It has been reported that former Liberal Democrat peer Matthew Oakeshott has donated £600,000 to left-leaning parliamentary hopefuls in the quest to stave off a Conservative victory in the election. Oakeshott has been on a leave of absence from the House of Lords since quitting the Lib Dems last year. He made no secret of his opposition to the direction being taken by leader Nick Clegg and now says his donations are aimed at saving the country from a “Tory government cringing to Ukip”.
The money is to be spread across 46 constituencies in marginal seats. Half has been donated to 30 Labour candidates and the rest will be split between 15 Liberal Democrat candidates (some of which are MPs) and Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion.
This all raises interesting questions about Oakeshott’s intentions, and the potential for cooperation between these political parties more broadly.
What’s he up to?
Oakeshott’s political history sheds some light on his plans. He joined the Labour Party in the 1960s at the age of 16, standing for Labour in the October 1974 general election. He went on to work for Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, and joined the Social Democratic Party in 1981, before it merged with the Liberal Party to form what we now know as the Liberal Democrats.
Oakeshott is firmly associated with those advocating greater co-operation between centre-left parties in British politics, often grouped together under the broad and elusive banner of “progressivism”. It is therefore no surprise that no Orange Book Liberal Democrat candidates have received funding from him.
The money from Oakeshott is likely to be of great use to the recipients. Not only has recent research shown just how much local campaigns need money, but we also know that it is particularly vital for the Liberal Democrats.
If this money – which is likely to be spent on leaflets and telephone canvassing – can be matched by foot-soldiers on the doorstep, it could influence matters on polling day. However, other parties have also received big money for the general election campaign. Oakeshott’s tactics are far from guaranteed to reap the rewards he seeks.
A left alliance
Oakeshott’s intervention is particularly interesting in that he has targeted specific seats, rather than donating to the broader political parties. It is a reasonable course of action, as this general election is perhaps best thought of not as one big poll, but as 650 small but influential contests.
However, outcomes in those constituencies in which Oakeshott has donated money to will not just depend on Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green supporters coming out to vote for their desired party. If Oakeshott is to get his wish, it will also depend on them voting tactically to oust the Conservative candidate. It does not do Oakeshott, or his ideas of a progressive alliance, much good if Liberal Democrat supporters do not vote Labour in the seats where he has donated money to Labour, or vice-versa.
Oakeshott is no doubt aware of this and has already appealed to people in marginal seats to vote tactically to ensure Ed Miliband becomes prime minister.
While this financial intervention will be warmly welcomed by anyone hoping that an alliance can be formed between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, others will be less pleased. Labour activists fighting the Green Party in Brighton Pavilion will probably feel aggrieved, as will those Liberal Democrat councillors fighting for their party’s future in Labour heartlands.
The danger is that the sheer volume of vitriolic language exchanged between Labour and Liberal Democrat parliamentarians since 2010 might drown out Oakeshott’s more co-operative plea. Labour faces the problem of needing 2010 Liberal Democrat voters to win key marginals, but it quietly hopes that Liberal Democrat voters will stay put in the South West and South East against the Conservatives. How well that hope pans out will determine if Oakeshott gets his wish.