There is a unique element to this election as a result of Brexit. The Tories believe this is to their advantage. But it could be turned against them.
First off — for the avoidance of doubt — I have not urged tactical voting . It is up to each voter to make up their mind on how they will vote. I only want people to make an informed choice. Of course, I hope people will vote Labour, as I will.
The purpose of the various interventions in the election by European campaigns, which I fully support, is rather to make sure that voters know where candidates stand on the Brexit issue before they cast their vote, whether Tory, Liberal Democrats or Labour. This campaign against “Brexit at any cost” is cross-party, as it should be, and, indeed, some people may, on the back of this, support tactical voting. But that is not my objective.
For this article, I want to approach the election strictly from a Labour point of view, as someone who had led the party for 13 years and through three elections.
Brexit is the dominant election issue. The conventional election response of an opposition is to say: Vote Labour to keep the Tories out and return a Labour government. The response in this election could be in line with that convention: Brexit is not the only issue, so vote Labour, for example, to save the National Health Service (NHS) or stop cuts to schools.
It won’t work.
The Britain Thinks organisation, run by former Labour campaigners, has done extensive focus-group work around the election and attitudes to it. It should require reading for Labour candidates because it shows the nature of the challenge.
Essentially, the Tories — who no doubt have done their own polling — have hit on a way of getting votes by presenting the election as about “strengthening the prime minister’s hand in the Brexit negotiation”, ie, they have turned a partisan Tory vote into an act of national interest.
Of course, all parties run for election on the basis that a government formed by them is in the national interest. But in this Brexit context, the Tories have hit on what seems a plausible objective claim that they actually need a big majority to represent the country adequately in what is without question a really tough negotiation.
This argument has real cut-through. This is why ignoring the Brexit issue or trying to play it down as one issue out of many just won’t work.
Labour voters, normally resistant to voting Tory, and even some remain voters, can understand the proposition that the person doing this negotiation should be strong. The Tory line about a coalition of chaos is a subset of the same theme. Labour has to have a strategy to break this down. We have to expose the fact that the mandate the Tories are asking for is not for an open negotiation in the interests of the country but for a “Brexit at any cost” driven by the ideology of the right of the Tory party.
Yet, if this is seen as a narrow Labour point, it will be much less persuasive. Hence the absolute necessity — in the Labour interest — of rallying people to a more reasonable and open position on Brexit across the party divide.
How does this help Labour? First, Labour’s position is precisely to say the party will hold the government to account and if the final deal is bad for Britain we will oppose it. So we should gain by it becoming accepted, across the political spectrum, that candidates should be asked to keep an open mind before we know the deal.
If a Labour MP is in a Remain majority seat this is obvious. But it is true also of where a majority of Labour voters in a constituency voted remain even if overall the constituency voted Leave.
I appreciate deeply the anxiety of Labour MPs where their constituency voted heavily for Brexit, but my strong advice would be to make a virtue of saying: Let’s make up our minds when we see what deal Prime Minister Theresa May gets; she should get the best agreement for jobs, trade and prosperity and put all the options on the table in the negotiation.
The alternative — to talk about something else — will not be powerful enough in the context of this election. And, frankly, you might as well rally those Remainers — even if it was only 25 per cent who voted to stay in the European Union.
I believe a clear position on Brexit then gives permission to make the core Labour argument about the mandate May will claim for all sorts of policies on the NHS and other issues. “No blank cheque” is a slogan that on the doorstep could work for these conventional political issues.
There is another reason for such a strategy. I am not saying the polls are correct about a Tory landslide, but if you as a candidate think they may be, then you need an independent reason for people to vote for you. That reason is that without enough MPs to hold the Tories to account, they will be free to do as they like on Brexit and on everything else. That is much better presented as an argument about Britain and not simply about the Labour party.
Likewise, on Scotland, given that Labour won more than 40 Scottish seats in 2005, it is scarcely believable that we’re now talking about whether Labour can keep the one seat it has. We can debate how this happened another time, but surely the only way back there is to embrace both the United Kingdom against the Scottish Nationalist Party and Europe against the Tories. Scottish Labour is the only party in favour of Scotland being in both the union of the UK and the union of Europe.
This is not the time to fight a conventional partisan election. It is better to elevate the debate so as to shape it.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Tony Blair is also the founder and patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.