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Sun 23 February 2020
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With the Tories already planning for a general election in five years, David Hencke looks at their vulnerabilities and the prospects of a progressive counter-attack.


The General Election is a watershed moment that could set the debate for the next decade. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson won an impregnable majority and are the new masters of the British universe.

At this honeymoon moment, Johnson could do anything he wants. His Brexit withdrawal agreement will sail through Parliament. He could, if he, fancied get rid of the Human Rights Act, worker’s rights, impose a more draconian welfare system and – if Nicola Sturgeon gets too stroppy – use Westminster to abolish the Scottish Parliament so that she has no power base.

But all is not what it seems.

In one sense it could be a Pyrrhic victory decisive only because of the Trojan horse of the Brexit Party breaching the Red Wall of Labour’s Troy in the north and Midlands of England.


Help from Nigel

If you look very carefully at the result we may have just reached “peak Conservatism”. For all the huge switch in the number of parliamentary seats from red to blue, the Tories only achieved an overall 1% rise in their vote share from Theresa May’s disastrous performance. That is no vindication of a passion for Boris Johnson’s agenda.

The person who gave the Tories a decisive victory was Nigel Farage, by selectively targeting Labour-held seats and giving the Conservatives a free run in their own constituencies so that they would not split the vote over Brexit. 

In seat after Labour seat in the north and Midlands, it was the Labour vote that collapsed by up to 15% while the Tory vote only rose by a few per cent. It was a direct switch from Labour to the Brexit Party. Indeed in one seat, Newcastle North, the Labour vote fell 10%, the Brexit Party was up by more than 9% and the Tory share actually fell by 0.77%. Turnout was also down in a number of seats.

If you look at seats that Labour could have won, the progressive vote of Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru was totally divided.

With the exception of Richmond Park, Canterbury and Labour’s sole gain in Putney, tactical voting failed. Progressive fought progressive and gave an untroubled Tory Party big gains such as taking back Kensington, holding on to Chipping Barnet and Iain Duncan Smith’s seat in Chingford and Woodford Green, albeit with a reduced majority.

So what does that tell us? The knee-jerk reaction will be bloodletting in the Labour Party and dejection among the Liberal Democrats and Greens as, once again, they are defeated by the almighty Tories aligned to the Brexit Party.

Yet, the Tories do not represent the majority in Great Britain. They are just the largest minority party but are allowed to rule as though they have the commanding support of the British people.


Pull Together

What is desperately needed is a realignment of progressive forces and the taking of a leaf out of Nigel Farage’s tactical playbook.

If you look at the manifestos of the progressive parties, there is common ground on the need for radical policies to tackle the climate crisis, spend much more on the NHS, agreement on some form of renationalisation or stronger regulation of monopoly utilities, a more tolerant attitude to immigration, and support for a more caring society.

Unless they are far-right ideologists, ordinary people do not like a society full of homeless people and an ever-expanding network of food banks while the global elite enjoy a grossly wealthy six-home lifestyle, jetting from tax haven to tax haven.

So what is the solution? It has to be radical, eye-catching and out of everyone’s comfort zone.

At a national level, one really dramatic gesture would be if the new Labour Party leader decided that, in addition to the tribal rite of the annual party conference, they should call a progressive party conference attended by all those political parties who oppose the narrow vision of many of the new Tories, so as to work out a new common agenda. 

This would be an unprecedented and eye-catching gesture. It should be followed by a general agreement on where there is common ground, eventually leading to candidates deciding on who should take on the Tories. And, given that there are now diverse parties in this country, a proportional representation voting system should be on the agenda of a future progressive government.

The other area that needs tackling is the grass-roots communities in those towns which deserted Labour and were not attracted by the Liberal Democrats either. Progressive political leaders need to regain their trust, listen to what they need and also appeal to their aspirations in a positive way. There must be loads of talent in those areas which is completely unfulfilled who could be inspired by a new approach.

The Tories are promising to do this but, with their limited vision, they cannot possibly put the money or the time in to make a huge difference. Given that disillusion could set in when the honeymoon period is over – and if the new Government hits a new quagmire over Brexit negotiations – there is a need for an “oven-ready” alternative agenda for these communities.

I am not advocating a return to centrism, more a move to persuading ordinary people of the need for a new radical agenda to end the excesses of our society. The foundation needs to be put in place now. The Tories are already preparing for the next general election in five years’ time.


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