At a time when pluralism versus tribalism is so much talked about, is it not surprising that one of Labour’s great taboos remains discussing electoral arrangements with other parties — pre-election deals? And yet we now have, for some elections, electoral systems which at least some of the time mean that a Labour vote is absolutely wasted, not because we’re doing badly but because we’re doing so well.
Take the regional seats in the Welsh Assembly, for example, which is the most extreme case: since Labour support is concentrated in four out of six regions in which Labour already holds most if not all seats, a Labour vote in the election for those regional seats is absolutely wasted. Labour will have won too many constituency seats to win any more through the regional top-up, as was the case in 2007 in those four regions (see results linked to this BBC summary). This is a perfect opportunity for a win-win deal with Plaid Cymru, with whom Labour is currently in coalition, or with the Greens. It would not necessarily require any prior commitment to a post-election coalition.
Whether there existed something acceptable which Labour could offer in exchange would of course depend on negotiations, However, this sort of agreement has significant advantages over post-election deals about coalitions or lesser forms of cooperation — they require neither agreement of a programme (which inevitably means political compromise) nor standing down in areas (which can have detrimental effects in the longer term or on other elections such as Euro elections fought over larger geographical units).
One example of such an arrangement which actually happened was Ken Livingstone’s deal with the Green Party, exchanging second preferences in the mayoral election — obviously sensible but not sanctioned by the national party. Ken is bold enough to get away with it, but even this deal was limited to votes for mayor – rather than being extended to cover assembly seats which may have produced even greater benefits.
Perhaps the most frequently missed opportunity for pre-election arrangement is in multi-member wards in local government, where it would be easy to strike informal arrangements to stand fewer than the maximum number of candidates. This could permit voters to vote for one or both parties thereby maximising the vote for both without any sacrifice of political programme, and without leaving areas un-contested.
As it happens, I frown on publicly advocating tactical voting during election campaigns as Compass and several Labour MPs did last time; I’m against devoting great effort to building multi-party organisations that detract from building the Labour Party as Compass have done (though alliances and joint-working on single issues is fine); I’m against electoral reform which favours coalition government or requires abandoning chunks of our programme in advance of an election. But I cannot fathom why we should not even be allowed to consider pre-electoral arrangements such as those I have described.