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Should Labour enter into electoral pacts?

2869227767_cce69d7f21_bZac Goldsmith’s decision to resign as a Tory MP and contest his Richmond Park seat in a by-election as an independent, in protest at the government’s decision to build a third Heathrow runway, has raised the thorny issue of electoral pacts. With the Conservatives and UKIP choosing not to contest the seat, Labour came under pressure to promote one candidate of the anti-Brexit left.

MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds all urged Labour to consider standing aside in favour of a Lib Dem candidate in order not to split the anti-Brexit vote. This way, they argued, the by-election could be turned into a referendum, not on Heathrow expansion, but on the xenophobic politics that Goldsmith symbolises. 

This called was echoed by an article in the New Statesman by Neal Lawson, the leader of the centre-left pressure group Compass. Standing aside would be a “history making decision” for Labour and “a famous turning point in the politics of our nation,” he claimed.

Labour is, however, contesting this by-election, which is by far the wisest course of action. After the unnecessary internal battles of the summer leadership election, which has damaged our Party’s standing in the polls, the last thing we need now is a divisive strategic leap into the dark on electoral alliances.

But the pressure will continue to mount. The Lib Dems, virtually wiped out in the 2015 general election, with fewer than 10% of the vote and only eight  MPs, appear to be back in business. Having dumped Nick Clegg in favour of a less pro-Tory leader, they grabbed 30% of the vote in the recent Witney by-election, knocking Labour into third place. With a Conservative overall majority of just a dozen MPs and Brexit the new fault line in British politics, Labour will be under ongoing pressure to ensure there is only one anti-Tory candidate in future by-elections and even in marginal Conservative seats at the next general election.

What’s alarming about the contributions quoted above is the assumption that an electoral deal to unify the anti-Tory vote should automatically take the form of Labour not standing. Arguably, in many of the Tory heartlands, the Lib Dems will always look like the party best placed to unseat a sitting Conservative MP. To surrender to this pressure would mean no Corbynist message in these areas, the disenfranchising of thousands of Labour voters and resuscitation of a party, which, while sometimes opposing Tory policy, is no friend of Labour, as the last forty years of political history prove.

A far better approach than surrendering “unwinnable” seats to the Lib Dems is to look at ways of neutralising their impact. One suggestion that surfaced over the Richmond Park by-election was the idea of an open primary. Writing in The Guardian, Hugh Dixon argued, “The real way to revitalise our democracy would be for the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens to agree to back a common candidate – chosen through a primary in which all pro-Europeans living in the constituency can vote.”

This is an altogether more interesting proposition. Open primaries are widely used in the US to select parties’ candidates. But that is not quite what is being suggested here. Suppose, for example, a deal were to be struck between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens, in a number of tricky Tory seats, whereby each party could select a candidate, who would then be put into an open primary where any voter in the constituency could take part, to select the most popular of the three to go head to head against the sitting Tory.

Pessimists would argue that media pressure and natural caution might lead voters in these constituencies automatically to plump for the most moderate anti-Tory candidate, invariably the Lib Dem. I’m not so sure. Labour’s membership has pretty much trebled in the last eighteen months. In Momentum we are building a formidable organisation that can deliver results on the ground. It was their mobilisations in last year’s Oldham by-election that helped turn around wobbly opinion polls and hold the seat for Labour with a comfortable majority. Even in Tory-held seats, in an open contest to pick a united anti-Tory candidate, it’s quite possible that Corbyn rallies and grassroots organisation by this huge new network of support we are constructing could see off the Lib Dems and give Labour a clear run at the polls.

Of course there are organisational difficulties involved. Getting the other parties to agree to – and abide by the result of – such an arrangement may prove intractable. But at a time when the left is often accused of talking too much to itself, this could be an ideal opportunity to take our message into hitherto uncharted territory, with a real prospect of winning. It’s an idea to be considered, at any rate.

Longer term, the most effective way to keep the Lib Dems at bay is to occupy their political territory. Even Tony Blair understood this when he ransacked their proposals for constitutional reform and made them his own. But the same Blair, whose authoritarian crackdown on long-held freedoms and illegal invasion of Iraq gave the Lib Dems the space to pose both as defenders of civil liberties and as an anti-war party.

If we are to win the next election, Labour has to be the force that unifies all the anti-Tory feeling being generated across the country. We have to be the real greens and the real liberals too – staunch defenders of civil liberties, the Human Rights Act, personal freedom from state intrusion, for wide-ranging constitutional reform, Europeanism and internationalism. In the process we can build the Party as a real social movement across the country and in areas where Labour’s traditional messages have not always resonated.


  1. John P Reid says:

    First paragraph yes, but second paragraph, on the libdems being won to 10% so labour shouldn’t do deals with them, well labour could be down to less than 20% of the vote at the next election, and if th libdems rise in Scotland we may need their help to stop the SNp and they may not give it,
    The idea of the by-election a referndum on the Brexit vot, is an insult to the 40% of labour voters Ho voted Brexit,
    Yes to labour working in w coalition to save the HRA, but some Tories support the human rights act.

    Good point about keeping the libdems at bay by nicking their policies, it’s actually what Camerin did to get so many ex Libdem votes at the last election and win, but try to convince the hard left the Tories now occupy the middle ground and they won’t agree

  2. prianikoff says:

    Tony Blair never expected, or wanted, to win the ’97 election with such a large majority.
    What he wanted to do was turn the Labour party into the SDP without having a damaging split.
    He partially succeded in that aim by abolishing Clause 4 and transforming Labour from a social democratic party (one which aims at socialisation of the means of production, albeit gradually) to a social liberal party.
    His success was only partial because:
    a) He was unable to sever the link between Labour and the unions.
    b) Labour supporters flocked back to the pary in their millions to boot out the Tories.

    Much the same thing happened after the Collins review, which is why Labour is such a different party to the US Democrats, the UK Lib-Dems, the Greens, or the SNP.}

    Yet our latter-day “Lib-Labs” continue to raise the Yellow flag of a “progressive coalition”.

    It’s the same old song, but a different tune, since Blair’s been gone….

    1. John P Reid says:

      He didn’t expect that size win, because he thought he’d need to being in the libdems, but to hit upset the left of the party for having to do that, he would have had Ken Linivngstone in the cabinet, in transport
      The size of the majority, helped him though didn’t it

  3. Verity says:

    It is difficult to assertion whether the article is trying to develop the idea of pacts in general, or a just a prejudiced attempt to reinforce the notion of the Labour Party as an anti – Brexit Party.

    My understanding of the Party’s position is that since it favours the triggering of article 50 it is a pro Brexit Party, albeit one that seeks to achieve more than Teresa May. I do have to concede though Corbyn’s confused interventions have led some to view London as if it is a microcosm (or is it macrocosm) of the nation.

    The UK Labour party is surely different from other European Socialist Parties (and quite possibly well beyond Europe) inasmuch as it is much more like a coalition in itself. Whilst other Parties do have several left, right and other wings they do not have a multiple structured organisations as is the case with Labour, in addition to allowing affiliated ‘Parties’. So for overseas Social Democratic/SocialistParties the notion of coalitions beyond their ranks is a conceivable proposition. But is it the same for a ‘federated’ movement calling itself a Party? A Party that has more similarities with ‘federated’ structure, does or should have, scope to incorporate within it that broad range of ‘social democratic’ perspectives without seeing its future beyond its own ranks.

    Is it not conceivable that Liberals, Greens and Nationalists see the Labour Party as a Socialist/Social Democratic Party and not, ‘staunch defenders of civil liberties, the Human Rights Act, personal freedom from state intrusion, for wide-ranging constitutional reform, Europeanism and internationalism’. Otherwise why would they have formed their own organisation in the first place?

  4. Karl Stewart says:

    A nonsense article, putting forward a fantasy proposition.

    The Greens, LbDems, SNP etc would never agree to an ‘joint open primary’ system to select a common candidate. Not going to happen.

    Instead of wasting your own time and the time of others on this futile day-dreaming, why not put forward some serious policy ideas?

  5. Craig Stephen says:

    There have been seats that Labour has won from third place, where the LibDems were seens as the closest challenger to the Tories. While that won’t happen here, giving the impression that the LibDems are best-placed to win, will spell disaster in places like Watford.

  6. David Pavett says:

    This is not a generalised argument against tactical electoral arrangements – thank goodness. It thereby avoids the Labour tribalism that mares so much of the discussion on this topic.

    Essentially, Mike P says Labour should not unilaterally stand down when the Liberals look best placed to challenge the Tories but that it should be prepared to enter into pre-election pacts based on primaries. I disagree with his view about Richmond but believe that his position, or some other means of inter-party co-operation, merits discussion.

    I don’t know of any justification for the claim that “What’s alarming about the contributions quoted above [those of Clive Lewis and Lisa Nandy] is the assumption that an electoral deal to unify the anti-Tory vote should automatically take the form of Labour not standing”.

    Also I question the assertion that “To surrender to this pressure [to stand down] would mean no Corbynist message in these areas, the disenfranchising of thousands of Labour voters”. There is no reason at all why it should mean that. On the contrary, Labour should actively campaign to give its (Labour) reasons for supporting a non-Labour candidate in the given instance and making clear that this is a tactical move and that Labour has much broader objectives.

    It really worries me when people on the left say things like “We have to be the real greens and the real liberals too – staunch defenders of civil liberties, the Human Rights Act …”. Has Mike P actually read the Human Rights Act or is it just tat “Human Rights” sounds like a right on thing that the left should support?

    The Human Rights Act includes the requirement that “Parents also have a right to ensure that their religious and philosophical beliefs are respected during their children’s education”. Do they? Should we spend public money on bolstering the private beliefs of parents?

    So, my view is that there are some propositions worth discussing in the article alongside views that seem to me to lack any substantial foundation.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      I do sometimes think that the Left may have taken the wrong position when it comes to the Human Rights Act. Rather than arguing against its replacement per se, perhaps it would be better to argue for what we would like to see in a British Bill of Rights. This would be almost all of of what is already in the existing one (excluding clauses such as the one you mentioned and possibly certain property rights), extending the right to marriage to include same-sex couples, plus social rights such as healthcare, education, a union, a job, housing, etc. I suppose it could be argued that the latter set would be better suited to be in a different act. For that matter, would it not be better to use this as an opportunity to argue for a codified constitution with human rights protected therein?

      1. Peter Rowlands says:

        No, I think the left should maintain its support for the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the ECHR into British law. The proposed British Bill of Rights was part of the Tory manifesto and would curb the rights of many, including prisoners, refugees and detainees, as well as effectively distancing the UK from a notion of rights that are commonly shared.This is of course not to say that the HRA is perfect and does not need amending.

        1. David Pavett says:

          Peter, it wasn’t my intention to suggest that we should dump the HRA but rather that our position should be more subtle than being “staunch defenders” of it. As with everything else we need a critical examination of it and of the assumptions that lie behind it. According to Liberty human rights are universal and inherent merely by being members of the human species. That ethical idealism won’t stand up to much examination.

          Most the provisions of the ECHR are, or should, be non-controversial. Not only that but state can object to implementing specific provisions. Moreover the HRA makes it possible for UK courst to rule on compliance with the ECHR.

          So it is difficult to see any rational grounds for wanting to dump the HRA. The grounds are instead are not a matter of rational objection but of anti-foreigner political rhetoric.

          Rather than dumping the HRA we should cal for a review of it provisions w.r.t. the ECHR and should, for our part, promote a non-idealist and historical view of human rights.

    2. Peter Rowlands says:

      A sensible response. I do think a ‘joint primary’ is unrealistic, but pacts, on a selective basis, which should have been the case at Richmond, in my view, or a generalised basis, as advocated by Compass, are not to be ruled out.
      As I have pointed out elsewhere, if we had AV the pact would be much easier to gain acceptance for. All parties could stand, the pact would be in the agreement for the second vote.
      I did some research following a pub discussion on this.There is scope for a pact between Labour and the Lib-Dems, in 31 seats, all Tory, where the majority is lesss than the gap between the two parties, and conveniently indicates an almost equal standing down by both. ( Lab 15, Lib-Dem 16). However, there is little scope for offering the other parties anything – the Greens in Bristol West, perhaps.

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