Tony Blair, who is not averse to feeling the hand of history on his shoulder, has been talking up the momentousness of the forthcoming election, arguing that those opposed to Theresa May’s vision for EU withdrawal should consider voting tactically if the Prime Minister isn’t to be given a “blank cheque for Brexit at any cost”. The issue at stake, he concluded, is “bigger than party politics”.
Love him or loathe him, Blair is a difficult politician to ignore. And on the subject of tactical voting he surely has a point. Theresa May has done her utmost to frame the election as a choice between her way or the highway and for those disinclined to travel the hard road out of the EU, the obvious thing to do is take the Prime Minister at her word and to support candidates who favour a much softer departure, irrespective of party. If voters behave in this way to the Government’s detriment, well, May has only herself to blame.
Labour and the Lib Dems are unlikely to offer any official approval of tactical voting. For both parties, this election is about fighting for their own identities as much as it is fighting the Conservatives and so even an informal alliance between the two makes no sense. That explains Tim Farron’s decision to rule out Lib Dem involvement in a coalition government, despite the possibility being almost preposterously remote.
Nonetheless, there is evidence that there may be non-aggression agreements at a local level between opposition parties. The Green Party is not planning to field a candidate in the key marginal of Ealing Central and Acton, where Labour’s Rupa Huq is the incumbent MP.
Meanwhile, Sir Vince Cable has been urging Lib Dem supporters in Brighton to get behind the Greens’ Caroline Lucas. It remains to be seen whether a Green Party candidate would stand in Richmond Park were Zac Goldsmith to attempt a Conservative comeback six months after his by-election loss to the Lib Dems.
All this talk of tactical voting highlights once again the limitations of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system we use to elect our MPs. When a general election hinges as strongly on a single issue, as it will this time round, the chances of a significant portion of the electorate feeling hard done by is magnified. After all, it is eminently possible that the Tories will not win an overall majority in terms of vote share and yet substantially increase their working majority in the House of Commons. That outcome would be presented by the Government as a very strong mandate for whatever Brexit deal the Prime Minister subsequently achieves, even though it would almost certainly have come on the back of a smaller number of people voting for the Conservatives than voted Leave during last year’s referendum.
After years of hectoring on the subject, the Lib Dems finally got the chance to sell electoral reform to the British public during the coalition years. In a referendum on the subject in 2011, voters overwhelmingly preferred to hang on to FPTP, rather than move to Alternative Vote – the hybrid system that sought to rebalance the current voting structure with a watered down form of proportional representation. Those were the days when referendums seemed fairly benign.
I have no compunction in saying I voted then to maintain the status quo. FPTP may not produce entirely representative parliaments – and that has at times left significant portions of the electorate (notably Lib Dem voters forever, and Ukippers in 2015) feeling disenfranchised. But I’ve tended to think the perceived unfairness is balanced by the fact that extremist parties have little chance of gaining a foothold in the Commons. Moreover, the British system creates a strong relationship between MPs and the people in their constituencies, making room for local issues to come to the fore. That is all to the good. Or at least, it is in a normal general election. This isn’t a normal election.
Maybe in the coming weeks voters will refuse to buy into the facile dichotomy presented by the Prime Minister when she called for the snap election. There are other issues at stake, locally and nationally, and we should consider what the parties have to say about them. Yet the truth is, the Conservatives themselves will interpret the outcome of this election as an indicator of the country’s faith in Theresa May’s Brexit plans (such as they are). The validity of our first past the post system is very likely to suffer.