With a progressive alliance, Jeremy Corbyn could be prime minister right now
Zac Goldsmith won back his Richmond Park constituency with 45 votes
For those who question the wisdom of a progressive alliance or the morality of tactical voting, consider this: Theresa May’s government is still standing, with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party, because of just two seats.
The Conservative majority in St Ives was just 312 and in Richmond Park (for the loathsome Zac Goldsmith) a paltry 45 votes. In both seats, where it has never been victorious in its 177 year history, Labour accrued more than 5,000 votes in vain. If a tenth of those votes had gone to the Liberal Democrats, Theresa May would no longer be in Downing Street. With just two fewer MPs she would've been short of a majority regardless of DUP support. With four fewer still, even a stitched-together working majority would be beyond reason.
I can count eight constituencies where Labour votes cast instead for the Lib Dems would have unseated Conservative MPs, and many more where the reverse is true for Lib Dem votes. Sussex Progressives, a grassroots movement founded just last year in the wake of the EU referendum, campaigned for the Lib Dems in Lewes, Norman Baker’s seat for 18 years before 2015, and for Labour in Hastings and Rye, where home secretary Amber Rudd barely survived a recount. If Labour and Lib Dem votes had swapped hands, the Tories would have lost both seats.
In last December’s Richmond Park by-election, the Greens and Women’s Equality Party stood aside to allow Lib Dem Sarah Olney the best chance to defeat Zac Goldsmith following his disgraceful mayoral campaign. Labour, despite calls to withdraw, stood a doomed candidate anyway, but local Labour activists got behind the effort to reduce the Tory majority. They campaigned alongside Lib Dems and Green Party members to narrowly defeat Goldsmith, while the de jure Labour candidate received fewer votes than the local party has members.
This local party co-operation worked in a by-election. But at a general election, with resources stretched, the concerted effort to re-elect Olney did not re-emerge. Nevertheless, the Progressive Alliance, organised in this election for the first time by Compass, canvassed the area. Labour members, Lib Dem supporters, Green voters and other nonpartisan activists like myself went door-to-door to convince Labour and Green voters to keep Goldsmith out. Painfully, we fell short by a tiny margin, with the billionaire heir winning by a handful of votes and claiming a pivotal seat for May to cling to power. For an alliance to work in enough constituencies to earn a parliamentary majority, parties will need to work together at a higher level.
To its endless credit, the Green Party has already given the most up for the cause, and its co-leader Caroline Lucas continues to be the most cogent voice arguing for progressive collaboration. Her party’s brave leadership benefited both Labour and the Lib Dems, either through formally standing aside in Brighton Kemptown, Twickenham and Oxford West, or tactically voting in Bath, Hove and Kingston and Surbiton. The Greens’ sacrifice should be the beginning of a broader agreement that can sweep progressives into actual power, not just an unexpected over-performance, which is still far short of a parliamentary majority.
It is true that the other parties must make concessions to Labour, most notably the Lib Dems. The perennial third party is competitive in far fewer constituencies than vice versa. It clearly benefited from tactical voting on Thursday - ironically for a party usually complaining about the disproportionate electoral system, its seat count went up whilst its vote share went down. In a true progressive alliance, Lib Dem voters, in the majority of constituencies, would back better-placed Labour candidates.
The Labour party should acknowledge that it has the most to gain from any such alliance — only its leader can be installed in No. 10 on the back of a progressive pact. It is for the party as a whole to accept, as Clive Lewis did in his acceptance speech, that it has prospered from voters putting “country before party”. By encouraging the same of its own voters, it could have kept those crucial final seats out of Tory hands. After all, it was Jeremy Corbyn who said he wanted to usher in a “new kind of politics”. It was his consensual, collegiate style, in contrast to May’s authoritarianism, which gave him last week's surprising result.
A full-blown national alliance might be too much to countenance, but even a limited pact — where Labour stood down in the eight seats above, in exchange for the Lib Dems reciprocating in eight marginal Lab-Con seats — could give the progressive parties a majority in parliament comparable to that the Tories enjoyed after 2015. To avoid the appearance of a stitch up, all parties involved would have to be honest to voters about their chances, and bold about their intentions to work together. The conventional wisdom says this won’t work, but the last 12 months has defeated conventional wisdom at every turn.
On the doorstep, campaigning for the Progressive Alliance up and down the country in London, Merseyside, Cheshire and Brighton, I heard a variety of voices - young and old; lifelong Labour and new convert; environmental activist and social democrat; Corbynista and Corbyn-sceptic; true believer and tactical pragmatist; red voter, yellow voter and Green voter. What united them all was fear of the retreat of liberal values, anger at the status quo, and desire for politics to be conducted differently. This election, while just a first step, is the beginning of those voters working within the broken system we have to make a progressive, collaborative future possible.
Against most expectations, Corbyn surely now has solidified his credibility, both within his own party and the wider left of British politics. Buoyed by his base of newly-inspired youth, he can afford to ditch the tribal politics of old and reach out. With another election likely, if not this year then next, now is the time to build a cross-party movement — like Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! — that can put the social, liberal and environmental issues that matter most to progressives of all stripes at the forefront, in this most pivotal of times for Britain’s place in the world.
This must happen, because we now know what the alternative is. Like some sort of prescient troll, Theresa May warned of a “coalition of chaos”, and now we have the most right-wing government in living memory propped up by the kind of Christian fundamentalist, anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-science party that would be more at home in Alabama than Westminster. ⬢
This article was published in the New Statesman.