by Trevor Fisher
The Richmond by-election on November 30th was a welcome victory despite the poor Labour showing. In Richmond I would have voted Lib Dem, to defeat a Tory-UKIP backed candidate. Tim Farron claimed the Lib Dems are back, but there are a string of Liberal by election victories back to Orpington (1962) which proved false. Richmond does however put support for the Compass advocated progressive alliance strategy back on the agenda. Labour ignores this at its peril though beyond by-elections the strategy is questionable.
Richmond demonstrates that Brexit now dominates UK politics. Given that Richmond was heavily for Remain, and the allegedly independent Zac Goldsmith was Brexit, he was headed for a fall.
However there are seats in which the electorate are heavily pro Brexit, and there UKIP may do well. Labour is vulnerable, UKIP being second in 41 Labour seats. It is as possible that a UKIP surge can happen in Labour heartlands, and also in Tory seats where a hard Brexit appeal may grow as the failure of May to deliver has an impact. The longer the negotiations take the more political culture will be poisoned.
Labour failed to have by-election strategy in Richmond, linked to its lack of clarity over Brexit.
Corbyn’s strategy of not opposing Brexit but calling for scrutiny of a deal is too close to Blairite triangulation for comfort. Owen Smith’s call for a second referendum is principled, but the challenge of a second referendum would be considerable. However it is less risky than an election which could devastate Labour for years to come.
While May is unlikely to call a general election immediately, a parliamentary blocking approach can trigger an election rather than a second referendum. If this were to happen the Progressive Alliance needs to be scrutinised. As a by-election tactic it is relevant. But a general election is a different matter.
The weakest link is the Lib Dem party. They can be supported in opposing Brexit, but it is hard to see how the Lib Dems can be seen as progressive or centre left. In my understanding they have not repudiated the Orange book liberalism which took them into government. For five years they backed austerity and acted so firmly as outriders for Cameron and Osborne that the electors rightly could not see any difference and voted for real Tories in 2015.
What evidence is there that the Lib Dems have changed and reject the politics of the coalition?
On Brexit, socialists opposed to Brexit can work with and support Lib Dems. But that is very different to saying there should be a electoral alliance with them. Tim Farron seems different from the terrible Nick Clegg. But what apart from Brexit makes his party different from their former Conservative allies? And is Labour going to stand down in seats like Richmond where the Liberals are second? Or the Liberals stand down where Labour was second in 2015?
Similar questions arise over joint policies and working arrangements occur with Plaid, the Greens and most notably the SNP.
Labour has been wiped out in Scotland as the SNP has taken their clothes, and there is a Tory comeback happening under a personable Tory leader. So one could argue that to keep the Tories out, the left should back the SNP.
But fundamentally Labour and the left cannot either trust the SNP especially on austerity, or endorse nationalism. Labour can never advocate voting SNP to keep the Tories out, unless they abandon Scotland to the Nationalists. And the SNP having taken seats from Labour are unlikely to hand them back – particularly as the Labour vote is collapsing and one poll gave it 16% of the Scottish vote in November.
However, Labour loyalists need to understand the key argument for a progressive alliance as a by-election tactic.
The party became widely unpopular and distrusted under New Labour, and it is not only Brexit that makes it unlikely to win a majority in a general election called up to 2020 – the lack of youth voters and impending boundary changes show this. No party has ever won a parliamentary majority with such a poor performance over so long.
The best course to follow to regain credibility is not to enter into negotiations on alliances, but to work jointly on common projects where they exist.
Brexit is the key project, where a Brexit-lite Tory party moves toward hard Brexit to appease John Major’s ‘Bastards’. The call by Owen Smith for a second referendum will gain resonance as the Tory contradictions emerge – David Davis arguing for payment to Brussels for access to Europe, an indication of what will happen as the clash between hard and soft Brexit develops within the government. On specific issues such as this the Labour and other parties can do much to work together to combat the Ukip-Tory bandwagon. On that limited basis, a progressive Alliance might work.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007