Defensive Voting: A West Country Case Study


Further banging on about Defensive Voting. Which, come to think of it, is probably just tactical voting with a specific political purpose in mind – namely stalling neoliberalism through the Westminster infrastructure long enough to nail together some kind of radical left-wing alternative outside of it (there was an excellent bit of analysis published by Counterfire this week which came to similar conclusions). And this time, we’re looking at it in relation to a conveniently local real-world example.

Wells in Somerset is one of the most marginal constituencies in the country. It also happens to be the next one over from ours.

Most constituencies are ‘safe’ – the people living in them reliably vote for the same party in election after election, and that party easily wins by a mile. Yeovil, for example, has been Lib Dem for over thirty years (well, technically, it was Liberal from 1983 to 1992, then Lib Dem ever since). At the last election, Lib Dem candidate David Laws got 31,000 votes, 13,000 more than the next placed candidate.

As such, safe seats don’t really matter. The ones that do matter are the marginal ones, the swing seats as they’re often known – constituencies like Wells that are much more likely to change hands. These are the places that will decide who’s in government this time next year.

Given a superficial glance, Wells doesn’t look very marginal. It’s existed as a constituency since 1884. During that time, there have been 15 general elections, and in 12 of those it’s ended up with a Tory MP. But particularly in recent years, the gap between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems has narrowed. In 2010, for the first time since 1923, Wells elected someone who wasn’t a Tory – Tessa Munt, a Lib Dem.

Munt was helped along by two key factors. One, David Heathcoat-Amory, the constituency’s Tory MP since 1983, was implicated in the MP’s expenses scandal – he’d bought over 500 bags of horse manure, a chainsaw, rat poison and had a punctured wheelbarrow wheel repaired and charged it all to the Treasury. Two, the local UKIP candidate insisted on standing – this in spite of orders from UKIP HQ to stand aside to support Heathcoat Amory, a staunch Eurosceptic.

In the end, Tessa Munt won by 800 votes, or 3.6% of the vote. The Lib Dems received 24,560 votes. The Tories received 23,760. Labour won 4,198. UKIP won 1,711. The BNP won 1,004. And the Greens won 631.

In 2015, the result is likely to be just as tight. There are two realistic options, and neither of them are pleasant. One, the Tories win. Two, the Lib Dems win. Vote anything else in Wells, and you’ve wasted your vote.

Chuck all that starry-eyed, misguided, vote-for-what-you-believe in codswallop in the bin and accept that grim but unassailable statistical reality. No matter how much you want it, your £1 Cuppa Soup is not going to magically transform into a Michelin-starred fine dining experience, and your warped, anachronistic system for selecting members of a detached and self-serving parliamentary elite isn’t going to turn into democracy.

So, from our Defensive Voting standpoint, if you’re in Wells, you vote for Tessa Munt. Even though you can also vote Labour, or Green, or for local cabaret singer and children’s charity organiser Gypsy Watkins.

Why? Because of the numbers. Elections in Wells have followed the same basic pattern for about thirty years. The Lib Dems get about 20,000 votes. The Tories get about 20,000 votes. Labour pulls in somewhere around the 4-8,000 mark. And if they bother standing, right-wing minority parties can mop up a couple thousand votes.

Given the huge and entirely deserved unpopularity of the Lib Dems at present, Munt will struggle to hold on to her seat. Last time, there was only 800 votes in it.

The Lib Dem vote is likely to drop this time, possibly quite a way. The Tory vote is more unpredictable. The government is deeply unpopular in many parts of the country, but it’s not clear whether rural Somerset is one them. It is, after all, a horribly right-wing place. And if people are disillusioned, it’s likely because the Coalition hasn’t been right-wing enough.

Discontented Tory voters shifting loyalties to UKIP might help Munt scrape another win. Then again, it’s been shown that a surprising number of UKIP voters used to vote Lib Dem – highlighting the fact that a fair amount of those who’ve traditionally gone yellow have only done so because they weren’t Labour or the Tories, not because of any commitment to their politics.

The Labour vote might rise, if so, probably only very slightly, and at the expense of the Lib Dems. In 1997, at the very peak of Blair mania, with none other than Glastonbury Festival organiser Michael Eavis as the candidate, Labour won 10,000-odd votes – its best performance in over a decade, but still under half the totals pulled in by the Lib Dems and the Tories.

The Greens scraped in a few hundred votes last time, and that will probably increase – again, mostly at the expense of the Lib Dems. Neither they nor Labour should stand. Neither have a chance in hell of winning, or doing anything other than ensuring the Tories win.

Arrest/vote for Tessa Munt

That vote-for-Tessa recommendation will disgust an impressively diverse array of leftists. As well it should. With our righteous Old Testament morality hat on, she deserves electoral obliteration. Like every other Lib Dem who’s participated in the present government, in the space of a few days in May 2010 she robotically converted from a middle-of-the-road social liberal-type sitting on New Labour’s left shoulder to an austerity buff willing to vote through measures Mrs Thatcher would’ve baulked at, let alone Mr Blair.

She voted for the NHS part-privatising Health and Social Care Act, the tripling of student tuition fees, the privatisation of the student loan book, the privatisation of Royal Mail, Iain Duncan-Smith’s hideous Welfare Reform Bill, cutting Legal Aid, ending the Independent Living Allowance given to disabled people and the Educational Maintenance Allowance given to students.

What’s more, between 2010 and 2012 she served as a party whip, a parliamentary enforcer responsible for making sure other Lib Dem MPs voted the above through too. In a sane society, she and anyone else who had a hand in enacting the above would be arrested.

The most frightening thing about Tessa Munt is that she’s quite a nice person. We’ve met her before. Nick Clegg and Michael Eavis were there. She’s not – or at least wasn’t – some blankly amoral Westminster drone.

Anecdotal evidence suggests she’s a genuinely good constituency MP who puts real effort into helping and solving problems for the people she represents (although you can’t help but wonder how many of those problems her party’s stint in government caused in the first place). She clearly has some principles. She threatened to resign as whip if the government renewed the Trident nuclear missile system. Later, she actually did resign as an aide to Vince Cable in opposition to the government’s support for fracking.

Like a lot of Lib Dems, rather than being some slavering Tory-in-disguise, she’s been sucked in by self-deluding groupthink, deactivating her critical faculties and moral judgement and following the herd. It’s much easier to abandon your principles when all your colleagues are abandoning theirs too, and telling you that it’s the ‘responsible’ thing to do. That’s unspeakably awful, of course, and not all that much better than being a slavering Tory-in-disguise.

But now it’s time to switch the dial from ‘emotionally satisfying blanket scorn’ to ‘sober analysis’. If we were in Wells, we’d still vote for Tessa Munt.

We also know of Chris Inchley, the Labour candidate, and if he got in, he’d probably be quite good – he’s a hard-working councillor for Shepton Mallet, and, even if it’s in that slightly ambiguous, obsessively party loyalist, UNITE the Union way, is very critical of Blair and the New Labour years. But he’s not going to get in.

We know absolutely nothing about the Green candidate, but will say again that if we had a democratic, proportional voting system we’d vote Green in every election. And we don’t really need to know anything about the UKIP candidate, other than she was a replacement for one who left the local party after claiming it had been infiltrated by occultists from Glastonbury.

So it’s either Munt or standard-issue blank Tory plutocrat James Heappey. The Lib Dems and the Tories are in government together, says everyone ever – how can they be any different? How can the yellows continue to assert any sort of moral superiority over the blues?

As any number of right-thinking Labourites, Greens, socialists and others will admit privately, give the Lib Dems a majority government and the ability to set their own agenda and they wouldn’t be too bad. They’d probably have been more left-wing than New Labour was, although that’s not saying much.

But under the present system, the Lib Dems will never form a majority government. And that means that when a shot at power does come along, even if it’s just as junior partner in a government with an agenda completely against everything they’ve portrayed themselves as for decades, they turn into ultra-pragmatists.

Toryism is always about immiserating millions for the benefit of a cossetted minority. But if the electoral arithmetic in 2010 had been a bit different, Clegg and friends would be in government with Labour now, rubbishing the idea that it was Gordon Brown’s spending that caused the crash, arguing that deficits don’t matter anywhere near as much the Conservatives make out, and insisting that austerity is disastrous for any economy.

The less Tories in parliament, the harder it’ll be for them to form a government. That’s one very clear argument for voting for the only anti-Tory option with a chance of winning. But what if we end up with almost the same situation we did five years ago – a hung parliament where the Conservatives are the largest party again, and however many Lib Dems remain join them to form another Coalition?

That would, of course, be catastrophic. But despite everything, not as catastrophic as a Tory government without them. Having to compromise with the Lib Dems has stopped Cameron and Obsorne being quite as radically unpleasant as they would’ve been otherwise. Nowhere near enough to make up for the horrific measures they’ve been able to pass with Lib Dem support (things the Liberals could’ve helped block in principled opposition). But still, not quite as bad.

However, the Lib Dems are likely to take heavy losses next month. Some polls are predicting Nick Clegg will lose his seat, and even if he doesn’t, he’ll almost certainly be finished as party leader. His replacement is likely to be someone like Tim Fallon – one of the few senior Lib Dems to have shunned Coalition jobs, and whose instincts lie much closer to Labour than the Tories. Pressing the Lib Dem button in Wells, then, might help along prospects for the thing we were vainly holding out hope for last time around – some sort of deal seeing a minority Labour government propped up by the Lib Dems and pulled leftwards by the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

As understandable and natural as it is to want to give in to political rage and do everything you can to blast Clegg and co out of the sky, we need to resist it. In a democracy, you vote for what you believe in. This isn’t a democracy. Forgetting all the romanticised spiel about ‘voting with your heart’ and ‘standing up for what you believe in’, we need to focus on the political make-up of the House of Commons after May the 7th, and how we can influence the kind of government that results. Or how you can influence the kind of government that results, that should be – we live in a impenetrably safe Tory seat.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to cast a vote that actually matters, be cynical, think critically, vote strategically. It’s about getting the least worst, least destructive, least neoliberal government we can. And, to end with an uncharacteristic sliver of optimism – there’s a chance, ever so small but a chance nonetheless, that we could end up with the least right-wing government in decades.