Only a progressive alliance can stop the march of the right

British politics faces a grim future, warns Neal Lawson, but it doesn't have to. 

NS

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In the early hours of 8 May 2020 came the gut wrenching realization that British politics could and had got a whole lot worse. 

The reasons were deep and abiding, but every commentator traced it back to one defining moment, the victory of Paul Nuttall, the leader of Ukip, in the Stoke Central by–election on 23 February 2017. It was from that unexpected and undeserved victory that things really fell apart for progressive.  Jeremy Corbyn’s effective leadership of Labour was over but the enormous shift in the mood and makeup of the party meant he would stay in place.  Come 2020, Labour was reduced to a rump of 140 seats, losing out to the Tories who now had a majority of over 100.  Ukip, with the help of Arron Banks ‘people’s movement’ formed in the wake of the Stoke by-election, won 20 seats from Labour and were now established in Westminster. The SNP came out on top in Scotland but lost ground to the Scottish Tories – the only party of the union that could win seats North of the border.  The Liberal Democrats came back from the brink from eight seats to 20 – but that’s as a good as it got for them. No one needed them for a coalition.  And the Greens clung on to their one seat in Brighton but that was it. Britain’s’ lurch to the right would continue and the break up the United Kingdom felt more likely than ever.

Now of course Paul Nuttall might not win in Stoke.  He is currently 4/5 with Labour on evens.  But progressive parties are playing with fire and the countries future. By standing and competing against each other, the danger is that Nuttall wins – especially given the Tories have taken their troops and resources to Copeland, leaving the way clear in Stoke for Ukip. They understand the power of a regressive alliance.

How did it come to this? Let’s take each progressive party’s role in this in turn.

The Green Party carries some but least blame.  They are standing a candidate and could poll a few hundred votes.  They are currently 200/1 to win. What happens if Nuttall wins by their vote share?  The fact they are standing against a worse candidate than Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park when they heroically stood aside makes no sense at all.  This is the leader of UKIP after all. Of course the Greens are in a difficult place. The only seat they can make a claim to win against the right is the Isle of Wight.  In every other close contest they must stand aside to defeat the right and introduce proportional representation. At ever chance they must embarrass the other parties and show true leadership – as tough as that is. After all they got and deserved huge plaudits for Richmond Park.    Some in the Green Party don’t like this, but them must get behind Caroline Lucas and back the progressive alliance at every turn.

Then we come to the Liberal Democrats.  They are 33/1 to win in Stoke.  They wont win.  But they really can stop Labour winning.  Their leaflets are attacking Labour and are helping to polarise the 48 per cent from the 52 per cent. You can see the short-term electoral benefit of this but they are not building bridges but walls.    They are running an opportunistic campaign to demonstrate their post Brexit revival with no thought to what happens if Nuttall wins. After they benefited from the generosity of the Greens in Richmond Park, you would have thought they might at least think twice.   They want proportional representation, under which you have to negotiate with others, but don’t, it seems, want to negotiate or talk to anyone now. Like the Greens they need to think long term to shift the country to their social and liberal values.

And then there is Labour, a party that needs every progressive vote it can get in Stoke. But they stood in Richmond Park, where they got less votes than they have members and played with fire with Goldsmith. Why should either the Liberal Democrats or the Greens do them any favours when the Labour leadership reject any notion of a progressive alliance at every opportunity?   

There are good people in every progressive party who know it will take a progressive alliance to beat the regressive alliance forming before our eyes. In Richmond Park Labour polled less votes than it had members. It means that Party members knew what the right thing to do was.  Let’s hope the progressive voters of Stoke are ahead of their so-called leaders too. If they won’t be brave and show the way, then civil society and voters will have to do it for them.   In that case, just how fit for purpose are our political parties now?

It’s not too late. Stop kicking lumps out of each other and train your fire on the real enemy.  In the process you might find out that what unites you is more important than what you perceive divides you. A progressive alliance is needed across the country to stop the lurch to the right – but never has it been more important than in Stoke against Ukip in little more than two weeks’ time.  

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.