Here's what you could have won. Photo: Getty Images
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The time has come for the progressive parties to put aside their differences

The Conservatives took office with just 36 per cent of the vote. Only a radical rethink will stop this happening again, says John Wright. 

I can’t be the only Labour Party member still depressed by the election results, feeling queasy at the leadership contest, and beginning to think that something other than Labour trimming to the left or to the right - and crossing our fingers - is called for if progressive politics is to survive in the UK.

Although  the Tories have won 13 out of the 19 general elections held since 1945, in only one of these elections did their proportion the vote exceed the proportion cast for the Labour Party and the Liberal Party (or Alliance, or Liberal Democrats) combined. That was in 1955, when the Tory vote nudged ahead of the Labour/Liberal combined vote by a slim 0.7 per cent. Even in the 1979 ‘Nightmare on Downing Street’ election Mrs. Thatcher only polled 43.9 per cent of the vote to the Labour/Liberal combined vote of 53.7 per cent.

The fact is the Tories have won the majority of elections over the last 70 years without the support of a majority of the voters, let alone a majority of the population at large.

In this May’s election the progressive parties (broadly speaking, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru) out-polled the Tories by 14,556,946 to 11,334,567; yet because the Tories won the majority of seats, they now run the country.

The Electoral Reform Society’s report on the election shows that had it been held under the Single Transferable Vote the progressive parties (as I’ve listed them), in addition to polling the majority of votes, would have won 302 seats to the Tories’ 276, presenting them with the opportunity for a progressive coalition government. The ERS uses these statistics to call on progressive activists to campaign for voting reform. But the snag is that no party which has achieved power under the first-past-the-post system, neither Tory nor Labour, is going to ditch that system for PR.

So although it’s laudably progressive to urge us all to lobby David Cameron to adopt PR, it is manifestly a waste of both time and political energy.

Instead, the progressive parties should be making plans, in advance of the next election, to ‘manage’ their political differences in order to offer the country a common policy package which could win majority support. Had there been a hung parliament this time round these parties would have done the necessary: everyone knows that the prospect of being yoked together to run the country was not just being discussed pre-election by the progressive parties, it was being actively planned for.

There is, then, no practical or principled reason why there should not be a pre-election pact between the progressive parties for the 2020 election, based on an agreed common manifesto and a shared slate of candidates, and every reason why work on this should start straight away.

There’s already a commonality there: look at the websites of the Labour Women’s Network, Liberal Democrat Women, SNP Women and Plaid Cymru Women and the Women’s Equality Party (newly launched and planning to field candidates in 2020): their policy goals are virtually interchangeable -  equal representation of men and women in politics, civil and business life; equal pay; equal child care support; an end to violence of all kinds against women and girls. These common goals would form a firm basis for the joint manifesto for the combined progressive parties in 2020.

In addition to these gender equality issues and other, already largely shared, progressive themes (an austerity-less plan for paying down the deficit, regulating the city and the banks, pursuing wealthy tax avoiders, introducing the living wage, resolute action on climate change including growth in production via public investment in green technology, etc.) a commitment to introducing PR within the lifetime of the 2020 progressive coalition government would reassure voters that the progressive parties were not seeking to establish themselves as a permanent ‘power bloc’ in British politics, but rather to improve our democracy by ensuring that general election outcomes in future in Britain will more closely reflect the views and desires of voters.

This is not a plea for the amalgamation of the progressive parties. Other than at the time of general elections a thousand flowers need to bloom. But when it’s being decided who will run the country for the next five years the progressive parties must find an alternative to arguing amongst themselves and voting against each other’s candidates – ‘spoiling’ as America’s arch-spoiler Ralph Nader calls it, he who took thousands of votes from Al Gore in Florida in 2000, thereby enthroning George W Bush (with devastating effects not just on the USA but the whole world).

For as long as the progressive parties fail to face up to the reality of our current electoral system and continue ‘spoiling’ each other’s campaigns they, the representatives of majority opinion, will be destined  (for a further 70 years?) to hand power on a plate to the Tories – the minority-supported faction in British politics.

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Autumn Statement 2015: How we got here

The story of Britain's finances in six charts. 

Today George Osborne did two things. He gave give his annual ‘Autumn Statement’, in which he’ll detailed how his estimates for growth, debt and the deficit have changed since the Budget in July, and he laid out the Spending Review, which detailed exactly how much government departments will spend over the parliament.

We’ll have coverage of today’s decisions shortly, but first, how did we get here? After five years of austerity, why is the government still cutting so much?

As we all know, in 2008 the party stopped. In the same way that the Paris attacks are a product of 9/11, today’s Spending Review can trace its origins to the fateful crash of the global financial system seven years ago.

So let’s return to 2008 and remember that government debt is any Chancellor’s greatest fear. If your debt gets too high you will become bankrupt: global markets will not lend you the money you need to keep running your government.

For 15 years, from 1993 to 2008, government debt was not a great worry. Gordon Brown was able to spend his decade as Chancellor doling out the fat of the land. Debt never rose high than 41 per cent of GDP, and was only 37 per cent in spring 2008, not much higher than it had been in 1993.

Then the financial crisis happened.


In seven years the government’s debt has doubled, from 41 to 80 per cent. The Tories spent five years very successfully blaming the last Labour government for causing this spike by overspending from 1997-2008, but, as this chart suggests, the greatest cause was the global crisis, not Labour profligacy.

Regardless of who was responsible, the debt is now at a historic high. If we rewind our chart back to 1975 we can see that today’s debt levels are even higher than those Thatcher railed against in the 1980s, when she, like today’s Tories, also cut spending heavily upon entering office.

But while she succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

But while Thatcher succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

So now the UK must endure another five years of cuts if we are to run the surplus Osborne is targeting and which he recommitted himself to today. If we don’t run a surplus our debt levels will continue to slowly creep up towards 100 per cent of our GDP.

According to Eurostat, who measure things slightly different to the Office of National Statistics, our debt is close to 90 per cent and is among the highest in Europe. 

We are still just below the level of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), those countries whose debts ballooned after the financial crisis and who have gone through a succession of governments as austerity has been imposed by international markets.

But most of those countries have now started to cut spending severely, as for instance in Greece, whereas the UK is still running a relatively high budget deficit (nearly 6 per cent of GDP according to Eurostat). If we continue to do so we will keep adding to our debt, and could approach the level at which markets will no longer lend to us.

That, at least, is the Tories’ line of argument. So we are set for another five years of cuts. And everything is also dependent on growth. The figures I’ve quoted for debt and the deficit are all expressed as a percentage of GDP. A country’s total levels of debt don’t matter; what matters is how great they are compared to the size of your economy.

The cuts Osborne announced today will only succeed in cutting the deficit if growth is as high as he hopes it will be (as Paul Johnson of the IFS pointed out on the Today programme this morning).

How likely is that? Well, the estimates he gave in 2010 seemed over-optimistic in 2012, when the economy was flat-lining and Osborne was at his political nadir, but eventually seemed just in 2014, when the economy recovered.

Osborne’s political future will thrive or dive depending on growth over the next five years. Many economists have argued, including Robert Skidelsky and Simon Wren-Lewis in these pages, that Osborne’s focus on austerity in 2010 caused growth to stall in 2012. If he continues to cut, growth could stall yet again in 2017 or 2018.

The cuts over the next five years are going to be more severe than those from 2010-2015, and are greater than those any other major economy is planning. If they cripple growth, Osborne’s plan will need readjusting once again if both he and the UK are to survive. 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.