There has been a lot of talk of late that the two upcoming Westminster by-elections should be used as a trial exercise for a progressive alliance (PA). The proposed trial? The Lib Dems would run, essentially unopposed, against a Conservative in the Buckinghamshire constituency of Chesham and Amersham while Labour would have a similar clear run in the West Yorkshire’s Batley and Spen constituency.
At first glance, wouldn’t such “no compete” pacts make sense? As somebody who supports both proportional representation (PR) and a national progressive alliance for the next general election, my answer is a definitive no. These two seats, in isolation, are not a useful test case for a progressive alliance and, in fact, having “stand-asides” in either would harm rather than help our prospects of wider cooperation over the longer term.
THE POLITICAL REALITY IN CHESHAM AND AMERSHAM
The Chesham and Amersham by-election will be held on 17 June; it follows the recent death of long-term Tory MP Cheryl Gillam. There is no question that Chesham and Amersham is a safe Tory seat. Since it was established in 1974, the Conservatives in this constituency have never polled less than 50% and have generally polled around 55%-60%. Moreover, national polling would suggest that the Conservatives have gone forward since the last election and the Lib Dems backward.
EVEN IF THE TORIES ARE CRASHING…
But just suppose that the national trend was completely reversed in this seat; a catastrophic result for the Tories here would still be in the high forties. Only a tiny fraction of Labour and Green voters would have to turn blue or stay home in order to push the Tories rather than the Lib Dems over the line. Indeed, keeping the Tories out in this seat is beyond reasonable credibility. And while some commentators have pointed to recent local elections as signs of hope for the Lib Dems, local elections don’t translate like that. They are shaped by turnout and local grievances. Consider the false dawn of the 2019 local and Euro elections.
The reality is that Chesham and Amersham is a solid safe seat where the Tory share is likely to go up rather than down in this upcoming by-election.
FPTP: AN ILLUSION OF DEMOCRACY
One of the reasons that PR is not a more popular idea is because FPTP is very successful at creating the illusion of democracy. At every election, the vast majority of candidates put themselves forward in the full knowledge that they cannot win. Why? Because local variations in demographics have more impact on the voting behaviour of individual constituencies than campaigning can ever hope to. Our electoral map is increasingly divided into hundreds of tiny one-party state-lets. Nevertheless there is a huge taboo around admitting when a seat is un-winnable.
Parties are incentivised not to break this omertà or code of silence. We compete furiously for second place and the “tactical” voting boost that it can give us, hoping to turn that vote into local council seats, even when the parliamentary prize is laughably beyond reach.
PR advocates should challenge this complicity in the great first-past-the-post (FPTP) swindle. Rather than stand aside where a seat is un-winnable, progressive parties should each stand the best candidates they have, give unrestrained voice to their voters, and condemn the system that produces these sham elections.
AND IN BATLEY AND SPEN?
On the other hand, Batley and Spen – the former seat of murdered MP Jo Cox – looks like a very vulnerable labour hold. So on the face of it, surely Labour should want the Lib Dems and Greens to stand aside for this 1st July vote? Certainly if a national alliance was on the cards then I would expect them to do so. But this is not part of a national alliance and, when we consider this single seat in isolation, things are rather different.
Let’s look at a bit of the electoral history of this constituency. In 2019 both the Lib Dems and Greens lost their deposits. If they stood aside, they would have very few votes to share out. Some of those votes would go blue rather than red and some would stay home. Furthermore, the optics of Labour doing a deal with the Europhile Lib Dems would be so toxic for many traditional Labour supporters in this leave voting seat that it would accelerate the loss of Labour voters to the Conservatives. Labour will win or lose Batley and Spen depending on where the Brexit vote goes. There isn’t one thing that the Lib Dems or Greens could do to assist us with that apart from staying as far away from us as they can.
A PROGRESSIVE ALLIANCE NEEDS CAREFUL PLANNING…
Building a real progressive alliance at a national level will be an enormous exercise, one for which we have barely begun to lay the groundwork. It would be a mistake to pretend otherwise or to think that circulating a few “please don’t stand petitions” will be an acceptable substitute.
“Stand-asides” mean depriving voters of the ability to vote for the party of their choice. It is an extraordinary step to take in a democracy and it should not be done lightly. It is a sacrifice we should only force people to make when there is a realistic probability of it delivering a result. Crucially, an effective progressive alliance has to be both grounded in data and have the consent of supporters and activists on the ground, whether through the agreement of local party units or by a form of ‘primary’.
…AND POLITICAL WILL
The first step will be to win the support of the respective party leaderships which, for Labour, starts with a conference commitment to implement PR if elected. Winning Labour’s support for PR would dramatically change the conversation between progressive parties and be a key enabler for any deeper cooperation. So whether you are a Labour member or supporter or a progressive ally in another party, please support GET PR DONE! Labour For A New Democracy or other groups in working towards this vital first step.
Tom van de Bilt is a Labour Party constituency chair, a member of the steering group of Get PR Done! and was the Labour Candidate for Saffron Walden in the 2019 General Election.
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