Alex Massie

In This Election Every Vote Counts: Even in Safe Seats

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Jonathan Freedland is surely right: Labour's best hope, now that the electorate appears to have decided that "change" matters* and dismissed Labour's pretensions to offer that change, is to maximise its core vote in the hope of avoiding an electoral meltdown that would, say, leave them with fewer than 200 seats in the new parliament.

If Labour aren't quite the walking dead the Tories were in 1997 that's because of the current constituency boundaries, not because there's any more life in the Labour campaign. Nevertheless the prospect that Labour's vote could fall to 25% of the vote must be considered a real one and Labour's team, when anyone bothers to pay attention to what they're doing, seem to have the resigned air of men who've made their peace with their lord and now await the executioner's axe.

There are signs too that the movement is preparing other options. Compass, the left-wing campaigning group, are asking their members to decide whether or not the organisation should endorse tactical voting as part of an effort to minimise Tory gains. Similarly, it seems quite possible that the Guardian will offer a tepid endorsement along the lines of: Vote Labour where you can, but vote Liberal Democrat where you must if doing so helps defeat the Conservatives.

This makes a certain kind of sense and the twin considerations of tactical voting and turnout will prove vital on May 6th. But it carries risk too since what Labour may gain on the swings of fewer Tory MPs they may lose on the roundabouts of a reduced Labour share of the vote.

Because, unusually, all the votes in this election are going to count. Even those in the safest seats. If there is a hung parliament the post-election mathematics will not simply be a question of cobbling together a parliamentary majority (whether official or on a tacit, case-by-case basis) it will also be a matter of putting together an arrangement that can plausibly be said to reflect the general will.

In other words, share of the vote will matter enormously. There is every difference in the world between the Liberals coming third and supporting either Labour or the Tories or their finishing second and propping-up a Labour party that finished a distant third. (This is one of the reasons why I think a Con-Lib arrangement may be easier to sell than a Lab-Lib arrangement.)

Marbury is right to say that this is, thanks to the debates, the first election we've had in which there's been what one might term real proportional representation in the media; I think the post-election analysis will be framed in PR terms too. For instance, if Labour finish third and even if they could form a majority with the help of the Liberals, if that majority can command no more than, say, 55% of voting preferences then, while technically perfectly legitimate, I think it would still face a genuine and pressing legitimacy problem.

Now this may not happen but share of the vote and, crucially, the gap between the Tory share and Labour's will, I suspect, be seen to be almost as important - and more important in some inchoate "moral" sense - than the actual number of seats won. There is more than one way to guage legitimacy. Which is why, I hazard, votes in safe seats - for all parties - will matter this time.

But getting your people to the polls is a tough job made tougher when you start granting some voters dispensation to vote tactically. It depresses overall enthusiasm and fosters the impression that the party has accepted it cannot win.

So while the appeal of recommending tactical voting is apparent it is also, in this unusual election at least, also a risky proposition that might, in the end, cost more than the benefits that might accrue from depriving the opposition of a handful of extra seats.

Anyway, that the matter is even being discussed demonstrates the problems within the Labour family right now.

*This is why, in the grand narrative of the election, Clegg has hurt Brown more than he has dished Cameron.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.