Thu 24 June 2021

The Labour Party first gained parliamentary representation when Liberal chief whip Herbert Gladstone agreed to stand down 51 candidates. Could an alliance of a similar kind work again at the next general election?

In defeat, there is always plenty of recrimination to go round and the Labour Party has taken the brunt of it. In the 2019 award for disastrous political decisions, however, Jo Swinson must take the booby prize. 

Handing Boris Johnson his longed-for Brexit General Election merely compounded the error of vowing to revoke Article 50 without a second referendum. Waging a highly personalised presidential-style campaign, while effectively unknown to the wider electorate, caused head-scratching all round. 

But it was, above all, the hubristic grab for Labour’s mantle as the main opposition, that had the perverse effect of ensuring the worst possible outcome. Flushed with success in the European Elections months earlier, the Liberal Democrats badly misread their role and prospects. 

The 2019 General Election showcased the persistent shortcomings of centre-left progressive politics in Britain. The 40-year market fundamentalist project that has hollowed out our democracy has never commanded majority public support. Margaret Thatcher was gifted her parliamentary landslides by the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Conventional wisdom has it that Labour co-created those disasters by turning too far left. In fact, the 1981 Limehouse Declaration by the ‘Gang of Four’ came months before Tony Benn stood against Denis Healey in a landmark election for the party’s deputy leadership – and lost. The marginalisation by Labour of its own social democratic wing was as much a consequence of that split as a cause. 

Back in the present day, Layla Moran has already called for “cooperation” between opposition parties against a “common foe”. As arguably the Lib Dems’ most conspicuous current success story – having grown her majority in Oxford West and Abingdon from 800 to more than 9,000 – she must be a credible leadership contender. 

What would it require for Conservative Party candidates to be opposed by a single ‘slate’ next time around? Voters tried to take matters into their own hands in this election, but analysis by research consultants DataPraxis shows that Labour voters who switched directly to the Tories – costing the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats – were outnumbered by those who transferred their allegiance to other opposition parties. The combined votes of Liberal Democrats and the Greens exceeded the Tory winning margin over Labour in dozens of English constituencies.

“Around 78% of voters for the second and third-placed progressive parties in each seat would have had to vote tactically instead to block a Conservative majority,” the study concludes. “This bar is so high as to be unrealistic.” Only by Labour and the Lib Dems formally agreeing to collaborate and standing down candidates would there have been any prospect of a unified anti-Tory vote.

An obvious ideological sticking point for such an alliance would be public ownership. Thatcher and John Major took advantage of a divided opposition to privatise utilities and rail, but the policy never inspired enthusiasm among voters, who have been telling pollsters for some years now that they would like them back. To borrow the jargon of scholarship on political movements, however, this remains an “unmobilised sentiment pool”. Promising re-nationalisation does not, by itself, form a persuasive appeal. 

Labour is unlikely to “oversteer”, as prospective leadership contender Sir Keir Starmer puts it, away from its existing commitment. But why should it be of interest to the Lib Dems? Moran and others are fond of invoking “liberal values” as a unifying force. Values are embedded in structures. Immerse an ever-expanding range of the former public realm in market logic and you instill self-interest as the organising principle of economic and social relations. In that context, liberal values eventually wither. 

If reversing privatisation is way to attract new voters, it will surely have to be part of a wider plan to empower the public. Displacing faceless corporations, only for the old remote state bureaucracies to re-form in their place, would not do. Only with transparent mechanisms to ensure accountability would people feel the difference. To devise and propose such mechanisms would come naturally to the Lib Dems – perhaps as an extension of the “freedom, rights, equality” agenda in their 2019 manifesto.

The parties would be well-advised to begin thinking now about how to create a shared platform – with, of course, their own separate commitments, reflecting different priorities, alongside one another. Each should have a new leader with less baggage than the old.

Labour first gained parliamentary representation early in the last century, when Liberal chief whip Herbert Gladstone agreed to stand down 51 candidates. Repeating the arrangement in 2024 could benefit the Lib Dems as well, since the sole tangible achievement of Swinson’s leadership has been to position them second in dozens of English constituencies.

Today’s electoral puzzle is more complicated, with the addition of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, and the Greens. But there is scope for cooperation, both tactically and on policy, to connect the two main channels of progressive political opinion. It’s the only bridge to a non-Tory future.

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