Neal Lawson: Labour’s polling woes show why we need to do a deal with rival parties

Neal Lawson


It doesn’t matter how much you wish it away, or ignore it, that damned Progressive Alliance idea keeps popping up. I wonder why?  This time it’s the turn of that mainstream rock of Labour moderation the Fabian Society that have flipped over some people’s bad penny and everyone else’s no-brainer of a political strategy.  

In the Fabian’s Stuck, their report that is more sobering than a dry January, Labour’s plight is laid out for all for all to see. More sinking than stuck, they predict there could be a wipe out to less than 150 seats in 2020, just when Labour, because of the bias of the electoral system against us, has to win by 12.5 per cent just to have a majority of one. That’s three million more votes than the Tories. The latest poll puts Labour on 24 per cent when a party of opposition should be polling around 40 per cent now. To put it in perspective Labour has to win Basingstoke to form a government. Here is a clue as to the likelihood, Labour has never ever won Basingstoke.  The rise of the SNP, a clearly pro-Europe Liberal Democrat Party and clearly pro-Brexit Tories and UKIP mean Labour is suffering from a three-pronged electoral assault it shows no signs of knowing how to deal with.

Baring a miracle, Labour cannot win the next electing on its own. This isn’t all Jeremy Corbyn’s fault. Labour has been struggling for political dominance since the 1970s.  The New Labour years were a sugar rush of an electoral uptick that we are still paying for now. But across the globe there is a long-term structural decline of every social democratic party everywhere. Corbyn didn’t do enough on Europe and appears incapable of building the cultural and policy foundations for Labour’s renewal. But then who does? Funnily enough, maybe neither Blairism nor Bennism, the politics of 1997 and 1977 in 2017?

A progressive alliance allows us to compete again electorally.  It unites progressive voters and can devastate the Tories, as it did in 1997 when a  below the radar alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats delivered huge progressive majorities. But winning on some centre ground fudge, while better than losing to the Tories, isn’t good enough if the planet still burns and the poor get poorer.

The reason I back a progressive alliance isn’t for electoral expediency but because I want to a live in a socialist, liberal and green country. Such a country can only be created by socialists, liberals and greens working together – along with every other organisation, group and voter who wants society we can all be proud of. Such a society cannot be imposed, it can only  be negotiated.

And through that negotiation at a local and national level, we can forge a new robust political culture that the Tories can never unpick. In an increasingly complex and networked society we are going to have to learn the art of building alliance for change in a rich ecology of parties and movements. The idea that only one party has a monopoly of wisdom has gone for good.  Through such an alliance we can smash open the political system, devolve power and introduce proportional representation, and so ensure that because everyone’s vote count, everything becomes possible. The tyranny of the swing voters, and the hold on them of May, the Daily Mail and Murdoch will be over for good. Once the spell is broken then the politics of real choices can then start again.

But Labour’s tribalists, including its leader it seems, simply cannot stand the idea of working with others. The Lib Dems and the SNP get the most hate. Because we are so much better than the Lib Dems, are we not? We introduced tuition fees and they doubled them. We started illegal wars and they started the bedroom tax. We focus on the 10 per cent we disagree on and forget the 90 per cent of times when we walk through the same lobbies. And the Tories smile their smile. Just as they did in 2010 when Labour left the Lib Dem at the altar in 2010, preferring opposition to a deal and then cried betrayal and pointed our self-righteous fingers at them. The lurch to right means we have to forgive each other. And as for the SNP, their electoral dominance means we have no choice but to call their bluff of how progressive they are.

Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas are not our enemies – the Tories and wretched neo-liberal economics, that the sucks the life out of our people and our planet, are our enemies.

Labour has to get with the alliance building culture of the 21st century or get out of the way. We will now never transform our country without working with others. Pluralism makes us stronger, not weaker. Yes we can be proud of being Labour, but closed tribes always die. It is the open tribe that adapts and thrives.

Over the holiday I slumped in front of the telly and watched the 1970s classic Jaws. One phrase jumped out as the ship’s captain and the police chief  pursued their mighty foe – the were going to need a “bigger boat”.  That’s what progressives need now – a bigger boat of parties and movements that wantsa progressive Britain – not the narcissism of small differences.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass and will be speaking about the progressive alliance at the Fabian Society new year Conference  on January 14.

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