When Boris Johnson planned his pre-Christmas election, one crucial calculation was that the forces ranged against him were divided amongst themselves. Despite a brief wobble in Tory land during the campaign, when the slide in Liberal Democrat support raised fears that Labour might scoop up enough Remain votes to prevent a Tory majority, Team Boris’s call was right: Labour and the Lib Dems kicked lumps out of each other. There was a pro-Remain pact between the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru, but without Labour it was worthless. The hostility between Labour and the Lib Dems was hardly a good advert for the mass tactical voting that might in theory have halted Johnson’s victory march.
Some Labour minds now believe the party should end its futile, mutually destructive war with the Lib Dems. There is renewed talk in Labour circles about forming a progressive alliance with the Lib Dems and Greens, with some believing privately it might be the only way to prevent Tory hegemony. A debate has also begun on whether Labour should endorse proportional representation.
This is the right time to consider such matters. Labour has suffered a crushing defeat. Johnson will be ruthless in using the power and majority now at his disposal to tilt the playing field against his opponents. A long-planned review of constituency boundaries will make it even harder for Labour to win power next time.
Unfortunately, many in Labour seem to think this is the wrong time to look outwards. Allies of Jeremy Corbyn seem to be stuck in the first stage of grief: denial. Remarkably, he did not mention Labour’s defeat in his new year message. It will suit Corbynistas to rush into a leadership election to choose his successor before there has been a proper reckoning of what went wrong. The shorter the contest – and the debate – the better the prospects of a “continuity Corbyn” candidate.
I suspect that a progressive alliance and electoral reform will not get much of an airing during the leadership election. Candidates will be wary of asking members, whose votes they need to win, to leave their comfort zone. Much better to remain in their warm bubble and carry on attacking the Lib Dems for being the architects of austerity. Why allow defeatist talk about proportional representation to split Labour, and give the impression it could never win power on its own? Why not hope that first-past-the-post could again be Labour’s friend, once the party’s working class voters realise Johnson has betrayed them?
Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens have much common ground on tackling inequality, public services, civil liberties and the environment
Perhaps it is fanciful to imagine Corbyn allies building bridges with other parties when they won’t even reach out to others within the Labour family. But Labour should remember the numbers. The Tories won 56 per cent of the seats with 44 per cent of the votes. The Tories and Brexit Party won 46 per cent of the votes between them, but progressive parties committed to a Final Say referendum won a total of 51 per cent. They could become a progressive alliance.
Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens have much common ground on tackling inequality, public services, civil liberties and the environment. Many of their values enjoy majority public support. The climate emergency could become the Tories’ Achilles heel, as they will the ends, but not the means, to achieve the 2050 net-zero emissions target. How about a “climate alliance”?
One ray of hope in Labour’s so far rather arid debate is Lisa Nandy, a potential leadership candidate. In 2016, she co-edited a book, The Alternative, proposing a new progressive politics, with the Green MP Caroline Lucas and Lib Dem candidate Chris Bowers. Nandy became convinced that having “different parties representing largely the same philosophy but with differences of emphasis presented a challenge that should make overall outcomes better, not a reason to beat each other to a political pulp.” The trio insisted they were not proposing cooperation out of “despair” or political expediency, but because it was right.
The debate they wanted never got going. Corbyn was a tribal figure (regarded as extreme by the Lib Dems) and his 2017 performance was so good that the two-party system reasserted itself, with Labour and the Tories hoovering up 82 per cent of the votes between them. Now that Labour has fallen back so badly, a progressive alliance should be on the agenda. Hopefully, the involvement of the impressive Nandy in the Labour race will at least start a debate about this elephant in the party’s room.
I’m not saying Labour should have an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Greens. But the parties should think about a non-aggression pact and targeting their resources sensibly. Instead of fighting each other, they should prioritise regaining territory from their common enemy, to turn back the blue tide which now dominates the electoral map.