New Times,
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  1. Election 2024
3 July 2015

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. 

By 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.

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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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