Roundtable: Richmond Park & the Progressive Alliance

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On 1st December, Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney won the Richmond Park constituency back for the Liberal Democrats after Conservative incumbent Zac Goldsmith had vacated the seat to contest the by-election as an independent to signal his opposition to the government’s support for the third runway at Heathrow airport.

As the Liberal Democrats had long been the main competitors in the seat and also opposed the third runway, the by-election was contested more along Remain/Brexit lines with the added element of opposition to Goldsmith’s controversial campaign to become Mayor of London thrown into the mix.

With the local Green parties not standing candidates and supporting the Liberal Democrats while the Conservatives and UKIP also sat out and supported Goldsmith, this by-election could also be seen as a proof of concept for the proposed Progressive Alliance.

Our contributors share their thoughts on this election and the concept of the Progressive alliance below…

Movern Rennie: I don’t like the lib dems, whether through naiveté, incompetence or megalomania, they facilitated austerity and enabled the Tory majority. If I lived in Richmond Park would I have voted for them? Yes.

Post-brexit, post-fact, post-truth politics has everything to gain from Puritanism in the centre & left. I refuse sit in my hemp knickers and watch the word burn because the Lib Dems and or Labour aren’t green enough for me. So I’ll wear that nasty nylon thong for a day and focus my energy on fights I might win.

I read a book about French resistance fighters where toffs and socialists resisted together because the alternative was unthinkable. Yes the Lib Dems may play politics now at our expense. No I don’t regret supporting them. Because the Tories’ majority is one particularly insidious brexiteer shorter. Let’s fight the fight in front of our faces instead of the one in our imagination.

Because the alternative is unthinkable.

Paul Derbyshire: Polarising of politics has been shown NOT to work as shown by IndyRef, EURef and now Trump.

What we should have are politicians who work for the benefit of the people and the US does not have this, neither do we at present.

I worry that, if a group of parties collectively attempt to get the existing party out of power by not standing, then it forces those who support the party in power to get out more of their vote whilst the people who support the parties who are not standing are forced to vote for not their first preference.

We need proportional representation to stop a) polar politics and b) get more progressive voices in parliament.

Chris Napier: As is so often the case, I’m in two minds on this.

One on hand, I cheered loud and long when I heard that Sarah Olney had defeated Zac Goldsmith. His overtly racist mayoral campaign, support for Brexit and problematic voting record meant I’d prefer even the most Orange Book of Lib Dems to him.

‪As such, had I been in the constituency I would have voted with the majority of local Green members to not stand a candidate of our own and would have happily voted for Olney.

‪On the other hand, I’m wary of the so-called Progressive Alliance for a stack of reasons.

‪First of all and with a decidedly partisan Green hat on, I worry that in practise the Progressive Alliance would result in the Greens being expected to campaign for other, invariably less-progressive parties in the run up to the 2020 elections with the only strategic benefit being that Labour & the Lib Dems wouldn’t stand against Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion.

‪Let’s be honest – most Green target seats are held by Labour or the Lib Dems and they’re not going to unseat an incumbent to give us a free run in return for not contesting Tory held marginals – and neither they should.

‪Now, even if that resulted in a Labour/Lib Dem/SNP government who implemented proportional representation, set a new election for as soon as possible and started rolling back austerity in the meantime – which is the aim of the progressive alliance, isn’t it? – it would leave the Greens on the back foot to contest that PR election, having atrophied activists who didn’t have candidates to campaign for throughout the 2020 campaign.

‪Secondly, I worry that the whole concept of the progressive alliance just plays into one of the biggest inherent flaw of First Past The Post in that it squeezes nuance from the debate and promotes a ‘vote for the party that might beat the party you really don’t want to win’ rather than voting FOR something you believe in.

‪I fear the whole 2020 election would end up looking like an AV election, split between folks who would preference Conservatives/UKIP and Labour/SNP/Lib Dems/Plaid/Greens on broadly pro/anti Brexit lines but probably with a terribly low turnout, lacking the nuance of being able to preference and blighted by fear campaigns and misinformation about Labour/Lib Dems (who’d be the lead ‘progressive’ runners in most places) having their strings pulled by Scottish nationalists and hippies.

‪Thirdly, it’s hard to have any faith in our potential allies in a progressive alliance and I worry that Green naivety would cost us and the alliance wouldn’t achieve it’s aims anyway. Labour don’t agree with themselves about a whole lot recently and the recent comments from Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Flint are not the kind of thing I can support even at a distance and anyway, Labour didn’t step aside in Richmond East when they had zero chance of actually winning. It remains to be seen if there will be a single Labour party to ally with in 2020 and if their hubris will allow them to step aside for others for a greater cause – and let’s remember that Labour haven’t been supporters of proportional representation before 2015 and the proposed boundary changes.

‪The Liberal Democrats are making a lot of the right noises after their drubbing in 2015 and in Tim Farron have a leader who is more *my* kind of Lib Dem (i.e. Beveridge Group rather than Orange Book) but it’s still hard to wash the taste of how meekly they seem to have enabled the Conservatives during the Coalition.

‪In Scotland, the SNP have never shied away from taking potshots at the Greens in Scotland and while it’s clear that they don’t like be outflanked to the left, I find it hard to believe that they’d not take full advantage of us taking a backseat in the course of the 2020 elections, with their eyes on Holyrood elections the year after.

‪Lastly, of course I pretty much anticipate Scotland to be on our way out the door of the UK by the time this becomes a practical issue anyway and my interest in the electoral pacts of the GPEW become even more arms length than they are at the moment.

‪So, on balance I broadly support Greens stepping aside in by-elections or specific marginals in General Elections when we probably won’t win and a there is a generally acceptable candidate who might defeat a more objectionable (i.e. Conservative/UKIP/Labour ‘moderate’) lead runner.

‪However, my concerns about the practicality of a progressive alliance and how such an arrangement might steal vital momentum from the Green movement even if it did achieve it’s aim of proportional representation remain even after the celebrations in Richmond Park.

Louise Wilson: I think we can all probably agree that Olney’s ousting of Goldsmith in Richmond Park was a good thing. For many it was choosing the lesser evil (though given my long held sympathy for the Lib Dems, I personally would be less inclined to described it on those terms). But I’m loathe to thank this so-called ‘progressive alliance’ for it.

Looking at the results, and the results of elections past, it seems that the votes pushing Olney to victory largely came from previous Labour voters (and probably more than a few soft Tory voters). Given Labour actually stood a candidate (and Tories being far from progressive), no alliance really existing behind the Lib Dems, aside from the Greens. And realistically, a Green candidate would not have impacted the result. GPEW wouldn’t have garnered enough support to do that.

On the other side, the non-progressive alliance shall we say, the Tories and UKIP united to back Goldsmith – and still lost.

I’m also weary about the wider impact of arguing for progressive alliance, for many reasons already cited. Look towards America – the argument went that any vote not for Trump/Clinton was either a vote wasted, or a vote for Trump. In a two horse race, this is certainly true – but that shouldn’t stop people from being able to register their interest in other candidates/parties/platforms. That said, the truth is I would have backed Clinton in that election – but that’s because the alternative was so horrendous that I wouldn’t have not been able to.

Which brings us to the question: How bad does a candidate have to be for us to support the lesser evil?

It’s difficult to weigh up, particularly with our voting system. Take the 2015 election in the Glasgow Central constituency (mine) – it was always going to be a straight fight between Labour and the SNP. Any other vote is your classic ‘wasted vote’. I voted Green – but largely because I wasn’t concerned about either the Labour or SNP candidate winning. Had a lived elsewhere, a key Tory/Labour battleground for example, I might have thought differently. But then again, I’ve long argued that to bring electoral change upon us, enough people need to continously use their ‘wasted vote’ to show people that we shouldn’t be a two party system anymore.

Maybe its naive. Maybe its simply idealistic ideology. But I remain unconvinced about the argument for creating progressive alliances. It serves to only perpetuate terrible voting systems and means politics becomes more about supporting the less bad thing that what you actually want.

Morvern Rennie: More United (a cross party/no party ‘movement’) voted on and chose to support the LD. Not sure what they gave her in terms of funding or materials but they had teams out canvassing etc.

Louise Wilson: Even so, I’m still not convinced that that will have had a significant impact. The constituency has also been a LD/Con area, and in addition this winner has always been so close to getting 50+% (indeed, Goldsmith did last year). Even where a candidate pulling out would have freed up enough votes in theory to switch 1st and 2nd place, I don’t think in practice it would have happened. Some people would have backed the 1st place candidate as their second preference anyway, and others just wouldn’t have bothered voting at all.

Chris Napier: I’d say that in light of previous results in the constituency the result is mostly a case of Lib Dem voters returning home, while Goldsmith didn’t inspire his own vote out as much. You could contend that the Greens made the difference as Olney’s majority of 1872 is roughly half the number that voted Green in 2015 but that election was exceptionally punitive to the Lib Dem vote with the Greens & Labour hitting high water marks in the constituency. With that in mind, this is arguably more ‪#LibDemFightback than nascent progressive alliance.

Morvern Rennie: I reckon it will have been more to do with remain/leave than party loyalties – that’s v much how the press covered it down here at least.

Louise Wilson: I agree that’s probably much of it. In which case, are we saying this ‘progressive alliance’ was around a Remain candidate rather than a LD one? Probably – the Labour voters who did switch to LD will likely have done so for that reason. But there’s a difference in this by-election and wider elections – it was possible to make this a one issue campaign. It is much harder to do that at the national level (with the possible exception of an anyone but X argument [like the anti-Trump movement]) and another reason why I think progressive alliances are a bad idea. You might agree with other parties on a handful of issues, but this puts the rest of your ideology at risk. It’s back to the whole ‘where are the red lines’ question, which is generally not something you want to set out before you know who you’re negotiating with.

To be clear, I’m not opposing the idea of alliances like this full stop. In some cases I think it’s necessary – but it’s largely an individual decision based on how you answer the question of how bad is bad enough that you back someone you’re less than keen on (like my example of backing Clinton over Trump because the latter was SO bad). I don’t think it’s a suitable thing for whole parties to be discussing as an election strategy.

Anna Crow: The political times we live in are no time for progressives to have their heads in the crowds dreaming self-righteously of a Green/socialist/both (delete as appropriate) utopia or to be infighting over anything that is not a red line issue while our enemies gather their forces, growing every stronger. We need to get smart and brutally realistic because right now, we are fire-fighting. Sometimes that will mean you need to join forces with another group/groups to put out the biggest blaze.

I think we can all agree that the decision taken by GPEW local branches not to contest this by-election and the decision taken by Caroline Lucas and others to support Olney’s campaign was the right decision here. The ending of Zac Goldsmith’s political career should be celebrated; this time the battle was won. Of course I can’t say that I don’t have any concerns whatsoever about Sarah Olney as an MP (for example, she did only join her party in May 2015) or the Lib Dems as a party but her obvious enthusiasm and the positive rhetoric of her post-election speech did give me hope. Give me naiveté and positive behaviours over experience and outright displays of bigotry EVERY SINGLE TIME.

However, when exploring any concept of alliances the terms must be made very clear, including what the red line issues are for any groups involved. I would be very wary of any political alliance where a specific commitment to electoral reform was not a red line issue. There must be agreement that advocating tactical voting is neither a solution nor a maintenance approach but its use as a short term crisis measure is justifiable. The goal must be achievement of a more democratic system. UK Labour and Corbyn’s lack of commitment to, and even in some cases opposition of, electoral reform is one of their greatest failings at the present time.

To summarise, taking things back to our Green siblings south of the border, I think GPEW are generally behaving in a smart way here. However, the term ‘progressive alliance’ doesn’t seem to be the best one, much as I get that in politics buzzwords and phrases are often treated as necessary. In situations like this caution is needed, with clear analysis of the risks and benefits and red line issues involved. Moreover, decisions should always be taken a local level on a case by case basis rather than being centrally driven or any form of ‘one size fits all’ type of model.

Alasdair Duke: Things have to change. We are living in a global polycrisis. We need – cliche alert – a new politics of radical solutions. It is urgent.

Any so-called “progressive alliance” ought to have just one clearly defined aim and must be time-limited. Otherwise it is not an alliance but a de facto merger.

So far, none of the contributors here has mentioned Yes Scotland or any of the other cross-party umbrella groups that coalesced around either of the recent referenda. Yes Scotland, and others, offer clear examples of relatively successful alliances, where each constituent body retained its distinct identity but coalesced around a single aim before dissolving with dignity.

Proportional representation appears to be the only specific, definable and measurable policy around which any 2020 alliance of Lib Dems, Labour and Greens could, would, or should coalesce.

I would welcome such an alliance and I would vote for it if it had the singular goal of PR and did not resemble a stitched-up left-establishment consolidation exercise.

Chris Napier: My cynicism about any progressive alliance is mostly because I can see how it could result in the radical grassroots politics we so desperately need being shoved back in it’s box to elect some more centrist-at-best Labour & Lib Dem MPs.

More to the point, I’m worried that the progressive alliance would be agreed at a national level and the decisions reached at that level would be imposed on local branches and grassroots members. I feel that would cause members of whatever parties were agreeing (although I’m mostly concerned abut the Greens, obviously) to not stand in a given seat to become inactive or leave the party, stand as independents etc.

The last thing we need is some well-intentioned but high handed alliance to set back the move towards popular political engagement in a return to the third way apathy (indeed, open antipathy) which characterised the Blair years.

To be clear, lefty tribalism is one of the major banes of progressive politics and as a rule, I’d be more than happy to vote tactically in 2020 so long as the cast-iron aim is to make sure it’s the last time I ever have to.

So, I’d love to see some sort of progressive alliance in the aim of proportional representation, but I’d like to see it driven at a local level rather than imposed nationally.

Imagine your local Labour/Lib Dem/Green/SNP/Plaid party branches talking to each other, finding common ground and where there is a Tory incumbent to be defeated or a risk that Tories/UKIP could take a seat held by a progressive, they agree to work together for this one election.

That might be a bit idealistic, but I think it could build bridges across tribal divides and make future co-operation between progressive parties more harmonious, which will be key in a parliament elected by proportional representation and likely governed by coalitions.

That’s what our contributors had to say, what do you think about the Richmond Park by-election and the prospect of a progressive alliance?

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