It’s already becoming clear that every party except the Conservatives fears the outcome of the impending general election. Even for the SNP, which will no doubt hold on to – if not improve upon – its standing in the last election, the prospect of an increased Tory majority is not a welcome one.
Barring a massive Labour recovery – and barring the impact of unplanned events, so crucial in politics – it appears this is almost certainly the outcome to expect. But even if that Labour recovery does come, is Jeremy Corbyn the man to steer the UK through Brexit and its consequences?
Whether they like it or not, for most voters, this election will come down to a choice between Corbyn and May, rather than their parties. And the sad truth is, many may find themselves in the unwelcome position of believing that neither is the leader the UK needs.
Danger ahead, then, in GE2017, for an already badly tarnished political class. Turning out for the third major national vote in two years is tiring enough for those people who are just carrying on with the crucial business of getting on with their lives; asking those same people to turn out to vote for two options they find equally unpalatable is worse still. It could cause lasting damage to relations between voters and the political class.
So what’s to be done to reengage people? With appetite for this election seemingly so low, and with the outcome already near certain, the first thing we must do is view the present situation as an opportunity to renew the business of politics in the UK. GE2017 should be seen as nothing short of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break out of the Labour-Tory duopoly that the nation has clearly outgrown.
Discussions among some of the smaller parties have already turned to this. The Greens have called for a “progressive alliance” between those parties lined up to oppose the Tories and their Brexit at all costs. Even the SNP has nodded assent if it were to become a realistic option. Labour leaders have discounted it fully. But they should reconsider.
The finer details of what this would entail (including tactical voting and electoral pacts) will take many hours, days and weeks of negotiation to flesh out, including the thorny issue of who would lead this alliance were it to somehow secure a big parliamentary role after the election. But that is highly unlikely, and therefore should not be the primary concern. The first thing to consider should be the process of putting this alliance together. Here are some essential ingredients we would need at the start.
A long-term vision
A progressive alliance is not just for GE2017 – it’s for life. The parties need to see this as more than just a short-term project. The shifts in the electoral landscape of the UK in recent years mean that the likelihood of an outright majority for the main party of the left is receding into the distance. The shift to the SNP in Scotland – formerly rich hunting ground for Labour – and the rise of UKIP as an alternative for swing voters in formerly marginal seats has dealt the Labour party a blow that may ultimately prove fatal.
The likelihood of ever-increasing Tory majorities is also growing as a result of an ageing population and an ever-more disenfranchised youth vote (coupled with upcoming boundary changes). The plan for a progressive alliance forged in the white heat of GE2017 should explicitly be about challenging this growing rightist, Tory hegemony. And the parties and politicians involved should say so.
They should point to a new, long-term political grouping on the left that will more closely match a deindustrialised, multi-cultural Britain; that will more accurately appraise the place of Britain in the world and its responsibilities to other nations and the international community; that will not just celebrate membership of the EU but celebrate European history and identity, too; that will put electoral reform at the heart of its manifesto; and, perhaps most importantly of all, that will put the impending ecological crisis at the very centre of political life.
To make all of this happen, however, a further ingredient is necessary – and that’s bravery. This may sound gallant and overblown, but far from it. To call for some of the things above is to go against the political advice from strategists that has held sway for at least the past 40 years.
All of the above have consistently been sold as vote losers, if not electoral suicide. Never make the case for the EU and its attendant loss of national sovereignty; never go into an election talking of electoral reform; never remind voters of the environmental damage associated with their lifestyles. If you do, conventional political wisdom has it, you will turn voters off, and lose badly.
But this kind of advice is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you accept the central premise of this stuff, that these issues are vote losers, and then try to sell them in an election, then yes, you are doomed from the outset.
However, if your starting point is that the positions above are fine positions for a mature, 21st century democracy, then there is so much more to sell to the electorate in each of them – so much to sell in membership of the European Union and European identity itself, and in electoral reform (that is, in essentially making people’s votes actually count for something). And while it might not be a popular thing to say right now, there is so much to sell about globalisation, about opening up to different cultures and nationalities from around the world. And there is certainly a lot more to sell in the rewards of leading a greener life.
But when do we see mainstream politicians championing any of these things? I can count on one hand the politicians who, in my lifetime, have proudly championed the European Union. And, apart from the Liberal Democrats, who has ever made the case passionately for electoral reform that could meaningfully devolve power to people beyond London? And of course, despite there being many champions of economic globalisation and the spread of capitalist consumerism, can we remember any politician making the positive, proud case for free movement of people, welcoming immigrants and the valuable enriching cultural accoutrements they bring?
No, it doesn’t happen. All are seen as detrimental to electoral success. So politicians need bravery in the name of risking that success.
What’s at stake?
This progressive alliance is needed now more than ever precisely because progressive values are under intense pressure. It is needed for openness to survive, for tolerance, respect, the rule of law and polite society to survive.
And make no mistake: they are indeed under threat in GE2017. Not because Theresa May, or the Tories, or the right in general are somehow naturally malevolent. Far from it.
These values are under threat because of the issues that the present government is tapping into and the tools it is using to protect its Brexit agenda. It is in a weak, defensive position because Brexit, in its current hard form, is undeliverable without much economic and social upset.
Going on the offensive, then, seems to be the only option on the table. It’s difficult to do otherwise: a defence of the indefensible is not possible or sustainable; only attack. The result is a cabinet of ministers who belittle anyone seeking to scrutinise them and a prime minister who announces a snap general election with incredible belligerence, claiming it to be in the national interest. The Brexit-obsessed elements of the media then helps her to sell that line.
This strategy makes rational sense for GE2017 on many levels. But in unleashing ever darker forces to protect itself from weakness, the government is pitting Remainer against Leaver, left against right, them against us, like never before.
These are the forces confronting progressives in GE2017, forces unlike any others in the history of peace and stability post-1945. So vastly different are they, the response to them must also be of an entirely different order. The question now is, do we have the politicians, the advisers, the academics and the writers brave enough to stand up and champion those new, progressive forces? We can only hope so.