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Left-of-centre campaigners have warned that the Conservatives could slip in amid a fight between Labour and the Lib Dems to replace Nadine Dorries in the rural seat of Mid Bedfordshire next month.
The 19 October by-election, triggered after Boris Johnson loyalist Dorries finally quit the Commons in August, sees both Labour and the Liberal Democrats going full throttle to oust the Conservatives. But under the First Past the Post system, a three-way split could see a Tory win on just a third of the vote.
Labour came second in the seat in 2019 – but the Lib Dems feel they can build on their recent by-election successes, including in Tiverton and Honiton, and in Somerton and Frome, and leapfrog the party.
Neal Lawson, director of the progressive, cross-party Compass think tank, told the Lib Dem conference this week that the situation was “madness”.
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Compass has calculated that in the 2019 election, there were 62 “progressive tragedies”, the combined progressive vote – including Labour, Lib Dems and Greens – was bigger than the “regressive vote” of Conservatives and other right-wing parties.
“We lost, because we were divided in those seats…Our job is to try and make sure that no progressive tragedies happen next time,” Lawson said.
He told Liberal Democrat members: “There is a progressive majority in this country – there virtually has always been a progressive majority in this country. Thatcherism would have not happened if we’d have mobilised that progressive majority, which was there in 1979.
“Look at the madness of what’s going on in Mid Beds at the moment. The two parties [are] ripping each other apart and possibly letting the Tories through again.
“How do you solve it? By talking. Maybe you couldn’t do a deal around Mid Beds, but you could have looked at the wider area and worked out who gets what seat and where, [otherwise] the Tories slip through the middle.
“And if the leaders don’t want to do it, the people on the ground have to do it just as they did last May in so many places in so many local elections…They recognised they have more in common, and can work together.
He said Labour and the Lib Dems could choose to not put resources into certain seats at the next election to give each other a “clear run”. “We can win Government and change our electoral system, and then we don’t have to do any of that stuff ever again,” he said.
Lawson, a Labour member, is currently under investigation by the party – at risk of expulsion – for allegedly backing a Lib Dem candidate in a 2021 local election.
Former Lib Dem leader Vince Cable urged the parties to talk to one another, saying: “If we are going to defeat the Tories, and if we’re going to have more MPs or more councillors, it’s got to be by bringing together people…because of the first past the post system.”
“There are differences, and we could have a great seminar on the narcissism of small differences on the left. But…when it comes to practical policy, when it comes to running the country or a council, you find you have more in common with other progressive people,” Cable, now 80 and still active in the party, told the Compass event.
He added: “I don’t know whether anybody’s talking to anybody [in Labour and the Lib Dems]. I’m no longer part of this. I would hope there were intelligent conversations taking place.”
However, he said that he believed it was “wildly unlikely” that the Lib Dems would do a formal coalition with Labour after the next election. “I doubt very much if people on our side are talking about coalitions…We’ve been there, we’ve done that.”
Referring to the 2010-15 Conservative Lib Dem coalition, Sir Vince said: “It was very good for the country, and pretty terrible for the party…The temptation to go down that road is very limited.”
But he also suggested the party could keep Labour in power in the event of a minority Labour government. “The country wouldn’t forgive us if we were playing silly games. bring the government down every month.”
Addressing the conference via video link, TV presenter Carol Vorderman backed tactical voting at the next General Election. She cited Electoral Reform Society research showing that 70% of votes were “effectively thrown in the bin” under Westminster’s first past the post system in 2019, by not counting towards the election of their local MP. “It’s not fit for purpose…it has to change.”
“I have never seen anything this morally bankrupt as I have under this government.” She has backed a tactical voting site called stopthetories.vote for people to find who to lend their vote to next year. In five days before the local elections this May, half a million people used their website, she said. Actor and director Steve Coogan also backed the calls for tactical voting.
Lib Dem Autumn Conference is taking place in Bournemouth from Saturday 23rd September – Tuesday 26th September. Byline Times’ Josiah Mortimer has been reporting from Bournemouth.
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