Billy Bragg: You can help the Lib Dems by voting Labour

To anti-war friends, I say: if you want a left-of-centre goverment, then vote tactically
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The Independent Online

I have a number of friends who are telling me that they won't be voting in the coming election. Natural Labour supporters, they cannot bring themselves to vote for a government that took us to war. While I share their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, I strongly disagree with their decision not to vote.

I have a number of friends who are telling me that they won't be voting in the coming election. Natural Labour supporters, they cannot bring themselves to vote for a government that took us to war. While I share their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, I strongly disagree with their decision not to vote.

The arguments we have sound a lot like the dialogue between Little Britain's Lou and Andy:

"What do you want from this election?"

"Want to punish New Labour."

"But that means they'll lose lots of seats to the Tories."

"Yeah, I know."

"But you don't like the Tories."

"Yeah, I know."

"You're against the war. The Tories voted for the war and you want to reward them."

"Yeah, I know."

I just hope that, the morning after the election, my friends are not looking at a victorious Conservative Party and glumly saying: "Don't want that one. Want that one."

Because there is just no way of "punishing" New Labour without rewarding the Tories. Of the 77 seats the Government has to retain to stay in power, only a handful are vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats. The rest, if they fall, will go to Michael Howard.

Even if Blair wins with a reduced majority, as some hope, Labour abstentions will have helped to create a resurgent Conservative Party who will feel that there is political capital to be gained by pandering to racism.

The truth is that Howard is relying on my anti-war friends staying at home on election day. That's why he is spending the last few days of the campaign attacking the Prime Minister. He knows that many progressives are very angry with Blair and hopes they will think of that on polling day, rather than the possibility of a Conservative government.

Knowing that a low turnout will favour the Tories, Howard has stirred up hatred of immigrants in the hope of bringing his core supporters to the polling station, and is now promoting hatred of Blair to keep Labour supporters away.

Progressive voters, particularly those in seats which only Labour or the Conservatives can win, face hard choices: vote Labour and Blair will see the result as a vindication of his term in office, pushing for more "unremittingly New Labour" policies and greater closeness with George Bush. Cast a protest vote and run the risk that a Tory MP will be elected. Faced with these two outcomes, is it any wonder that some might seek to wash their hands of the whole process by abstaining?

Yet there is a third outcome on offer at this election - one which could help shift the centre of gravity of British politics to the left. The Liberal Democrats are hoping to make big gains at this election. They have a realistic chance of taking 75-plus seats, giving them their biggest-ever total. Yet this would make little difference to the parliamentary arithmetic if the Tories win, say, 200 seats while Labour scrapes home with a workable majority.

It would be a pyrrhic victory for the Liberal Democrats if, having defeated Oliver Letwin in West Dorset, their supporters in seats like neighbouring South Dorset vote in a way that helps the Tories to win that seat back from Labour. Cynics would still claim that a Liberal Democrat vote is a wasted vote.

In order for the Liberal Democrats to come out of this election with the momentum to challenge New Labour, the Tories must not prosper. At the last election, tactical voting kept Tory gains to the absolute minimum - they only took one seat in the whole country.

This time, given the presence of UKIP, tactical voting could result in the Tories losing seats - maybe as many as 30. If that happens, the Conservative Party will go into a tailspin, clearing the way for the Liberal Democrats to become the official opposition.

However, for this third outcome to unfold, Liberal Democrat supporters in seats that only Labour or the Tories are capable of winning will have to act in the long-term interest of their party by voting tactically for the Labour candidate.

I realise that this will not be easy for them - many feel very strongly about Iraq. But look what has happened in Scotland. There, Liberal Democrats have forced New Labour to move to the left on issues such as tuition fees and care for the elderly.

I believe if the Liberal Democrats were to replace the Tories as the official opposition at Westminster, a New Labour administration would be forced to tack left to deal with the perceived threat.

So I say to my anti-war friends: if you want left-of-centre government, then vote tactically by supporting whichever party will defeat the Tories. It is the best way to reward the Liberal Democrats for their principled stance on the war.

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