Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and the Green party. At first glance it seems obvious, inevitable even. The classic trope of a mutually destructive, symbiotic relationship between friends that agree on so much, but always end up falling out over the little things. And, just like Hollywood, in the end they put aside their differences for the sake of a radical agenda of social justice, a united left and a convincing front from which to battle Tory hegemony.
Yet, if you asked political figures as diverse as Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair, Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill, they would all agree with that purveyor of wise words, Cosmopolitan: “pulling off a friends with benefits arrangement might be trickier than you think”.
After all, the idea of electoral pacts between parties has actually been touted more often in Britain than folk memory may suggest. The Liberal party and the burgeoning Labour party combined in the elections of 1906 and 1910 to great effect. In 1950 Churchill suggested that the Liberal party, a rump of nine MPs – one stronger than their eight today – join forces to defeat Clement Attlee’s Labour. The SDP/Liberal Alliance of the 80s was at first standoffish, awkward, and self-consciously distant before electoral failure precipitated a merger, and the creation of the Liberal Democrats.
Ashdown and Blair’s flirtation with the creation of a Progressive Alliance was, as Andrew Rawnsley puts it: “like an old fashioned romance between two would-be lovers. It was up to Blair to propose, he didn’t”.
Three clear threads run throughout the history of political co-operation in Britain that cast doubt on the possibility Corbyn and the Greens can breach the broad trend.
Firstly, it is not policies but views of politics that decide if co-operation can work. Corbyn romanticism isn’t grounded in pluralism – notably absent from his offer to the Labour party, undeniably expansive and fearless in many other respects, was any engagement with electoral or constitutional change. Corbyn’s noises about supporting reform, if it maintains the link between MP and constituency, fly in the face of his support for the No2AV campaign in 2011. The “doctrine and ethos” of parliamentary socialism has often been intertwined with the swinging pendulum of two-party politics, rather than the muddy compromise associated with social democracy and its European cousins.
John Prescott, unfairly or otherwise seen as an emblem of the old left at the heart of the New Labour project, acquiesced on changing Clause IV. But, he gave whole-hearted opposition to a deal with Ashdown’s Lib Dems in New Labour’s early years and warned “the day that man walks through the door is the day that I walk out of it”.
It’s not just Natalie Bennett who remains perplexed and frustrated by Corbyn’s intransigence. Undoubtedly Corbyn’s favourite Miliband, Ralph, was by the end of his life in favour of changing First Past the Post for the better. However, the elder Miliband felt the essential condition for the electoral systems continued was that ‘Labour, as the alternative party, should remain an essentially ‘moderate’ party, whose activists should remain under the firm control of its ‘moderate’ leaders’. If Corbyn views electoral reform as a key test of a radical agenda, perhaps this may change.
But secondly, even if Corbyn were to rethink he would need to persuade those who he’s placed at the heart of his project, the “soft right” who are in many senses more tribal than the hard left of the Labour movement. If loyalty is your cornerstone, short-term dalliances don’t hold much appeal.
Tom Watson’s call for the head of Nick Clegg, in the face of sophisticated micro-targeting operations that suggested operations were better placed elsewhere, is emblematic of a Labour party that sometime struggles to see the woods for the trees. The symbolism trumped the politics; centre-left voters that had flirted with Clegg now needed to return home. Jonathan Ashworth, another key figure at the heart of the party in all senses, has been keen to remind people that the Lib Dems have no role in any leftwing alliance.
Similarly, senior Green activists were non-too-surprised that Labour missed the open goal of regaining Brighton Kemptown in May. The 690 votes they needed were far more likely to be won if they’d focused their coachloads of volunteers there, rather than directing swathes to Lucas’ Pavilion seat.
Thirdly, this unprecedented political summer has meant the political tides are as hard to read as ever. And if Corbyn fails, it will be the soft right faction that picks up the pieces. While the benefits for the Green party right now are clear, the potentially ephemeral nature of Corbyn’s leadership means any strategic reading of party competition is still compromised. The danger of being gobbled up by larger competitors has always haunted smaller parties, and it is unclear if the gains currently outweigh the risk.
Better, perhaps, for the bitter acrimony of the Labour family to erupt, then to pick up the scraps. Because, while the promise of electoral gratification without the strings attachment is hard to resist, “eventually, one of you will become too attached or get hurt”.