Like many other people, I thought Evan Harris was safe in Oxford West and Abingdon. There was a reason for thinking he might not be: the constituency boundaries had been redrawn to include less of Oxford and its student-heavy city centre, and more of the outlying Tory villages, but I was inclined to discount the importance of this. In general, the Lib Dems looked good in the polls, and, in particular, polling in marginals suggested that their vote was holding up well against the Tories. Harris’ majority was a healthy 7,683. And the Conservative candidate clearly looked like a bit of an idiot. So, as I say, I thought he was safe.
If I’d really thought he was in danger, I might have voted tactically on the day to try and save him. After all, I’m a not-terribly-tribal tribal Labour person (just as Andromache – who left a dead mouse in our bed this morning – is a not-terribly-wild wild animal). I voted in the Compass ballot to endorse the issuing of a statement in support of anti-Conservative tactical voting, and, more generally, I think the Lib Dems are a less toxic political formation than the Conservatives. If politics really were just about choosing between them, then it wouldn’t be difficult to choose.
But I voted Labour instead, and I learned later in the evening that – basically – it’s people like me who denied Harris his victory. Harris lost by a minuscule 176 votes, and there were almost six thousand Labour votes, so only 3% of those Labour supporters had to switch their votes, in order for him to be safe. And, as time passes, I’m more and more glad I cast the vote I did.
I’ve heard that on election day, the Lib Dems were sending their local activists into Oxford East to help defeat the local Labour MP Andrew Smith, thinking that Evan Harris had the OxWAb election in the bag. And Labour supporters in OxWAb who might be tempted to vote for the Lib Dems need to be clear about this. If we cast an effective anti-Tory tactical vote in this constituency by voting for Evan Harris, what we are doing is helping to provide support for the Lib Dem anti-Labour campaign in the next constituency along. It’s much better for the Labour Party in Oxford that OxWAb is highly marginal between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and that this constituency sucks in as much campaigning effort as possible from the Lib Dems, so that we can concentrate on the important stuff, like winning Oxford East and controlling the City Council. (And, yes, both goals were achieved in Thursday’s election.)
There’s a tweet going round that reads like this:
A curious statistic: Oxford’s combined vote: LD: 41087 Con: 33633 Lab: 27937. One Con MP, one Lab MP. #electoralreform
On the face of it, that’s not a bad argument in support of some kind of reformed voting system — and, in general, I support some kind of reformed voting system. But appearances can be misleading. The Lib Dem raw total, for example, includes both those Labour supporters who cast a tactical pro-Harris vote in OxWAb and those Tory and Green supporters who cast a tactical anti-Smith vote in Oxford East. And so on. We live in a system that encourages tactical voting, as first-choices will so often not be available – so it’s tricky to use the numbers thrown up by that system straightforwardly as evidence for its unfairness.
What we can say is that a set of elections were held on Thursday in Oxford – in two parliamentary constituencies and in every ward for the City Council. The parties fought the elections on the same terms as each other, and under the same rules, and all of the local parties had plausible aspirations: the bigger parties to win parliamentary seats, and the Greens to win seats on the City Council. Those local parties pursued particular tactics and strategies to try to maximise their electoral gains, and the choices they made shaped the outcome of those elections. And those elections threw up a very clear winner — the Labour Party — and a very clear loser — the Lib Dems. The Oxford Lib Dems misunderstood what was going on around them and they over-reached, making a set of bad political choices. They thought they could win everything, and instead they won nothing. And, yes, the voting system has punished them, but not – it seems to me – unfairly.
I’d reach for the language of hubris and nemesis, but these are the Lib Dems we’re talking about, and for them (especially today, of all days, as they engage in talks with the Tories to put David Cameron into Downing St) the appropriate language isn’t that of tragedy.
It’s comedy: hahahahahaha.