Saturday, 6 May 2017

Comrade Corbyn's Last Chance


Labour's losses in yesterday's local elections came as little surprise; and nor for anyone reflecting on how our first-past-the -post voting system works was the collapse of UKIP to just one councillor (from 145) a true shock. Even the Tory resurgence in Scotland was predictable given their showing in last year's Scottish Parliamentary elections (and nor was it that spectacular - one "incredible" result was on the basis of 629 votes on the tenth count to win the last seat in a 4-member ward; not the stuff of revolutions, or perhaps more appropriately reaction).

Unsurprising too was Jeremy Corbyn's vow to fight on and John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, explaining it all away as not as bad as expected. What politician doesn't try that - UKIP after all claim their losses were because they are victims of their own success, while the Lib Dems "Tiny" Tim Farron hailed their net loss of 42 councillors as a stunning success. Among opposition parties, only the Greens (up 6) and Plaid Cymru (up 33) actually had any concrete good news, but both were studiously written out of nearly all news stories.

What is surprising is Labour's attitude, both before but especially now after their bad local showing, to those smaller opposition parties given Corbyn's previous calls for political pluralism. In the face of all reality, they continue to talk as if it is still 1950 and the Tories and Labour stand to poll 97% of the vote between them.

The Greens have debated the idea of working with Labour and others in a "Progressive Alliance". The objectives of such a beast - was it to gain electoral reform or simply beat the Tories? - generated more greenhouse  heat than light at times, as did the vexed question of whether or not the Lib Dems might be welcomed to root among the progressive compost. But with Theresa May's snap election called three weeks ago, the overtures to Labour gained a real urgency given the Tories' commanding lead in the polls.

Green leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley both offered to talk with Jeremy Corbyn, while in almost every region of the country, local Green parties offered to consider local accommodations where Green voters are numerous enough to make a possible difference to the outcome. So far, a couple of agreements have been reached in Brighton Kemptown and in Ealing where the Greens will back the Labour candidate in return, among other things, for a commitment to support proportional representation. Greens have also stood down in Shipley, along with the local Lib Dems, to back the Women's Equality Party against the odious Tory incumbent Philip Davies, but so far Labour are adamant they will stand in spite of having little prospect of success. With a few honourable exceptions such as Clive Lewis, this is typical of their national stance: Labour are prepared to stand down absolutely nowhere at all, for any one else. Period.

On Radio 4 just yesterday, Labour's Lord Faulkener insisted the "minor parties" have been wiped aside and it is a straight contest between Tory and Labour ignoring the fact that these same parties had just won almost exactly the same number of council seats as Labour. A few days previously, speaking in Batley (where, ironically, all the major parties stood down in favour of Labour after Jo Cox's murder), Labour Front Bencher Emily Thornberry responded to a question asking if she felt only two parties - Labour and Tory - should be standing in the elections with a plain, "Yes."

So much for Corbyn's pluralism. And so much for any chances of stopping a Tory tidal wave.

We are where we are in good part because of our undemocratic voting system: first-past-the-post, with its winner-take-all outcomes, had repeatedly produced election results completely at odds with the wishes of voters. Time and time again, Government's have gained outright power with a minority of votes cast - only once since the war, in 1955, has the winning party achieved over half the vote.

Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, recognised this. He declared first-past-the-post as unfit for purpose, especially outside a two-party system, and the Labour Government of 1929-31 actually introduced a Bill for electoral reform which was held up by the House of Lords until the Government collapsed. With Labour's success in 1945, the party's commitment to a fairer voting system was quietly forgotten.

And so we are left with this impasse: Labour decry those on the Left who stand against them as stooges for the Tories because of how the voting system works. And yet they refuse to change that system for all sorts of spurious reasons, but at its core is the repeated mantra that we are a two-party country and the choice we face is purely binary.

These claims however are a denial of reality. While in 1951 97% did indeed vote Tory or Labour, in 2015 that figure was just 65%, with more people (35%) voting for "minor parties" compared to Labour's total of just 29%. Just look at Scotland, where the SNP virtually eliminated Labour and where the party continues to fall relentlessly and the claim that UK politics are binary is immediately swept away. And while UKIP is clearly on the wane in England, this is largely because the hard right Tories have adopted their agenda - there is no dividend for Labour. The Greens, meantime, while not at breakthrough, have continued to grow steadily in elected representatives and their current poll ratings show them at least likely to equal if not just yet better their record 2015 showing.

So what on earth possesses Labour, including Jeremy Corbyn, like some sort of Death Wish?

The announcement of a Progressive Alliance and real reciprocation between Labour, Greens, Plaid and the SNP up to the close of nominations on Thursday would produce a wave of support far beyond the current sum of its parts. The Tories have decried such an entity as a "Coalition of Chaos", but it is in fact the thing they fear most - because far more unites these parties than divides them. Faced off against the lacklustre Tory campaign, an alliance would catch the popular imagination and reinvigorate the political landscape.

And yet, although it is technically possible even now, there is little sign of it from the Labour ranks. Regrettably, and almost certainly in vain, Corbyn puts his party's tenuous and frankly impossible unity ahead of the needs of the country. For the sake of trying to conjure up the illusion of a two-party contest, Labour risk delivering Britain into the grim reality of a One Party state.