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19 May 2021

Labour must finally accept that it needs a progressive alliance to ever govern again

To prevent permanent Tory rule, Keir Starmer should follow the example of local parties and work with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.

By Paul Mason

Milton Keynes council has been in “no overall control” since 2006 but on 6 May the Conservatives surged into first place, taking four Labour and two Liberal Democrat seats. In response, Labour and the Lib Dems have formed a joint administration to run the borough, dubbing it – on the headed notepaper of Labour HQ – a “Progressive Alliance”. 

The Progressive Alliance – an idea championed within the labour movement by Clive Lewis and the Compass director Neal Lawson since the 2017 general election – is taking off at a local level out of sheer necessity.

In Bristol and Sheffield, where a Green Party surge took votes and seats off Labour, talks are also under way over Progressive Alliance administrations. In Oxfordshire, Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors have formed a Fair Deal Alliance to run the county. In a joint statement their leaders professed “a shared vision that is underpinned by the principles shared across our manifestos, with climate change and the environment at their heart”. Cambridge County Council has followed suit.

In Burnley, where Labour lost one seat to the Tories and two to the Greens, the council, which was previously under no overall control, is likely to be run by a Lib-Lab coalition.

In Labour’s highest echelons, the stiff upper lip of party tribalism still rules, just as it did under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. Faced with parallel demographic desertions – of young urban progressives to the Greens and elderly conservatives to the Tories – Labour stoically maintained that all it had to do was find a credible leader and some non-scary policies, and those voters would come back.

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The psychological blow of the local elections was, therefore, profound. Yes, Andy Burnham, by playing to a kind of “Manc nationalism”, achieved a landslide. Yes, the socialist-led Labour councils in Salford and Preston strengthened their grip through a mixture of radicalism and competence. And yes, Labour advanced slightly in Wales.

But the bigger story is the fragmentation of Labour’s tribal alliance along the lines of culture, values and identity – and the advance of working-class Conservatism in the ex-industrial and coastal English towns. Even in Manchester, at a ward level, Burnham went backwards in the Tory-voting parts of Leigh and Wigan.

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Labourism has no answers to this because it has no theory of its own existence. A party set up to represent all workers, by taking the trade union agenda into parliament, has been disoriented by the emergence of new forms of exploitation beyond work, new forms of resistance, and the fragmentary identities created by an information society.

The tactical answer was always “one more heave”: first through the social democratic technocracy of Ed Miliband, then the radical socialism of Jeremy Corbyn, and now through Keir Starmer, who pitched his project as a synergy of its two predecessors. For almost ten years, this has meant Labour HQ trying to mount a “get out the vote” operation for a vote that is not really there.

Last June I wrote that there are only two routes to power for Labour: to redesign itself as an umbrella party that can incorporate all its fragments, mediating their cultural rivalries through a radical programme of redistribution and investment; or to embrace a Progressive Alliance.

A year on, it’s clear that the party-as-umbrella option isn’t working. First, because two factions most loyal to Labourism – the old right and the socialist left – care more about fighting each other than nurturing an alliance. Leave aside the blame game, the result has been a shadow cabinet devoid of left voices and figures, a smaller and less enthusiastic membership and – worst of all – policy paralysis.

The former shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, who is now leading Labour’s policy review, at least has a clean sheet from which to start after Starmer effectively disowned the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. But policy alone – though important – won’t change Labour’s predicament.

The Tories are threatening to become hegemonic first because the pandemic gives the government a paternalistic boost: the presence of the prime minister in your living room is bound to solidify whoever is in power. The SNP and Welsh Labour have also benefited from an incumbency effect. 

Second, because under Boris Johnson the Conservatives have moderated austerity. They have begun to promise money and deliver it, aided by a Treasury prepared to borrow more in a year (£303bn) than Labour promised across five years.

This is a different enemy, prepared to politicise and privatise the executive to the extent that, whoever has a majority in parliament, Britain is becoming a one-party state of Tory placemen, from the national security adviser to the BBC board. The new Toryism is xenophobic and prepared to use taxpayers’ money to buy votes. “Same old Tories”, the pre-briefed line used two weeks ago by Labour candidates, does not reflect this. 

But this goes to the heart of the party’s problem. When Dominic Cummings was appointed to Downing Street there was much amusement at the concept of the OODA loop, a decision-making strategy adopted from the US military. But an OODA loop is what Labour lacks: it can’t observe, orient, decide or act at a pace sufficient to defeat its enemies.

If it did, it would recognise that Tory advances happen when the progressive majority is disunited and it would orient towards the danger: one-party rule and a corrupt state in England while the UK fragments. Labour must now decide on its policy offer and seek to unite rival cultural constituencies. 

First, we need a cross-party secretariat to host negotiations between local council groups. Around this could be built formal electoral alliances for the snap general election Johnson might call as early as 2022.

Second, Labour needs a united shadow cabinet, including the left as well as the right, and positive engagement with the party membership. 

Third, it needs a machine that goes beyond “get out the vote”. Labour activists have to be taught how to persuade voters and build alliances.

Fourth, it needs a clear and simple policy offer, modelled on Joe Biden’s economic stimulus, which means a commitment to borrowing and spending around £200bn.

Fifth it needs an urgent rule change to stop Labour HQ obstructing or disciplining those who try to form electoral alliances at grassroots level.

The fact is the Conservatives’ offer of imperial nostalgia, corruption and inaction on climate change is at odds with majority opinion in the UK; there is a progressive majority trapped inside a system in desperate need of reform.

Labour’s inner circle is still gripped with uncertainty: what’s Keir’s strategy? Is Mandy really in charge? How much power does Angie have? My advice is to take a deep breath and say something that’s heretical within Labourism: we can no longer govern alone. To save Britain from the fate of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary we need to construct a governmental alliance. The Progressive Alliance councils – as much through force majeure as insight – are showing the way.