What’s left to vote for?

We ask author John Harris why the main aim of his anti-New Labour tactical voting campaign is to keep Labour in power.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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If the New Labour government gets on your wick and you think it has done some nasty things to politics and peace while in office, what should you fear most in the forthcoming General Election? Another Blair victory and four more years of the same? Apparently not; apparently you should focus your energies instead on keeping the Tories and that menacing Michael Howard out of No.10. Welcome to the politics of the parallel universe.

John Harris, former NME writer, Select editor and chief chronicler of the Britpop years, has written a book whose title encapsulates his and others’ exasperation with New Labour: So Now Who Do We Vote For? (say it out loud in the manner of a petulant teenager to get the real feel of it). He has launched a website with the same name for anyone who wants to ‘deliver a shock’ to New Labour through tactical voting at the election. He has complained about the government’s dire record (‘war in Iraq, top-up fees, Blair in bed with Bush’) and says that even people like him – lifelong Labour supporters – find the prospect of voting Labour this time round to be ‘couched in dread’.

Yet here he is, this critic of New Labour, talking not about how we might take down the New Labour government but about how ‘utterly nightmarish’ a Tory government would be. Have I missed something?

‘I take objection to a great deal of New Labour’s agenda, but I have no doubt that the Tories would be worse’, he says. And to prove the point, his website at SoNowWhoDoWeVoteFor.net gives constituency-by-constituency advice about tactical voting methods that might reduce Labour’s majority a little while ‘crucially avoiding any accidental boost to the Tories’ (1). ‘You and I grew up under the Tories, right, and it was not a pleasant place’, he says. Agreed. I hated Thatcher and mocked Major as much as the next right-thinking man and woman. But today, when there is little fundamentally to distinguish Labour from the Tories (or from the Lib Dems, for that matter), when the three big parties offer little by way of a vision for society but merely posit different managerial techniques for running it, on what level does Harris judge that the Tories would be worse than Labour? ‘Oh, on a huge level.’

He argues that where New Labour has ‘broken up public services and put them in competition with each other’, the Tories would take privatisation to the ‘point of absolute absurdity’. What about authoritarianism; would the Tories be worse there too? ‘Well, if a Tory government had been gifted, if you want to take the most conspiratorial view of it, with 9/11, who knows where they would have gone? You only have to look at Howard’s record as home secretary [from 1993 to 1997] to see that their appetite would have been reawakened by that kind of development.’

Hold on – forget the phantom menace of a post-9/11 Tory government; we know what New Labour did with the ‘gift’ of 9/11. It signed up for disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, reoriented British politics and society around an overblown threat of terrorism, and chipped away at our liberties in the name of protecting us from a ‘threat to civilisation’. Yet Harris, whose book is described by one commentator as the ‘set text for the disillusioned Labourite’, seems more rattled by dark imaginings of what Howard (or Hague or Duncan Smith) might have done than by what Blair actually did (2).

At times, the fear of a Tory reawakening among former Labour supporters sounds borderline paranoid. Harris worries that more votes for the Conservatives will feed the prejudices of those New Labour people who claim that Britons are an ‘instinctively right-leaning’ lot. ‘Every bit of the map that turns blue on election night will have them jumping up and down and saying, “Look there’s a load of people who hate foreigners, want lower taxes, and who don’t like the idea of an empowered, active welfare state!” Watching the map turn blue would be a disaster for people like me.’

But, seriously, how likely is it that the map will go significantly bluer at this year’s election? As one commentator noted recently, ‘If the Conservatives win 37.5 per cent of the vote in the election – a figure they have not reached since Black Wednesday – and Labour, dipping to a low not seen since 1992, gets the same figure, Labour will still have 140 more seats than the Tories.’ (3) One of the most striking things about Blair’s crises over the past two years – over Iraq, David Kelly, the anti-terror bill and the rest – has been the Tories stark failure to make any mileage out of them or to budge anywhere upwards in the opinion polls. These days, only the increasingly barmy Baroness Thatcher seems to believe the Tories can win; yesterday she predicted a ‘splendid victory’ in the election, at the opening of Conservative Party offices in Romford where, according to one report, she appeared ‘frail and slightly confused’ (4).

What’s going on? Why is a critic of New Labour fretting over the Tories, a party that is a shadow of a former shadow of its former self? This sums up the rather low horizons of the anti-New Labour critics inside the Labour fold, those described in the London Evening Standard (a little fancifully) as a ‘new movement’, who see an ‘urgent democratic need to cut Labour’s majority, to clip Tony Blair’s wings’ (5). Their aim is not fundamentally to challenge New Labour, much less replace it with something else; indeed, Harris’ website says there is ‘one fact that underlines the whole site: we have no wish whatsoever to see Labour out of office’ (6). Rather, they want to use their votes to moan about New Labour, to try to bring it down a peg or two (but not three or four, lest the Tories sneak back in). Effectively, they are using their ballots as rotten eggs to throw at ministers who have pissed them off.

Some of these wannabe wing-clippers seem to misunderstand what New Labour represents. Harris talks about the ‘New Labour vanguard’ (Blair, Milburn, Mandelson and co, whom he dislikes most) and claims that, ‘There is a reasonably sized part of the Parliamentary Labour Party that broadly looks at the world in the same way I do. And as and when the Labour Party aligns itself in a different direction – in a social democratic, egalitarian, pro-public sector direction – those people will be in the front line.’

From this view, New Labour is the product of a handful of bad apples, and if only we could get shot of those bad apples ‘real Labour’ might blossom once more. I think it’s a lot more complex than that. New Labour emerged from the vast political shifts of the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, the demise of any meaningful distinction between Left and Right, and the arrival of what some have called our post-ideological age. That a small coterie around Blair and Mandelson in the mid-1990s could so transform Labour – ditching the party’s historic Clause IV, commitment to nationalisation, and other policies – indicates the extent to which Old Labour had become an empty shell. It was the exhaustion of the Labour tradition that meant the party could be transformed, in a short period of time, into a new political instrument, led and staffed by new recruits drawn largely from the professional middle classes.

Since then, New Labour has been rather stunningly successful – though more by default than design. It dominates the political landscape, and was supported in the last General Election by pretty much the entire media (including the traditionally Tory Times and Economist). Even Conservative supporters now openly say that ‘success [for the Tories] lies in the partial emulation of New Labour’ (7). This doesn’t demonstrate any great political conquest of Britain on New Labour’s part; rather, the party has pretty much spread everywhere, filling the gaps left by the collapse of the old politics.

This New Labourisation of Britain helps explain that sense of frustration among former Labourites. At a time when there is little real choice in politics, some frustrated voters are reduced to clipping the wings of the beast that dominates the political landscape. So Harris’ website has all sorts of advice about how you can poke New Labour without killing it. ‘There are plenty of Labour MPs who we would advise voting for without any hesitation’, it says. But ‘in seats where a non-rebel Labour MP is under threat from the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party, the Greens or Respect, we tentatively recommend an anti-New Labour vote’ (8). This isn’t about voting for change or a new politics, so much as using your vote to express a personal disgruntlement with the political system. It’s about as passive as politics can get, and shows that it isn’t only those who don’t vote who feel dislocated from traditional politics these days.

Ironically, such campaigns might inadvertently provide the vapid New Labour with the best reason people should vote for it: because however bad it is, at least it ain’t the Tories. The anti-New Labour tactical voters play the same game as New Labour itself: talking up the bogeyman of Toryism as a way of doing nothing ‘whatsoever’ to jeopardise Labour’s rule.

Harris’ campaigning website and others – including TacticalVoter.net, Vote4Peace.org.uk, DumpBlair.co.uk and StrategicVoter.org.uk – seem to reduce politics to its most mechanical form. It becomes about little more than voting. That is captured in the tenet of the title of Harris’ book: So Now Who Do We Vote For? Our job, it seems, is simply to vote – and it’s not even a question of what we might vote for, in terms of the political ideals and values we’d like to see on the agenda, but who we might for, who we might choose from the bad bunch on offer. Harris laughs when I suggest we could do with a book called ‘So Now What Should We Do?’ (or perhaps even ‘What Is To Be Done?’, to quote an old Russian.)

‘The big thing I’m arguing for is electoral reform’, he responds. He says he is ‘perfectly aware that the idea of tactical voting and making the best of a bad job are products of our completely dysfunctional electoral system’. What we need more than anything, he reckons, is ‘proportional representation, so that people’s votes really matter’ (though he also recognises that PR is ‘the least glamorous or sexy issue you could get your head around’).

Fair enough; I would like to see parliamentary politics become more direct and more accountable too. Maybe PR might work, and perhaps we should elect our leaders every year rather than every four years, to keep them on their toes. But today, in the absence of genuine political debate or alternatives, what real difference would PR make? When there is little to choose between, an election organised under PR would still lead to the triumph of the same policies, though perhaps with a few different faces on show. This highlights the problem with seeking to change things through tactical voting, passive voting or even electoral reform – there is a more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed first.

When I suggest that we need new ideas, new politics, Harris says he agrees – though he also says he would expect to hear that from spiked, which he describes as ‘thrillingly contrarian, sometimes bafflingly so….’ But not so baffling, surely, as an anti-New Labour campaign whose prime motivation seems to be keeping Labour in power?

So Now Who Do We Vote For? by John Harris is published by Faber and Faber. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) So Now Who Do We Vote For? website

(2) ‘You can’t bear another Blair landslide…’, Andrew Gilligan, London Evening Standard, 14 March 2005

(3) ‘Tories in trouble’, Michael Binyon, New Humanist, April 2005

(4) Frail Thatcher needs prompting, News 24 South Africa, 17 March 2005

(5) ‘You can’t bear another Blair landslide…’, Andrew Gilligan, London Evening Standard, 14 March 2005

(6) So Now Who Do We Vote For? website

(7) Conservative futures, Tim Hames, Prospect, April 2005

(8) So Now Who Do We Vote For? website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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