The amazing time travelling Alex Salmond.
Show Hide image

A shameless, self-interested plea to Scottish voters

Don't let go of the balloon.

Ian McEwan's 1997 novel Enduring Love begins with a hot air balloon that gets out of control. Half a dozen people cling on to its ropes, hoping to use their combined weight to drag it back to the ground; but gradually, it begins to lift and one by one, each fearing the danger of hanging on too long, they let go. The last to do so falls a very long way.

I've not really expressed any opinion on the Scottish independence vote before now. I'm entirely English; most of my time in Scotland has been spent in Edinburgh in August, making me the very worst kind of Englishman; and, more to the point, nobody cares what I think. The whole thing feels like it's nothing to do with me.

But recently I've realised two things. One is that most English people were acting like it wasn't anything to do with them either, treating the referendum as simply a quarrel in a far-away country.

This is silly: it is, after all, our country that could conceivably get dismembered. More than that, though, it's insulting. By declining to offer a UK-wide broadcast of the first debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, ITV managed to imply that the whole affair was nothing more than a matter of local politics. (In 2012, ITV1 did manage to broadcast the London mayoral debate, albeit only on its HD channel.) If I lived in Scotland, I suspect this would have pushed me to jump ship and take my chances with Salmond all by itself.

The other thing I've realised is that, actually, I do care what happens on 18 September. I care very much. I desperately want Scotland to vote no, not because of any misty-eyed attachment to nation or flag, but because of real, boring, practical reasons. The independence lot are letting go of the balloon.

There's an argument I keep hearing from Yessers, that's become ever louder the longer the campaign has gone on: vote yes, and never have a Tory government again. Vote yes and be free of those bastards. Even if the idea that an independent Scotland would never again elect a right-wing government looks ever so slightly delusional, I can sort of see how it might be seductive to those of a certain viewpoint. 

And yet, from a purely selfish point of view, it pisses me right off. It feels – this may be irrational of me, but it's the right word nonetheless – like a betrayal. 

Because there are those – there are many – in the rest of the UK who are not nuts about the modern Conservative party either. I like the NHS, and the BBC, and the welfare state, and not picking fights with our closest trading partners just to prove how hard we are. I'd like to keep those things. And until the Conservative party recovers from the psychotic episode it’s been going through for most of the last 30 years, I don't think I can trust it to protect them.

Scottish independence would make Tory majorities in the rest of the UK a damn sight more likely. It would gut the Labour party, and take out a big source of its talent over the last few decades. It’d deprive us of a helpful reminder that there are alternatives to the lingering post-Thatcher consensus, and they can work even within the UK. It’d move the whole centre of gravity of British politics three notches further to the right.

I'm sure it'll be lovely in the socialist paradise north of the border (actually I'm not, I think it'll be a disaster, but that's a whole different thing). Those of us still down here, though, will get totally and utterly screwed.

I'm aware that this must sound massively selfish – it is utterly selfish. But so, frankly, is the Scottish left's plan to cut and run, and to hell with the neighbours. So, with apologies for all the other shitty things the English have done down the years, just this once I reckon I'm on safe ground.

Here, then, is my shamelessly self-interested plea to Scotland: don't do it. Vote no. With you here, it's easier to win the argument for social democratic policies. With you here, it's easier to persuade Westminster that not all financial or political power can or should reside in London. Stick around, and we'll work out how to push more power out of the capital – not just to Edinburgh, but to Cardiff and Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds. Please, don't go.

Because, we are stronger together than we are apart. And every time someone lets go of the balloon things get a little bit worse for those of us who are still hanging on.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.