On one of the final days of campaigning in Honiton last week, a Liberal Democrat canvasser found himself on the horns of a dilemma as he scrambled for every vote.
“I saw this house and there was a huge Labour poster on the railings outside. I was thinking ‘do I or don’t I?’ If I try, she’s just going to say: ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you read?’”
He knocked anyway and a woman answered. “Yes, I am going to vote Lib Dem,” she told him quickly. Slightly taken aback at how easy this was proving to be, the worker wondered whether he had heard correctly. “She told me that, yes, she was a Labour voter, but if she could not get Liz Pole [the Labour candidate] over the line, then the next best thing for her and her husband was to vote Lib Dem.”
The canvasser, an experienced hand with many a byelection under his belt, then headed across the road and tapped on another door opposite. “A lady answered and said she was voting Labour. So I pointed at the big Labour sign on the other side of the road and said, do you know the lady opposite?”
Indeed she did. In fact, the Lib Dem convert was her best friend. So the canvasser asked if she would like to have a chat with her friend about election tactics, which she agreed to do. He left hopeful that he had picked up another crucial vote.
While the Lib Dems had been by no means certain of taking Tiverton and Honiton a week or so before election day, half an hour before the polls closed, at 9.30pm last Thursday, things were looking pretty rosy.
As polling stations in the Devon constituency were preparing to lock up, former leader Tim Farron was still out with a team, chasing up people who had said they would vote Lib Dem, in case it came down to a difference of just one or two. “By then, I was hearing that the data was pretty good, I have to say,” said a party worker who was with Farron. “The Labour vote was way down and it wasn’t because all those Labour people had stayed at home. A lot of it must have been tactical voting.”
What went on in both Tiverton and Honiton, where the Lib Dems overturned a Tory majority of more than 24,000 to take a normally totally safe Conservative seat with the help of Labour voters, and Wakefield, where Labour took back a traditional stronghold from the Tories assisted by Lib Dem votes, was part of anti-Conservative “pincer movement” which is striking dread into the heart of the Tory party.
Those who wanted to give Boris Johnson and the Conservatives a kicking seemed to have worked out how best to do it of their own accord. No pacts, no deals: just common sense. What terrifies the Tories, and the Tory press, is that if this kind of tactical voting catches on at the next general election, then the 2019 Conservative majority of 80 will be wiped out.
Analysis by YouGov found that there were 44 Tory-held seats where the combined Labour and Lib Dem vote at the 2019 election was higher than the total for the Conservatives. So even if there were to be no Tory deserters, Boris Johnson’s majority would disappear if the maximum amount of tactical voting took place.
Writing in the Guardian on Saturday, the former president of YouGov Peter Kellner said: “The dramatic results in Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton, certainly approach the disruptive end of the Richter scale. The reason is not just the sharp decline in Conservative support, but the ferocious way in which tactical voting compounded the Tories’ misery. This makes it more likely that the party will lose power at the next election – even if the swing in Wakefield was not enough to enhance Labour’s hopes of a clear majority in the House of Commons.”
While tactical voting played a major part in Labour’s 1997 landslide win, more recently it has gone out of fashion. Labour supporters have been reluctant to endorse the Lib Dems after they went into an austerity-backing coalition under Nick Clegg from 2010 to 2015. And more recently still, Lib Dems have not wanted anything to do with a Labour party associated with its former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Now, however, Keir Starmer and Lib Dem leader Ed Davey are less polarising figures, and their parties less repellent to one another’s supporters.
The Tories and the rightwing press, seeing the threat, are trying to demonise this phenomenon as something it is not. Both are trying to portray Labour and the Liberal Democrats as co-conspirators in a plot or pact that would see them form a coalition government, propped up by the SNP; the future of the union would be at stake, with a second referendum on Scottish independence the price. On Saturday, the Daily Mail’s front page headline quoted Sajid Javid, the health secretary, demanding to know “the truth about [an] anti-Tory pact”.
In fact, there is no need for a pact, or an arrangement with the SNP. Common sense on the part of voters could easily be enough.
“The Tiverton and Honiton byelection showed that people are tired of this endless chaos and confusion and are crying out for proper leadership,” said Davey. “The Liberal Democrats have got out a clear plan to get Britain moving. We would tax the record profits of banks, freeze rail fares and cut fuel duty in rural areas to put money back into people’s pockets.”
On Saturday, Davey told the Observer that Johnson had simply lost the ability to keep his precarious voter coalition together, causing voters to want him out in ever larger numbers. “He kept lots of plates spinning before – in the ‘red wall’, the ‘blue wall’, Scotland and in rural areas – but people have seen through it,” he said.
“The source of that is Partygate, where people now see he is lacking integrity. People who gave him the benefit of the doubt don’t believe him any more. He’s lost the ability to keep different people on board because his own reputation is so shot to pieces.”
So much so that more and more non-Conservative voters now seem prepared to think hard about how best to use their votes to get rid of him.
Tory seats at risk
Last week’s by-elections show that the Tories now face an electoral attack on several fronts, writes Michael Savage:
In winning Tiverton and Honiton the Lib Dems have shown again that their by-election winning machine is well and truly back. It has also raised hopes in the party that it can be strong once again in a series of seats across the south-west where it was competitive before it entered the coalition government in 2010. These are seats that typically voted for Brexit and some now have big majorities. Unlike Tiverton, however, many have a relatively recent history of voting Lib Dem and the party has established activists in these areas. With the party silent on Brexit and now re-emerging as the place for protest votes, these seats could be back in play.
The red wall
After the 2019 Tory election win, British politics was obsessed with the concept of “red wall” seats - a band of previously Labour-held seats predominantly located across the north and the Midlands where Brexit and a concern about Jeremy Corbyn helped the Conservatives break through. The term has latterly become a catch-all term for traditional Labour seats that the party is now battling to win back from the Tories. Labour suggests its by-election win in Wakefield is a sign Keir Starmer is succeeding in that task, which puts a group of about 40 seats in its sights.
The blue wall
In its drive to appeal to pro-Brexit voters and pursue political “wedge” issues it believes appeals to them, the Conservatives are creating problems in holding on to another part of its electoral coalition - more affluent, liberal-minded and pro-Remain Tories who have previously backed the party under David Cameron and Theresa May. Issues such as Brexit, the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and blaming Labour for train strikes, are less likely to keep them on side. Both the Lib Dems and Labour are targeting these seats, which are often undergoing demographic changes that make them harder for Tories. Another 40 seats, such as Esher and Walton, held by deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, could be in this group.
While the Tories only have six Scottish MPs, both Labour and the Lib Dems believe that the better they do in England, the harder it will become for the Tories in Scotland. They say that once wavering voters in Scotland see the chance to replace the Tory government in Westminster, they will get behind Labour and peg the Tories back further.