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29 November 2021

Keir Starmer must face reality: only a progressive alliance can defeat the Tories

It is time for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to put the country ahead of narrow party interests and work together.

By Martin Fletcher

The tragic drownings of asylum seekers in the Channel. Boris Johnson’s bust-up with Emmanuel Macron. The sleaze scandal triggered by the Prime Minister’s efforts to save Owen Paterson. His excruciating “Peppa Pig” speech to the Confederation of British Industry. The Great Railway Betrayal. A social care plan that helps the rich and clobbers the poor. Fresh Covid restrictions. A rift with the Chancellor. Even by the standards of this inept and dishonest government, November has been a dreadful month.

In these circumstances – indeed, in any circumstances – it is hardly surprising that a by-election for a seat on Godalming town council in Surrey passed unnoticed. It was not entirely insignificant, though. The Green Party candidate, Clare Weightman, beat the Conservative, Liz Wheatley, by 491 votes to 309 after the local Labour and Liberal Democrat parties did not contest the election.

By uniting behind single agreed candidates, that same “progressive alliance” has cut the Tories’ representation on Godalming council from all 20 seats before the 2019 local elections to just three now. It has cut the Tories’ representation on Waverley’s 57-seat borough council, which includes Godalming, from 50 before those 2019 elections to just 22 now. And it has slashed Jeremy Hunt’s Conservative majority in South West Surrey, the area’s parliamentary constituency, from 28,556 in 2015 to a mere 8,817 in 2019.

“Voters seem not only to relish the chance to unite behind a single anti-Tory candidate, but are delighted to see the progressive parties working together,” said Steve Williams, founder of the local branch of Compass, a group that campaigns for electoral reform and progressive collaboration. 

To be fair, Hunt is no fan of the Prime Minister, but the message is clear. Even in the true blue heartland of commuter-belt Surrey, voters hate what the Conservative Party has become under Johnson, and at national level some sort of electoral pact between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens could well defeat it at the next general election. Indeed, it seems blindingly obvious that such a pact is Labour’s only plausible route back to power under our first-past-the-post electoral system.

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To secure a majority of just one, Keir Starmer’s party needs to win 125 additional seats – an almost impossible task given its collapse in Scotland and the way its vote is concentrated in cities and university towns. Analysis suggests it would fall short even if it secured the 43.6 per cent share of the vote that the Tories won at the 2019 general election, and it is nowhere near that level of support.

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Despite all the economic, social and political destruction that Johnson’s government has inflicted on this country, Labour has reached 40 or 41 per cent in just four of the over 200 opinion polls conducted by reputable companies this year, and has led the Tories in just 13. The rest of the time it has been largely mired in the mid to high-30s.

Starmer has sharpened his attacks on Johnson in recent weeks, but the inescapable truth is that our larger-than-life Prime Minister completely eclipses him, and dominates the political narrative even when things are going as badly as they have this month. 

Who took any notice of the commendably serious speech that Starmer delivered to the CBI just hours after Johnson’s “Peppa Pig” travesty? How many voters know what Labour’s policies are on social care or asylum seekers? How many could name more than two or three members of the shadow cabinet (hence the 29 November reshuffle)?

[See also: Keir Starmer begins a reshuffle – and picks a fight]

Starmer is a decent and honest man, and has done much to rebuild the party after the dark days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but he has failed to expound a political vision that is remotely capable of uniting Labour’s two disparate constituencies – socially conservative blue-collar workers and liberal-minded city professionals.

He has failed to give Labour the sort of momentum that it enjoyed in the last days of John Major’s government in the mid-1990s. He has failed to offer a compelling alternative to the Conservatives as Tony Blair did then. He has none of Blair’s charisma, and no coterie of heavyweights such as Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell behind him.

Starmer is not stupid. He reads the polls. He sees how deeply the progressive vote is divided. He knows that Johnson, though useless at governing, is a brilliant campaigner who could easily win a second term with barely 40 per cent of the vote. He must realise that Labour is heading for a fifth consecutive election defeat.

He must know too that these are no ordinary times, and this is no ordinary Tory government. It is an extreme regime that has inflicted great damage on the UK’s economy, social cohesion and global standing, and the country simply cannot afford four or five more years of it. A clear majority of voters, including millions of moderate Conservatives, oppose it, and would almost certainly be willing to temporarily set aside their traditional party loyalties to remove it.

It is time for Starmer (and the Lib Dems’ Ed Davey) to accept reality and put the country ahead of narrow party interests. He should do what right-wing parties did in 2017 and 2019. For this election only, he should explore some sort of electoral deal or non-aggression pact with the other opposition parties whereby anti-Johnson voters in marginal Red Wall seats can unite behind Labour candidates, and those in marginal southern Blue Wall seats can unite behind Lib Dem or Green Party candidates. There are few constituencies in which it is not obvious which progressive party is the main challenger to the Tories.

Research released by the pressure group Best for Britain on 28 November suggested that if the three parties fielded “unity candidates” in just 154 battleground constituencies in England at the next election, the Tories would fall about 40 seats short of an overall majority and be unable to form a government. Labour would gain 69 seats and the Lib Dems 22.

Opponents of progressive alliances argue that people would resent being told how to vote and having their choice restricted, and that they would recoil from the idea of coalition government. The evidence from South West Surrey suggests otherwise. Right now they would seize the chance to oust Johnson and his cronies, and reward politicians who promise collaboration in place of tribalism.

[See also: Tory MPs would be over £1m worse off in six months with Boris Johnson’s second job ban]

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