The Common Ground – how a progressive alliance could transform our politics
These are extraordinary times in British politics. The second decade of the twenty first century is the most turbulent since a hundred years ago. After 1916 the Liberal Party was split and weakened, opening the way for the rise of the Labour Party as the main alternative to the Conservatives. Both the Liberals and Labour faced further splits and crises in 1931 but by 1945 politics had settled to a Conservative-Labour duopoly of parties of government, with the Liberal Party squeezed to a tiny rump by the merciless force of the first past the post electoral system. The main beneficiary of this turbulence on the left has been the Conservative Party, the most successful political party in Europe.
Liberal leaders in from the 1950s to the 1970s, Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe, talked about a realignment of the left, their hopes buoyed by shock by election wins. David Steel almost pulled it off when the Liberal Party fought the 1983 and 1987 elections in alliance with the new Social Democratic Party. I joined the SDP as a 16 year old just after the 1983 election and have been an activist ever since. My hopes of a breakthrough were dashed in 1987 when over 7 million votes translated into just 22 MPs for the Alliance. The messy merger of the Liberals and SDP and the theft of much of our social democrat language by Tony Blair in 1994 made me feel at the time that a realignment had indeed taken place but mainly inside the Labour Party. I very nearly joined Labour at that time but personal loyalties kept me in the Liberal Democrats.
Might 2016 have the right mixture of factors to bring about a union of progressives, liberals and social democrats currently spread among several parties? I think so but it all depends on whether the foundations of the Labour Party broad church have been shaken enough for the walls to come tumbling down. Much has changed since the Labour landslides of 1945 and 1997. Tribal support for both the Conservatives and Labour has been declining since the 1960s as the class based society has been eroded by social mobility and huge changes in our economic base. The political landscape has become more crowded as the Scottish National Party has surged, more successfully than Plaid Cymru in Wales. UKIP was initially a threat to the Conservatives but now is arguably more of a problem for Labour as white working class people respond to its simple messages about job insecurity and suppressed wages being the fault of the EU.
The 2015 general election was a disaster for the Liberal Democrats, reduced to 8 MPs but still obtaining 2.4 million votes. In Scotland it was a shared humiliation with Labour as both parties were pummelled by the SNP and reduced to just 1 MP. UKIP polled 3.9 million votes, doing well in towns in the north of England. Labour had only 231 MPs from England and Wales, its worst result since 1987. Labour members chose Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. The party suffered a further set back in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, reduced to third party status in a country where it had been the dominant force for fifty years. The result of the EU referendum, with many of Labour MP “safe seats” voting for Leave has plunged the party into crisis. MPs have no confidence in the Leader, who at the time of writing is still popular with Labour party rank and file members.
If Corbyn survives the forthcoming leadership election then it is very likely that the party in Parliament will fragment into several factions. So a realignment in 2016 depends on the fate of one man. The swift coronation of Theresa May as Conservative Leader and Prime Minister will keep pro EU, socially liberal Conservative MPs inside their party, at least until the Brexit crunch time arrives. But the break up of the Labour Party is a distinct possibility. The broad church could well be falling down.
Labour MPs who reject Corbyn’s brand of extra Parliamentary protest march socialism face three choices. First, I think most of them will sit tight, waiting for the wind to blow over. The Labour Party is their political home and in many cases they can’t contemplate life outside. Then there are those who feel that all is lost and Labour, robbed of its Scottish heartland and threatened by UKIP in many of its safe seats, is heading for electoral oblivion. They have nothing to lose by trying another path.
So a second group may break away from the official Labour party in Parliament and form a new group in the Commons and quite possibly in the Lords too. This new grouping, let’s call it the “Independent Labour Party”, will be a party without a base in the country or any party apparatus. Given the gulf between MPs and their Corbyn supporting members it is likely to be a party with lots of chiefs and no Indians. As the SDP showed in 1981, this is a massive risk. In 2016 there are lots of other options for progressives with a range of political parties and campaign groups, with less room for a new party than there was in 1981.
A third group of Labour MPs could simply defect to the Liberal Democrats. I know of many Labour MPs who have always had more in common with the Lib Dems than they care to acknowledge in public. They could easily have joined the Lib Dems at an earlier stage in their life but chose Labour due to family history and political ambition to win power. It would be a wrench for them to depart now and both defecting MPs and the existing Liberal Democrat MPs and constituency parties would have to show good grace, putting behind them past rivalries, arguments and personal slights.
The relative sizes of these three groups will have implications for the operation of parties in both Houses of Parliament. The Liberal Democrats have 107 Peers so it would only take 52 of Labour’s 209 members to defect to make the Lib Dems the official opposition in the Lords. In the Commons there could be four party groups (including the SNP) on the opposition benches with more than 50 MPs, which would break the underlying assumption of business that there are only two main parties, one in government and one in opposition. This was a major problem for the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015.
If Labour does break up then the next general election is a great opportunity to put before the electorate a range of candidates from credible centre left parties. But if those parties compete in every seat then Theresa May will win the greatest Conservative landslide since 1931 when it won 460 seats. Such an outcome would be a catastrophe, propelling Britain out of the EU for good and emboldening the Tory right to shake up state services and welfare. Given that she is well aware of this opportunity it is imperative that progressive politicians in all parties act to mitigate the risk before it becomes a reality.
I propose that the Liberal Democrats and any new Independent Labour Party should cooperate on the ground to avoid clashes in Conservative facing seats. There could also be arrangements involving the Green Party and Plaid Cymru though neither of these parties is a serious contender in any constituency currently held or under threat from the Conservative Party. I see little scope for an arrangement in Scotland, such is the dominance of the SNP and weakness of the Tories.
The Lib Dems and the new ILP could fight the next election as separate parties with their own manifestos but would have a Common Ground set of objectives and principles. The first Common Ground objective is obviously the defeat of the Conservative Party, leading to a House of Commons with a progressive majority. All candidates fighting under the Common Ground banner would have to agree to a 36 month Parliament to allow time in both Houses for a programme of constitutional reform the most important of which would be a more proportional election system. It should be easier than in the past to agree campaign finance reform, on the assumption that the unions have stuck with the Corbyn led Labour Party.
The Common Ground would also set out some other basic principles such as maintaining the closest possible relationship with the European Union, retaining the integrity of the UK with full devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and greater power for local government in England. While the parties would have their own detailed manifestos it would be necessary to agree some broad tax and spend parameters for a Common Ground coalition government to operate within.
Common Ground candidates from the ILP, Lib Dems and possibly other parties would be chosen primarily on the basis of who was best placed to defeat the Conservatives. The criteria would include the electoral history of the constituency over the last four general elections and of course the attributes of an individual candidate who could be the sitting or former MP or a well known individual standing in a new seat. I would add a further factor, obtaining a measure of political pluralism even under the last election to be held under first past the post. So while it is likely to be the case that the Liberal Democrat candidate is best placed to defeat the Conservative in most of southern England there should be an ILP MP in Surrey or Cornwall. Similarly, it would not be right for there to be no Liberal Democrat MPs in Lancashire or the East Midlands.
This arrangement of giving the Common Ground coupon to Liberal Democrat or ILP candidates should be straightforward in most Tory facing seats. There would be other problems to iron out the biggest of which is what to do with constituencies with a Corbyn Labour sitting MP. It would be crazy for those seats to be handed to the Tories as a result of all of the Lib Dems, ILP and the Green parties fielding a candidate. The same would apply to the Green Party’s sole seat in Brighton Pavilion. There may be other seats where historically the Lib Dems and Labour have been in hot competition, such as Cambridge and Hornsey & Wood Green. These would have to be settled on a seat by seat basis and in some cases it would have to be accepted that the Lib Dems and the ILP would fight each other, with neither candidate having the official Common Ground coupon. I believe there are also some sitting Conservative MPs who might be tempted away from their party if they were guaranteed a safe berth with a Common Ground coupon.
This is a momentous period with a mix of factors that give Britain the best opportunity to transform its politics from the stale tribalism of two big parties that is now so unappealing to millions of voters and indeed non voters who think nobody listens to them. A pluralist political system of several parties, underpinned by a proportional voting system is potentially in reach. Achieving that goal will require MPs, Peers, councillors and activists currently in several parties to think differently about how they conduct politics. My excitement and optimism is only tempered by a knowledge that we have been here before and it didn’t happen. But given the extraordinary political events of the last 6 years, the Coalition, the Scottish referendum aftermath and now the Brexit aftermath, anything must be possible. If not now, then it is hard to see a better opportunity ahead to reinvent British politics.