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The dangerous dream: How a progressive alliance could split Labour’s left

A divide is developing between Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters regarding the idea of making pacts with the Greens, SNP and Lib Dems.

Support for a progressive alliance with other left-wing parties is going to be the next “big battle” in the Labour party, according to a source close to the leadership. But rather than widen the gulf between Jeremy Corbyn and his critics, this battle is set to split the party’s left.

Corbyn has dismissed the idea of electoral pacts, and insists that he is “committed to a Labour cause and position”. He is thought by some in the party and within Momentum to be less sceptical about working with other parties than “the people around him”, but he has so far been against such plans.

Such loyalty to a party is starting to appear old-fashioned – at odds with the fresh take on politics, and lack of tribalism, among some of his newest supporters. It also sets him against some influential Momentum insiders, his close ally in the parliamentary party Clive Lewis, and others who are committed to his project, such as the strategic adviser to the Jeremy For Labour campaign Jeremy Gilbert.

Building a progressive alliance is inextricably linked to campaigning for proportional representation. As traditional party allegiances fragment, and Labour looks increasingly less likely to win a majority, some on the left are keen to give voters a plural, “radical alternative” to vote for – without the hindrance of First Past the Post.

A lot of Corbyn supporters who I have spoken to since his first election – mainly young people who haven’t been party members before – see the Corbyn phenomenon as the required disruptive force to change the structure of British politics. Rather than a choice between a right-wing party, and what they see as a Labour party with diluted values, they want a left-wing force that doesn’t have to compromise.

This is backed up by polling. YouGov found that a majority of Corbyn voters within the Labour selectorate are in favour of Labour working with the Greens (91 per cent), the SNP (73 per cent) and Plaid Cymru (71 per cent) in government, and 46 per cent would be happy to go into coalition with the Lib Dems:

Screengrab from YouGov. Click to enlarge. Original article here.

A number of the most active (and youngest, least politically-weathered) Momentum activists also have this view. Many see Corbyn as a symptom of a new shift on the left, rather than a cause – or even the desired leader they end up with.

Clive Lewis, shadow defence secretary and a Corbyn loyalist, is on the vanguard of Labourites in favour of a progressive alliance, and proportional representation. He echoes many of the new supporters’ views. “As a democratic socialist, one of the things about what’s happened in my party in the last year or so, it’s so often focused on Jeremy Corbyn,” he tells me. “But actually, he’s the surfer, not the wave. And it’s the wave that's really important.

“Most people coming in, supporting Jeremy, are not hard left; they want to see politics done in a different way, and want to see the political system engage. They don’t have that tribal approach to politics, which means they’re more accepting to working with [other parties].

"Many of them may have even been in other parties, like the Greens or Lib Dems, and voted for those parties.”

Lewis and the Green MP Caroline Lucas have united on multiple platforms in recent months, calling for their parties and others to work together. This idea is backed by the soft-left think tank Compass, which is currently researching how to make a progressive alliance work electorally.

But many Corbyn allies are against the idea of a progressive alliance. The Labour leader himself doesn’t explicitly oppose scrapping First Past the Post, and has mulled over “top-up lists” to “even things out”, but has stopped short at pledging voting reform. He is always careful to underline the importance of the “constituency link” whenever the subject comes up. (By contrast, his ally and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who used to oppose voting reform, did a U-turn in May, and called on Labour to back PR.)

This caution stems from the view of Corbyn's mentor, Tony Benn, that coalition, via some form of proportional representation, erases the chance of a strong socialist majority – and requires compromise. Benn argued: “In countries that have proportional representation, the electorate can only stir the mixture of political parties forming the governing coalition, but can rarely get rid of the whole bunch and replace them with others.”

He was also suspicious of voting systems involving lists drawn up by party HQs, once telling Neil Kinnock during an NEC meeting his fear that if Labour were to support such a system, he would be number 599 on the list, and Dennis Skinner 600. (Kinnock reportedly replied: “Would you like that in writing?”).

Some of Corbyn's most important backroom operators share his concerns, such as Momentum chair Jon Lansman, and Rhea Wolfson, a Momentum-backed Scottish Labour activist on the National Executive Committee. In their eyes, proportional representation spells the end for majority Labour control, and only Labour – born of the trade union movement – can represent the interests of the working class.

Tribes and tribalism

Photo: Getty

Fresher faces in Labour politics like Lewis (pictured above) want to undo this tribalism. He sees a progressive alliance as “the only way you’re ever really going to be able to take on the establishment of this country”, and warns that failing to act on this could lose more voters to parties like Ukip.

“You ask the 3m people who left the Labour party from our working-class heartlands whether they feel how we’ve approached this has benefited them,” he says. “I don’t think they do, they’ve left in droves. And consequently they potentially may well turn to parties who are in many ways anathema to anyone on the progressive side of politics.

“So unless we grip this, unless we begin to understand the way that politics is fragmenting in our country, unless we actually approach this with a realistic, non-tribal kind of approach, then the problems we’re facing at the moment are going to be compounded.”

Is Lewis aware of how this could cause a rift between Corbyn and his supporters? “There are those on both the left and right of the party who find this very difficult,” he replies. “People have said to me, ‘if people can’t join the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn then they’re not progressive’. I think that's very narrow, very naïve.”

Lewis is particularly frustrated by those in his party trying to monopolise what he sees as an emerging alternative movement. “One of the issues I have is people saying ‘we are going to build a social movement within one party’. Well, that's a contradiction in terms. If you look at the environmental movement, if you look at the civil rights movement, if you look at any of the kind of great political movements in history, social movements in history – they cross political spectrums.”

He adds: “There will be people in the Labour party who say it’s got to be a Labour-led social movement. Well, it can be Labour-led. We are the biggest progressive political party in Western Europe – let’s lead it. [But] we have to open up that social movement to as many people as possible if we are to be successful . . . We’ve got to be more open, we’ve got to be more tolerant, we’ve got to try and put aside our differences as much as possible.”

Lewis isn’t alone in his frustration at Labour’s tribalism. MPs from across the party’s political spectrum are also putting pressure on Corbyn to back PR. Chuka Umunna and Johnny Reynolds have set up an all-party group on the subject.

Scottish Labour, though, could also put up barriers to cross-party alliances. The Scottish party is understandably horrified by calls from Westminster for an alliance between Labour and the SNP, having been so catastrophically defeated by the nationalists. Such a pact would basically mean writing off Scottish Labour. This partly explains Scottish Labour activist Rhea Wolfson’s scepticism about progressive alliances. Some also question categorising the SNP as a “progressive” party at all.

But progressive alliance advocates are having none of it. “To be quite frank, the SNP, if you’re going to call them some kind of neoliberal stooges, well, for a long time, the Labour party in Scotland was no less,” says one source on the left of the party, exasperated by Corbyn opposing a progressive alliance. “I’m struggling with how people can sit on the fence and say that.”

Other parties: allies or enemies?

Photo: Getty

Green party co-leaders Lucas (pictured above right) and Jonathan Bartley campaigned for the party leadership on a platform of forming progressive alliances with other “like-minded parties”. They won, but there are divisions within their party on the subject too. Lucas and her colleagues are looking at local electoral pacts (ie. agreeing not to split the left-wing vote in constituencies where they could block a Tory win), “non-aggression agreements” about funding for candidates in certain seats, joint candidacies, and running open primaries for selecting a “progressive” candidate.

For example, there was regret within the party that the Brighton area could have returned three non-Tory MPs if the left vote hadn’t split last election. Sources also site the neighbouring seat of Lewes, which the former Lib Dem minister Norman Baker lost to the Conservatives. The Isle of Wight is another area where they would like to try an electoral pact.

The Greens have seen a wave of support for these ideas from what one source calls “the non-tribal left” – people who have long had sympathy with Green values, and may have joined Labour since Corbyn took over. Even the general electorate seems pretty keen on the Greens as a partner; according to YouGov, 39 per cent believe they would be a positive influence in coalition. 

But the party would have to allow its members to vote on some of these changes to its rules, and Lucas admits “it is by no means a consensus position” among the Greens to support a progressive alliance. She would make PR a condition of forming such a partnership – her priority is to get Labour to write voting reform into its manifesto. Lucas calls this “the big prize” and “completely” a red line in negotiations.

She reveals that the Greens have approached Labour and other parties, and says the response from “people’s offices was at least to keep the door open” – but stresses that “we haven’t heard directly back from Jeremy”.

Lucas admits she’s also heard from “councillors who’ve worked together and found it an absolute nightmare, so we’re not underestimating the difficulty of challenging years of tribalism and distrust and so forth – that is very real. What we’re saying very clearly is: what is the alternative?”

The SNP is in favour of working with other parties, and has had conversations about alliances in the past (Nicola Sturgeon has appeared on joint platforms with Green and Plaid leaders in a show of unity against the Tories). It is also in favour of overhauling the voting system.

But its relationship with the Labour leader’s office is a strange one. A well-placed Westminster insider tells me “there is a dichotomy in Corbyn’s office. They are torn. Do they go hell-for-leather for the SNP? Are they allies or are they enemies? It’s a big argument in Corbyn’s ranks. They are reasonably closely aligned. They need the SNP [for winning votes in the Commons]. This is the heart of an internal party handling issue.”

The Lib Dems are a little different. Rather than deals or pacts, they’re open to working with progressives in any party on issues of mutual interest – voting reform, Europe, EU nationals in the Brexit debate, and refugees, for example. They look at delivering a “liberal outcome”, and if they can do that by working with other parties, then they will.

But they have found it more difficult to work with Labour of late. A Lib Dem source explains how they used to deal with the Labour whips’ office, get tip-offs on votes and engage in basic communication, both formally and informally. “Now there are no back channels,” I’m told.

The biggest question about Labour partaking in a progressive alliance is: what’s in it for Labour?

An electoral pact with the Greens may sound appealing to its new supporters, but is there a chance it could benefit Caroline Lucas more than Labour? It’s a way for her to secure her position, and perhaps to give candidates in Green-friendly seats a bit more breathing space to campaign.

Unless the Greens were absorbed into the Labour party, as a Co-op-style wing (a proposal that angered them from the anti-progressive alliance Momentum chair Jon Lansman), Labour purists who want to rule alone don’t see a huge amount to gain.

And that’s before you even consider the fraught idea of working alongside the SNP, and how damaging that would be to the Labour party’s relationship with its Scottish counterparts.

But Lewis believes it’s worth a try. “To do progressive alliance type politics under the First Past the Post system is always going to be a leap of faith,” he admits. “It’s always going to be difficult. [But] it’s not beyond the ken of political parties, politicians, from this side of politics, to be able to work out a system . . .

“I see what people say to me – you’re a traitor, the Labour party’s all we need. Well, we’ve got to get real.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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