The Labour Party’s Call for Tactical Voting Ignores Its Own History

by Ian Sinclair

The Labour Party criticises those to its left for splitting the anti-Tory vote. But Labour itself is only a serious contender for government today because, more than 100 years ago, people rejected this logic and voted with their principles.

First published: 27 April, 2015 | Category: History, Labour movement, Labour Party

The argument will be familiar to anyone who has ever dared to suggest they will vote for a party to the left of Labour. 'Like it or not, under the first-past-the-post system, every vote for the Green Party only makes it one vote easier for the Conservatives to win the election', argued Sadiq Khan MP, who is leading the Labour Party’s anti-Green unit, last year. 'It splits the progressive vote in many constituencies, and means that Tory candidates can win, despite a clear progressive majority opposed to them'. The Guardian columnists Owen Jones and Polly Toynbee have repeatedly made the same argument.

Many will be persuaded by these increasingly desperate calls for tactical voting. But what interests me is how Khan, Jones, Toynbee and other Labour supporters, by trying to scare people to vote for the Labour Party, ignore the proud history of the Labour Party.

Turn the clock back to the late nineteenth century and there were two main parties in Britain: the Tories, who, much like now, nakedly reflected the interests of the elite, and the Liberal Party, which attracted the majority of working-class (male) support following the expansion of the franchise in 1867 and 1884. The Liberals had a better record of supporting suffrage expansion and electoral reform, and were considered to have progressive stances on finance, free trade, religious tolerance and foreign policy.[1] 'Activists were attracted into Liberalism… in order to promote, and hopefully achieve, specific objectives', notes David Dutton, author of A History of the Liberal Party.[2] For example, trade unionists sought political representation through the Liberal Party, with a group of Lib-Lab working-class MPs in parliament from the 1870s onwards.

However, with working-class identity solidifying and working-class political activism increasing, this uneasy alliance was becoming increasingly strained. Many argued that the Liberals were unable to adequately reflect working-class interests, with local parties often refusing to adopt working-class candidates. According to Dutton, 'Liberals recognised limits beyond which they would not go on issues of fundamental concern to the working-class, such as the right to work, strike action and a national minimum wage'.[3] Indeed, after the Liberals rejected a Stoke mining union leader as a potential candidate in 1875, the pro-trade union Bee-Hive newspaper warned, 'If these blind and brutal prejudices against working men and trade unions cannot be overcome in the Liberal Party, it will be the duty of the working men of the country to separate from that party'.[4]

Tensions came to a head, according to Dutton, at the 1899 Trade Union Congress, which was 'dominated by complaints about the failure of the working class to secure their objectives through the vehicle of the Liberal party'.[5]The Liberals’ lukewarm support for labour in its struggles with employers was a key concern, as was the ongoing threat from the political establishment to the very existence of independent trade unions.[6]

In response, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC)—an alliance of the trade union movement with the Independent Labour Party, Fabians and the Social Democratic Federation—was formed in 1900. 'It [the LRC] originated in the desire of the workers for a party that really understands and is prepared to deal with their grievances… Upon this conflict between Capital and Labour neither a Liberal nor a Conservative Ministry can be trusted to stand by the workers', the LRC explained in a leaflet titled ‘Why We Are Independent’.[7]

Barely born, the LRC won just two MPs in the 1900 election. Six years later the national ballot returned 29 LRC MPs to parliament and the party immediately changed its name to the Labour Party.

This extraordinary growth was far from a straightforward or inevitable process. Future Labour giants such as Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and Ramsey McDonald had all unsuccessfully tried to stand as Liberal candidates before they came to the conclusion that only a new political party would serve the interests of the working-class.[8] According to G.D.H. Cole, the Fabians has been 'sceptical about the early attempts to form a Labour Party independent of Conservatives and Liberals alike' with 'some of their leaders… disposed to prefer a policy of permeating the existing parties with socialist ideas'.[9]

And of course, the decline Liberal Party, like Labour supporters today, criticised the new party and its supporters for splitting the anti-Tory vote. 'An independent Labour organization will not catch a single Tory vote', argued Lord Rosebury, then the Liberal Prime Minister, in 1894. 'Such votes as it does carry away will be Liberal votes… it may hamstring and even cut the throat of the Liberal Party'.[10]

Rosebury was right to be fearful. Despite 'the tremendous radical vigour' of the reforming 1906-11 Liberal Government, Labour’s share of the vote continued to grow, with the party first entering Downing Street in 1924 as a minority government.[11] Two decades later a landslide Labour victory allowed the Attlee Government to introduce the welfare state that continues to bind the country together today—comprehensive education, the National Health Service, social security—as well as nationalising the railways, coal industry, the gas and electricity utility companies and setting up the national parks system.

'At the end of the day', notes Dutton, Labour overtook the Liberal Party 'because individual Liberal voters decided to change their party allegiance or because the newly enfranchised among them failed to follow the voting patterns of their fathers and grandfathers'.[12]

Today, Labour continues to be one of the two main parties in British politics. But Labour was only in a position to introduce arguably the most important social reforms of the post-war period, and is only a serious contender for government today, because over 100 years ago people did not follow the conservative logic of Sadiq Khan and vote for the least worst viable option. Rather they turned against the established parties and voted for the party that best represented their interests, regardless of whether it had a chance of gaining power in the short-term.

In short, only once large numbers of people ditched tactical voting and started to vote on principle—as the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett is urging voters to do in the forthcoming election—did real change become possible.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He Tweets @IanJSinclair.



[1] Andrew August, The British Working Class 1832-1940 (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007), p. 153. David Dutton, A History of the Liberal Party (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 8.

[2] Dutton, p. 6.

[3] Dutton, p. 50.

[4] August, p. 154.

[5] Dutton, p. 10.

[6] G. R. Searle, The Liberal Party. Triumph and Disintegration 1886 – 1929 (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1992), p. 71.

[7] Keith Laybourn, The Labour Party 1881 – 1951. A Reader in History (Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1988), p. 59.

[8] Dutton, p. 10.

[9] G.D.H. Cole, A Short History of the British Working-Class Movement 1789-1947 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1952), p. 288.

[10] Roy Douglas, The history of the Liberal Party, 1895-1970 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971), p. 66.

[11] Douglas, p. 90.

[12] Dutton, p. 3.


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