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By Ben Guerin
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Labour Supporters Are Canvassing For Lib Dems To Push Tactical Voting

This General Election could see many Labour and Lib Dem supporters voting for the other party to defeat the Conservatives (Alamy)

6 min read

On a sunny afternoon along a picturesque seafront in North Norfolk, Lib Dem supporters gathered to watch leader Ed Davey and the party’s local candidate don wetsuits and perform yet another election stunt. But as it turns out, many of these onlookers were not staunch Lib Dem supporters at all.

“It’s quite feverish around here, it’s going to be really close,” one supporter said, describing their excitement about the Lib Dem campaign as they waited for Davey to emerge from a beach hut and go for a brisk swim in the sea in Sheringham, Norfolk.

However, PoliticsHome soon discovered that many of those milling around the beach were campaigning for the party in the area despite not describing themselves as Lib Dems.

“I would describe myself as left-wing Labour,” local resident Christine told PoliticsHome. Christine, like most of the people gathered here, has been canvassing for the Lib Dems over the last few weeks.

She said people in North Norfolk needed to vote tactically to defeat the Conservatives, as “Labour won’t win here, they’re really in the background”. In 2019, the Conservatives’ Duncan Baker won with 29,792 votes – followed in second by the Lib Dems with 15,397, and then Labour in third with only 3,895.

Describing herself as “more anti-Tory than pro-Lib Dem”, Christine explained that she had begun canvassing for the first time during this election, initially for tactical reasons – although as the campaign has gone on, she has found herself less convinced by Labour anyway. 

“It definitely is tactical initially, but some of the stuff that we’ve seen on TV with Keir Starmer, I can’t say he would be my favourite,” she said.

“I think you need a certain level of charisma, and I don’t think Keir Starmer does.”

Ed Davey visited Sheringham in North Norfolk, a seat his party hope to win from the Tories (PoliticsHome)

As a traditional Labour supporter on the left of the party, does she think the Lib Dems are actually now to the political left of Labour? “I think they are to be honest,” she replied, adding that she also perceived Ed Davey as “much more approachable” than Starmer in the election debates.

Christine, along with other canvassers, said that when they knock on doors, many residents were unaware of which party previously came second in the constituency. The activists claimed that voters are then often persuaded when it is explained to them that Labour are unlikely to win here.

Another campaigner, who did not want to be named, said that having moved to the area in the last few years, she had switched her support since the last election after realising the Lib Dems were best placed to unseat the Tory incumbent.

“I’m more of a natural Labour voter, but I think now you need to place your vote depending on where you are,” she said.

“Here, I am not a Baker fan, but I’ve really warmed to Steff Aquarone [the Lib Dem candidate].”

Her view has been compounded by a lack of Labour activism in the area: “I don’t even really know what the Labour person is doing, they are conspicuous by their absence.

“They haven’t come to hustings I don’t think, they don’t engage with leaflets or comms at all. It’s difficult to give your vote to someone who isn’t here.”

Recent polls have suggested that the Lib Dems in particular are making advances at the Tories' expense, and some experts think that tactical voting could be a big reason behind this. Dr Hannah Bunting, lecturer in Quantitative British Politics at Exeter University told The Rundown podcast that, based on polling by Electoral Calculus, tactical voting could make a “difference in a handful of seats”.

“Mostly for the Liberal Democrats, I think they would be up by about 10 seats if tactical voting played out in the way we thought it would,” she said.

Sheringham seafront
Norfolk has one of the highest percentage of over 65s in the country (PoliticsHome)

Polling expert Sir John Curtice told PoliticsHome that tactical voting could contribute to a heavy Conservative defeat, explaining that it was evident earlier this year at the local elections and had been deployed extensively in the local and general elections of 1997 when Labour achieved a landslide victory.

Some anti-Conservative organisations are looking to capitalise on this as much as possible. The pro-Europe campaign group Best for Britain released an online tool last week which recommends which party people should vote for to deliver the heaviest defeat for the Conservatives, as well as preventing Reform UK gaining seats.

Asked whether he supported projects such as this, Lib Dem leader Davey told PoliticsHome that he would not "tell people what to do": "I don't like that style of politics, I don't think it works."

But he said that it was sometimes necessary under a first-past-the-post voting system for voters to "work out for themselves, whether it's through their own research or tactical voting websites, what the relative strength of different parties are".

Another local factor at play in North Norfolk is that the constituency was held by the Liberal Democrats in the past, with Norman Lamb serving as the Lib Dem MP from 2001 until the last election, when it was lost to the Tories. According to Lamb himself, part of the reason this came about was due to a strong local tradition of Labour supporters lending their votes.

Norman Lamb and Steff Aquarone
Norman Lamb and Steff Aquarone accompanied Ed Davey to the North Norfolk seafront last week (PoliticsHome)

Lamb told PoliticsHome that he was therefore not surprised “at all” that many Lib Dem canvassers were not stalwarts of the party. 

“We built up a very strong sort of culture of Labour voters voting for us to win against the Tories, so it’s really a case of reminding people of what they used to do,” he said. 

“People are ready to vote for us and not only to vote, but to go out and help. I had Labour members helping me [in previous elections]. So, no, it doesn't surprise me and I suspect that it's replicated all over the country.”

The former MP and minister said he felt the Lib Dem national campaign was overall shaping up “far, far better” than he expected – in large part due to the prominence of tactical voting.

“I’ve fought so many election campaigns and you see some movement in support but fundamentally, it tends to be sort of marginal gains on the side,” he said.

“But you get to this election where it feels like anything's possible, there could be a seismic shift. People who want to Tories out seem to be totally understanding that they might need to vote tactically; people seem to be willing to vote Lib Dem where they are the challenger, and vice versa with Labour and the Greens etc.”

He said he believed that the combination of tactical voting and the rise of Reform could lead to a similar scenario to the collapse of the Conservative vote in Canada in 1993.

“It's funny because the Tories always defend first-past-the-post, but if your polling falls below a certain rate it's disastrous,” he reflected.

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