lib Dems are way back.  

So when it comes down to it, Labour member and supporters in places like Lewes face a choice tomorrow, the same goes for Lib Dems and Greens in the far larger number of Tory/Labour marginals, and all three parties in Scotland’s Tory/SNP marginals.

We can put a cross against our first choice because it’s more important to keep our party’s flag flying – a decent third place, there’s always next time, it will help us in the next round of local elections. Or, we put it against our second choice, to stop one more Tory MP being returned.

It’s taken me a while to decide, but I now know which is the choice I’ll make, and when our local Tory MP, Maria Caulfield loses her seat, however we voted, first or second choice, there’s not a single Labour member or supporter here who won’t be celebrating, despite the fact it will be a Lib Dem replacing her. 

In most places, to stop Johnson getting his majority means Labour winning, or saving seats. In a small number, twenty at most, it means Lib Dem MPs being elected. In Scotland, it means unionist Labour voting for the civic-nationalist SNP.

I’ve chosen my words carefully. To endorse another party, which I haven’t, triggers the feared rule of ‘auto-expulsion’. That’s right, a party that takes months – years, even – to deal with cases of antisemitism (for the record, in my view, yes, there’s a problem, as there is in wider British society, but to claim Labour is institutionally antisemitic, or that a Labour government would pose an ‘existential threat’ to the Jewish community, seems to me way off beam) and even longer to deal with cases where MPs are suspended over sexual harassment allegations, can automatically expel members, within twenty-four hours, for publicly supporting tactical voting. Instead, any discussion must be had in hushed conversations, not in front of the public. And local parties are barred from even debating the possibility of not standing a candidate in this handful of seats. As for proportional representation as part of a wider programme of electoral reform, which would make voting for both first and then second choice possible, this is a glaring omission in an otherwise excellent Labour manifesto. On all three fronts, Corbynism hasn’t done enough – not nearly enough – to transform Labourism’s conservative political culture. But, for now, ‘Corbynism from below’ will have to wait.   

Instead, it’s all about tomorrow, polling day. Early morning I’ll make a choice voting in Lewes, then through the day in Hastings and Crawley with our charabancs getting the vote out where only Labour can win. The choice will the same wherever: one less Tory MP means one more off the majority Johnson needs. Conscience clear.

Mark Perryman is a member of the Labour Party and Momentum. His latest book is Corbynism from Below, available here.