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When second choice isn’t the worst choice

Mark Perryman

I live in Lewes, East Sussex, since ’97 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. I’m not a personality cult-follower but I broadly support a politics, and leader who for the past six weeks Jo Swinson has been loudly declaring would be as bad for Britain as Boris Johnson. Weirdly, despite 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 home town 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 have been canvassing teams out and about, made up of those who’d never consider voting anything but Labour, the media work has been to an unprecedented standard, 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 an 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 top 20 Lib Dem target seats Lewes is number ten. Of the 20 targets, 13 are Tory held; in most, though not all, Labour comes a similarly distant third to us in Lewes – seats like Richmond Park, Cheltenham and Winchester. North of the border it’s a similar situation with the SNP: of their top 30 target seats 11 are Tory held, and in most both Labour and Lib Dems are way back – seats like Gordon, Angus, Moray.  

So when it comes down to it Labour members and supporters in places like Lewes tomorrow face a choice. 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, and 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.  While 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’. A party that takes months, years even to deal with cases of antisemitism (for the record, in my view yes there is a problem, like 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 is way off beam) or even longer to deal with cases where MPs are suspended over sexual harassment allegations, can automatically expel members, within 24 hours, for publicly supporting tactical voting. Instead any discussion has to be in hushed conversations, not in front of the public. And local parties are barred by rule from even debating the possibility of not standing a candidate in these handful of seats either. As for Proportional Representation as part of a wider programme of electoral reform  which would make voting for both first and then second choice candidates 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 throughout the day I'll be in Hastings and Crawley with our charabancs getting the vote out where only Labour can win. The choice will be 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.

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