This letter of mine was published in The Observer today – 14 May 2017. See below for more on why I want to see a new party.
“Will Hutton mentions creating a new party in a throwaway line at the end of his column on why the future for progressive politics looks less than inviting (“Never in my adult life has the future looked so bleak for progressives”, Comment). “This should not be an afterthought. It is the one bright spot of hope in a desolate landscape and one that progressive media outlets such as the Observer should be championing. If 8 June sees Theresa May’s Conservatives returned to power, then moderate Labour, Lib Dem and Green politicians should finally agree to form a single progressive party and stop splitting the anti-Tory vote, as they have done since 1945.
“A beneficial side-effect of such a realignment will be that Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left Labour will not join and can become marginalised by a much larger and more electable force. The left-of-centre party activists have become detached from their voters – witness the haemorrhaging of support from the Lib Dems after entering a coalition with the Tories that was opposed by many and the way that lifelong Labour supporters are deserting Corbyn. What we need now is undeniable evidence to confirm that voters are crying out for change and political leaders with the backbone to put country before party and listen to them.”
I wrote this letter to The Observer because I think people from the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties need to think very hard before the General Election about what happens after it – at the same time as fighting the campaign as hard as possible.
By the way, on that last point, if you’re left-of-centre and want something to motivate you, visit bookies Paddy Power who think the most likely outcome for the Tory share of the vote on 8 June is 50% or more – odds of 5/2. If that happens, it will be the first time since 1945 that the winning party gains more than half the votes. Not good for democracy, not good for the country – and a good reason to knock on doors and get voters out to stop it happening.
But after the election, we need to figure out how we’ve reached this situation. Not so long ago, things were so different. In 1997, the left-of-centre parties gained 19 million votes between them, while the right – Tories and Ukip – gained 10 million. By 2010, the left of centre total had slipped to 16 million, with the right up to 12 million – creating a hung Parliament and the Con-Lib coalition. In 2015, for the first time since the Second World War, the right-of-centre parties had more votes than the left – 15 million versus 13 million. Then in 2016, 17.5 million voted to leave the EU – beating the 16 million for staying – which even the bookies didn’t predict.
So, how do we stop their trend? First I think we need to recognise that the worlds in which the Labour, LibDem and even Green parties were created are now history. We have moved into a harsher, tougher place.
Globalisation and new technology have removed traditional industries such as shipbuilding, steel-making and replaced them with call centres, financial services and zero-hours contacts. Families and communities have become less cohesive, with more family breakdowns and declines in the clubs, churches and pubs that once held society together. The right-wing media machine has lost all contact with objective journalism and joined with the Tory party to form a formidable political propaganda machine that falsely blames all these ills of modern society on scroungers, migrants and Brussels. Meanwhile, right-wing millionaires fund organisations that use data farming and advanced algorithms to target voters and corral them into their camps. In other words, bad things have happened that make people feel uneasy and they have then been presented by skillful propagandists with a plausible but false explanation. The precedents are chilling.
This process has blown the old politics out of the water. Britain voted leave and lurched rightwards. France saw the rise of the Front National and then chose a totally new party. US voters elected a sexist, nationalist bully who only nominally represents his party. Progressive parties in the Netherlands collaborated to defeat right wing populist Geert Wilders.
In such a turbulent environment, only the strong survive. If the centre-left is to stand a chance it must stand together. But Greens apart, the left-of-centre parties have been weakened by losing contact with their voters. The LibDems lost four million voters between 2010 and 2015 – two thirds of their support. While their activists cheered the coalition, many voters were horrified. Meanwhile Labour has been subjected to a hostile takeover by the hard-left who have packed the membership and elected a leader who would not be the choice of most Labour voters.
This farce has come about because Labour lost its way decades ago. Having done a great job for working people by building the welfare state and NHS. Labour then failed to find a role and became open to capture by people who were either to the left or right of its core voters – the hard-left as in the 80s and now, or the Mail-friendly, centrist, right-leaning clique around Blair.
Moderate Labour MPs and voters now have a chance to build a political force that aligns with their beliefs by leaving Labour and joining with others to form something new. The only thing they have to leave behind is the word ‘Labour’. LibDems have the chance to become part of a party that is bigger and broader than any they have been a part of for 100 years. The only things they have to leave behind are the words ‘Liberal Democrat’. The Greens have the chance to become part of a party that will be sympathetic to many of their core policies – if they can leave ‘Green’ behind.
I believe moderate Labour, LibDem and Green politicians are capable of devising a common platform. There is not much between them compared to the gulf between them and the Tories.
Some will say – why not an alliance, where the parties work together and only stand one candidate per constituency? We saw that in the 80s with the SDP-Liberal Alliance – but it was dogged by questions as to which was the senior partner, who would be Prime Minister etc – and the parties eventually merged. Here, now, the right-wing machine can only be countered by a powerful new progressive force. I believe that has to be a party. Anything else is too fussy and complex for today’s times. Politics isn’t chamber music any more. It’s heavy metal.
I would like to see opinion polling data before 9 June that shows whether millions of voters think this way too. If they do, it’s up the political leaders and other to get their act together – form a party, tell the British people what has really happened to their society, explain how to put it right, draw up a programme for change, expose the right-wing deceptions, professionalise the operation, match the right’s digital prowess and make the case for EU membership – continued or renewed.
These parties have proud histories. But that’s the whole point. Their greatness is in the past. The future needs something different. Our children and grandchildren need something different. Are we going to deny them a chance to have their views represented in government because older politicians can’t bear to walk away from the comfort zone of their party names? Let’s fight to stop Theresa May getting a mega-majority – and then let’s get together and let’s get organised.