It's time for Labour to work with other parties to halt a hard-right landslide, writes Lord Wallace.
So how about ‘an informal alliance of the centre left’ in the event of a general election this autumn? David Blunkett, as committed a long-term member of the Labour Party as anyone could ask for, has just set out the case for attempting this, in articles for the Yorkshire Post and Mail on Sunday.
His argument is that the threat of a parallel informal alliance between the Brexit Party and a Johnson-led Conservative Party, with the Brexit Party not standing in seats held by right-wing Tory Brexiters – would threaten a landslide for the right in seats – despite left of centre parties winning a majority of votes.
A broken system
It’s likely that the current distribution of support among different parties will persist through the summer, with no party attracting much more than 30%, four parties around or above 20%, and pockets of strong Green and nationalist support to split votes further. In that situation, some seats could be won in a general election on as little as 25-30% of votes cast – and the group that most successfully widens its appeal to win over people who would otherwise be inclined to vote for different parties will make disproportionate gains.
The hard right might well manage such a combination; some Conservative Party donors are already calling for it. Could the centre left manage some combination in response?
I’m as committed and ‘tribal’ a member of the Liberal Democrats as Blunkett is of Labour, and naturally suspicious of ‘pacts’. I joined the Liberal Party as a student in 1960; I met my wife at a Young Liberal conference. I’ve fought five parliamentary elections, campaigned for others in countless wards and constituencies, and delivered a truckload of leaflets, the latest last weekend. I’ve argued the case that my party should always field a candidate, even in the most difficult and derelict constituencies, and done my best to squeeze the Labour (or Green, or Conservative) vote where Liberal Democrats could claim to be the main contender. And I’ve fought Labour-held seats where they regarded Lib Dems as invading their territory, and fought back bitterly and dirtily.
But the British electoral system is unforgiving. And Labour, on the trend of opinion polls and local elections over the past year and more, can no longer claim to be the only viable alternative to the Conservatives.
Labour sabotaged the attempt at a Remainer/progressive pact for the Peterborough by-election, which would have put forward an independent candidate, and narrowly succeeded in holding the seat. But in Brecon and Radnor, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have withdrawn in favour of the Liberal Democrats – a progressive alliance without Labour, in a seat that Labour has no chance of winning. Could Labour activists in such seats consider stepping down in an October general election, in return for other candidates withdrawing in some Labour marginals?
All parties target some seats to the neglect of others. The idea of some sort of informal division of efforts is already floating around Westminster and beyond.
A Labour MP was trying to persuade me the other week that Liberal Democrats would do best to concentrate on the two Conservative marginals neighbouring her own constituency, and leave her to hold the anti-Conservative ground – but she didn’t suggest that either party should withdraw their candidates. Liberal Democrats and Greens have withdrawn candidates to help each other in several local authority areas, and in one or two parliamentary contests before Brecon – including in Twickenham and Brighton.
It’s not easy to agree such exchanges. Greens and Lib Dems often have concentrations of activists in the same communities, as natural competitors for the votes of socially aware graduates and professionals. But it’s likely that there will be more such agreements if an election is sprung after the summer. They will be locally negotiated, between people who have worked together in local government and local campaigns, cautiously accepted by their national parties. And they will probably lead to a larger number of MPs elected by both parties.
Could any local Labour Party contemplate agreeing a similar arrangement, across two or more constituencies? And if so, could Labour’s national party resist vetoing such an arrangement? In a situation in which the Brexit and Conservative Parties were striking formal or informal constituency deals that promised to increase their numbers in the new Parliament, and Labour’s poll ratings were stuck below 25%, Blunkett argues that they should and must.
“The Conservative and Brexit parties together stand at 45%” in the average of recent polls, while “together Labour, the LibDems and Greens stand at a combined 49%…The logic is clear – a pact is now the very thing needed from Labour.”
Many Labour Party members will regard this as unthinkable. It would threaten to widen existing divisions between Labour Leavers and Remainers, between social democrats and the socialist hard left.
But many Labour activists, including councillors, MPs and MEPs, have been working closely with members of other parties on the European issue since the EU referendum campaign. Insisting that they put party interest before national interest – in an election campaign which threatened to return a right-wing party intent on shrinking the state further – might deepen divisions within Labour rather than heal them. So it’s time for Labour activists to think about this, constituency by constituency.
At most, such arrangements would only cover a minority of seats in an early election. There’s little prospect of much agreement in Scotland, where the Brexit Party is weaker, Boris Johnson less popular, and the nationalists more hostile.
Blunkett’s hope that ‘a common platform’ could underpin such an alliance seems absurdly optimistic – the Labour NEC is in no position to agree even the headings of any such agreement. And negotiating a new government among whatever combination of parties and independents emerges from the election will be difficult.
But what outcome would you prefer: the election of a Johnson-led Conservative government returns – supported by Brexit Party MPs and the DUP – or a loose majority of the left and centre which could turn the UK away from the libertarian right?
William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire) is a Liberal Democrat peer.
As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.
We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.