Last Friday Boris Johnson visited the Tiverton and Honiton constituency in Devon, scene of a high-stakes by-election on Thursday 23 June – but only for tea on a farm. Having been booed at the Royal Cornwall Show earlier in the day, and at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations the previous weekend, it seems the Prime Minister did not dare to appear on the main streets of those two towns. “He’s hiding away from people and I think that says it all,” Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, said gleefully.
The Lib Dems have high hopes of overturning the Conservatives’ 24,000 majority in Tiverton and Honiton, a farming constituency that the Tories have held since its creation in 1997. That would add to their spectacular by-election victories in North Shropshire, where they overturned a Tory majority of 23,000 last December, and Chesham and Amersham, where they overturned a Tory majority of 16,000 last June.
Polls also suggest that Labour will regain Wakefield on the same day – a northern “Red Wall” constituency that it lost to the Conservatives, for the first time in nearly 90 years, in the 2019 general election.
Two more by-election routs for the Tories would certainly strengthen the hand of those rebel Conservative MPs who argue that Johnson has become an electoral liability and must be ousted, but it seems unlikely that the defeats by themselves would be sufficiently damaging to topple a Prime Minister who is determined to cling to power at all costs.
His allies would argue that modern British political history is full of examples of ruling parties suffering dramatic by-election defeats, only to win the subsequent general elections, and that voters can use by-elections to register unhappiness without fear of changing governments.
The greater damage may prove to be this: as in the Amersham and North Shropshire by-elections, Lib Dem and Labour victories in Tiverton and Wakefield would surely make the value of a de facto non-aggression pact between those two parties at the next general election blindingly obvious.
In each of those four by-elections, and to a lesser extent in last July’s Batley and Spen by-election, the two progressive parties appear tacitly to have agreed not to fight each other. That has allowed the huge and swelling anti-Johnson vote – a vote that includes many traditional Conservative voters who detest the man – to unite to great effect behind a single candidate.
Thus, although there is an official Labour candidate in Tiverton, neither Keir Starmer nor a single member of his shadow cabinet has visited the constituency. Conversely, Davey and his troops have steered well clear of Wakefield, even though there’s a nominal Lib Dem candidate standing. There is even a website permitting Labour supporters in Tiverton to “swap” their votes with Lib Dem voters in Wakefield.
A similar pact on a national scale is imperative if the most destructive, divisive and dishonest government in living memory is to be defeated at the next general election – a consideration that should trump any narrow partisan interests.
The bald truth is that despite “partygate”, despite Brexit, despite the cost-of-living crisis, the highest tax burden since the 1940s and the steepest fall in living standards since records began, it remains entirely possible that the Conservatives under Johnson could win a fifth consecutive term with barely 35 per cent of the vote at the next election.
According to a recent Observer poll, Labour is just two points ahead of the Tories (although the New Statesman’s own analysis suggests a larger lead for Labour), but to win an outright majority it needs to gain more than 120 seats – a gain only exceeded in the postwar era by Clement Attlee in 1945 and Tony Blair in 1997.
It needs to do so, moreover, under Starmer’s uninspiring leadership, having lost to the SNP all but one of the 41 seats it once held in Scotland and at a time when the anti-Tory vote is deeply divided between Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the rising Greens.
The shape of an electoral deal or non-aggression pact, formal or informal, spoken or unspoken, is obvious, and the groundwork needs to start immediately.
Labour would give the Lib Dems a clear run in the 80-odd seats where they came second to the Tories in 2019, and the Lib Dems would effectively stand aside for Labour in the rest. “It’s incredibly easy,” says Neal Lawson of Compass, which campaigns for a more democratic society.
No deal would be necessary in Scotland, where the SNP holds most seats. The Greens could perhaps be given a clear run in three or four of their most promising seats, or offered a cabinet position for Caroline Lucas in a coalition government.
Critics say electoral pacts don’t work, and that voters resent being told who to vote for, but that does not necessarily apply under this widely hated government. The evidence of recent by-elections, and of May’s local elections where Labour and Lib Dem activists struck informal electoral pacts at grassroots level, suggest voters welcome the chance to unite behind single candidates to defeat Johnson’s Tories.
The idea of a progressive pact clearly terrifies the Conservatives. They and their tame pundits in the media are accusing Labour and the Lib Dems of reaching a “grubby backroom deal” in Tiverton. They say a national pact would be a “fix” and deny voters a proper democratic choice – conveniently forgetting that the Brexit Party agreed not to field candidates in any of the 317 Tory-held seats in 2019. They say it would lead to a “coalition of chaos”, but that is not true either.
Labour and the Lib Dems agree on much more than divides them. It should not be too difficult for them to agree – post-election – a broad programme of government focused on fairer taxation, better services, tackling climate change, improved relations with the EU and higher standards in public life. “It’s 80 per cent of what you do want or 100 per cent of what you don’t,” says Lawson, who points out that European parties entering coalition governments routinely reach such agreements.
The big obstacles, of course, are Labour and Lib Dem tribalism, and the Lib Dems’ demand for proportional representation, but if ever there was a time for far-sighted, enlightened leadership, for putting country ahead of party, it is now.
Starmer has to realise that the present first-past-the-post electoral system has done Labour no favours. It has played into the Tories’ hands, enabling them to govern for all but 28 of the 77 years since the Second World War because the progressive vote has been split. They have won the last four elections, since 2010, with just 36.1, 36.8, 42.3 and 43.6 per cent of the vote.
He must also realise that while proportional representation would inevitably lead to coalition governments, and make it very hard for Labour ever to form a majority government again, it would also make a repeat of the nightmare of the last six years impossible. Never again could a small but highly disciplined group of zealots hijack a ruling party elected by a minority of voters, and then impose on the nation a constitutional change as vast and disastrous as Brexit.
[See also: Jeremy Hunt: Tory saviour or “Theresa May in trousers”?]