A big lesson from Brexit is that while change is inevitable, there is nothing inevitable about positive change.
With this in mind, the Green Party of England and Wales has sent an open letter [full text here] urging the respective leaders of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru to explore the possibilities for a progressive alliance. The appeal spells out the magnitude of the task ahead: resisting austerity and preventing the potential unravelling of environmental protection and employment and human rights legislations by a Tory-led government. The letter then goes on to identify key concrete steps.
First, there has to be an early General Election. The case for an election is mounting on a daily basis, it seems. When I began thinking about this post, the Tories were in the process of electing a successor to David Cameron. A couple of days later Theresa May became Prime Minister, by default. The glaring problem here is one of legitimacy. Flawed though our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is, it was Cameron who won the 2015 election and obtained the mandate to govern. Even if that mandate technically remains in place (the PM isn’t directly elected and therefore the mandate isn’t a personal one), there is still the problem of a perceived lack of legitimacy. Take, for example, Gordon Brown during his term as PM. He was weakened by the fact that he had never gone to the country and won an election. Over the coming months, the Prime Minister will lead a bitterly divided UK out of the EU. Only a mandate from the electorate can lend the legitimacy needed to tackle this formidable and unprecedented task.
Second, the open letter calls for a fair electoral system. In other words, a system of proportional representation (PR) — something that Labour urgently needs to embrace. Our winner-takes-all system is outdated; it is a relic from the Tory-Labour-dominated two party system and constitutes an unfair barrier to the increasingly popular smaller parties. What’s more, it stifles political pluralism. At constituency level, elections are often about one party, maybe two. Back in my home constituency, some parties never knock on the door or even drop a leaflet through the letterbox; yet presumably they want people’s votes. If parties don’t make the effort to talk (or only take an apparent interest a week before an election), and if the winner is often a foregone conclusion anyway, then is it any surprise if people don’t vote?
Proportional representation would go some way to fixing that. The balance of power more accurately reflects voting choices, including support for smaller parties (although minimum thresholds often apply), so votes aren’t ‘wasted’. Of course, it won’t be just progressive parties that benefit from this fairer system. Germany has a system of PR and, in elections this year, the new far-right AfD became the second largest party in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt, while the Social Democratic SPD (traditionally a mass party) barely made it into double percentage figures. In the UK, we know that UKIP would be a major beneficiary of PR. But that’s not a reason to avoid PR; it’s just a very good reason to redouble efforts and beat UKIP by fair and democratic means.
Nor is PR a panacea for the terrible disconnect that has taken place between parties and people. Here’s another example from Germany: last year’s regional elections in the city-state of Bremen (a traditional Green stronghold and the focus of my PhD research) delivered some sobering results. A stark demonstration of the relationship between participation levels and socio-economic factors, turnout in the wealthiest neighbourhoods reached around 70 per cent or more; in the poorest areas it fell way below 40 per cent. Consequently, the elected parliament was not socially representative. And that has serious implications for democratic legitimacy.
So while a fair electoral system is indispensable, that alone isn’t enough. There’s still the need for active engagement with (and of) citizens. This, as the Brexit referendum has shown, is a real crisis in the UK. Part of the problem is that if parties abandon their core constituencies — as many social democratic parties have done — to compete for the centre ground, then, having effectively written off those voters, they no longer need to make policies for them. The result? A huge representation gap. Elements within the parliamentary Labour Party may believe that leadership style trumps policies, but I suspect that many people are less impressed by who ‘wins’ PMQs and more concerned with questions closer to home: what will you do to make life better for my family and my community? What kind of future do we face? Only real, concrete and often local policies can confront these questions*.
Which brings us back to the Greens’ appeal to party leaders: to build a progressive alliance that opposes the Tories and takes a strong stand against austerity and the threat of post-Brexit dismantling of hard-won rights and safeguards. One way of doing this is to make electoral pacts; for example, by not opposing a candidate from another progressive party, on the condition that there are common policies and principles. Green MP Caroline Lucas has suggested that progressive candidates might also be selected in open local primaries. So the public could choose from different parties’ nominations to agree the best candidate (without having to pay £25 for the privilege!).
Admittedly, I’ve always been uncomfortable with electoral pacts because they can narrow the range of policies on offer. In a recent election, the Tory majority in my home constituency was squeezed, but despite intensive campaigning, the local Labour Party couldn’t unseat the Conservatives. Should the Greens have stood aside? Some Labour supporters certainly thought so. But the idea that, in the absence of a rival candidate, votes would automatically pass to Labour strikes me as presumptuous to say the least. Labour doesn’t have proprietorship over the non-Tory vote. It isn’t enough to be ‘anti-Tory’ — what am I actually voting for? Again, it’s about policies.
But now the UK is at a real crossroads. In fact it’s not hyperbole to describe it as a crisis: political, social, economic and constitutional. What’s more, realistically, electoral reform won’t happen overnight, especially under a Conservative government. In the meantime, climate change won’t politely wait for us to sort ourselves out. And so I firmly believe a progressive alliance is absolutely necessary.
At the time of writing, it is unclear whether reactionary forces within the Labour Party will succeed in their coup against Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-austerity grassroots movement that elected him. Either way, Labour is in a precarious position and unlikely to win a parliamentary majority under the present FPTP system. So if there is to be any hope at all of negotiating a progressive, sustainable and humane route to Brexit (and a fair electoral system in the future), it will need all those with shared basic goals to come together and make it work.
But please, let’s not make it just about parties and the politicians. Tony Benn warned us not to confuse parliament with democracy (the parliamentary Labour Party would do well to heed that warning). So for this alliance to be truly progressive and democratic, it will need to involve talking to and listening to people who don’t often have a say. In other words, that’s another change that needs to happen.
*An example of a practical and localised approach to activism and engagement the Left Party’s ‘Das muss drin sein!’, an umbrella for organising grassroots campaigns and support on target issues such as precarious employment, housing and welfare sanctions; all everyday fears for people living in areas with often very low election turnout.