There has been much talk in the last year about a “progressive alliance” to provide effective opposition and alternative to the Conservative government. The Brexit process has made such co-operation more urgent.
There has been a lot of social media chatter and well-intentioned speeches at public meetings from leading Labour figures, Caroline Lucas of the Greens and myself and other Lib Dems. But so far the discussion has been theoretical and abstract.
There is now an opportunity to make such co-operation real. In the Richmond by-election on Thursday, a nominal independent, Zac Goldsmith, is defending his seat supported by the Tories and Ukip, which has withdrawn from the contest. The Lib Dems’ Sarah Olney can win the seat on a platform of opposition to the “hard Brexit” where the Tory government seems to be heading, and which, as a Brexiteer, Goldsmith supports. It will also show resistance to imminent plans for NHS cuts which will put pressure on services at local district hospital, Kingston.
Goldsmith precipitated the by-election, resigning over the Tory government decision to proceed with Heathrow expansion. On this particular policy there is no disagreement between the candidates. My party has long argued against further airport expansion in the South East on environmental and economic grounds. The Greens have a similar position. The local Labour party similarly. Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s support for Gatwick reflects a possible compromise which I and my Lib Dem colleagues in the Coalition government also agreed to consider when David Cameron and George Osborne pushed exclusively for Heathrow in the Davies review of airport capacity.
It is clear, however, that whilst Heathrow is an important issue for local residents, there is greater and more immediate concern over Brexit. In the referendum, 70 per cent of local residents opposed it. The confusion and in-fighting in government adds to the sense that there could be a very messy, unsatisfactory, outcome with Britain’s participation in the single market, the customs union, collaborative research and shared high standards for the environment all at risk.
There is an emerging front of opposition in parliament. Keir Starmer for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP are in a very similar place. Were the pro-Brexit candidate to be defeated in this election it would reinforce, powerfully, the growing resistance to a “hard Brexit”.
Another theme emerging strongly in the by-election is the sense of alarm that a popular, well-run, local hospital is being impacted by NHS financial pressures. Kingston hospital, like many others, is full of frail, elderly, patients – many with dementia – who cannot leave because of the crisis in local social care provision. The way in which the Conservative government, and the local Conservative MPs have allowed this situation to develop is, rightly, a leading issue in the by-election.
It is striking that the political right has been disciplined enough to rally behind Goldsmith. They clearly understand the potential political significance of his losing. The progressive opposition has been less united. No doubt tribal tradition and raw emotions from the Coalition years play a part. But to the great credit of the Greens, they have stood aside to offer support to Sarah Olney who they know can win when they cannot.
Several leading Labour figures urged their party to do the same, but the advice was not heeded. Individual Labour supporters can however make a difference. Tactical voting played a big part in getting a Labour government, and Lib Dem MPs, elected in 1997 and after. In the current, dangerous, state of British politics such self-discipline is needed again.