Local MP Caroline Lucas has called this week for a “progressive alliance” of centre-left parties ahead of the next General Election to ensure the defeat of the Conservatives. For many of us, particularly those in constituencies where the Tory majority was narrow and far less than the sum of the Labour and Green votes, it is an enticing proposition. But ultimately, like the notion that there is a silent majority of progressive voters just waiting for an electoral vehicle to give them voice, it is a false one.
I find it increasingly hard to believe there is a substantial bloc of several million left or progressive voters who, when faced with a choice between an increasingly right-wing Tory Party and a Labour Party they don’t think is quite good enough to spend ten minutes going out to vote for, opt to stay at home. For them, it’s not even worth going to the bother of voting Green or TUSC. The thing about non-voters is that they don’t vote. The thing about the numbers of people who voted Labour, Green, SNP, TUSC or anyone else is that more people voted Conservative. In any case, to combine the numbers who voted Green and Labour is simplistic. Any pact would inevitably put off many who voted for either from backing such an alliance.
The Fabian Society has made it devastatingly clear that for Labour to win again, it has to win over a significant proportion of those voters who backed the Tories in May. The idea that we simply need to harness the left, motivate the young or hope that older voters who turnout in huge numbers have a Damascene conversion to socialism in the next five years is hopelessly optimistic and probably naive.
The progressive alliance is a chimera, a myth. Increasingly people don’t identify with the political labels we do. Left or right, progressive or socialist, these are terms which rarely come up on the doorstep. We can retreat to the comfort of our banners and our badges, or we can use our values to reach out to those who somewhere lost faith in our ability to deliver for them with an offer that is new, a vision that connects and a plan that delivers for them.
What did come up on the doorstep, again and again across Brighton and Hove before the local and General elections in May, was the message “get the Greens out”. Whilst for some in the city centre this meant a Labour vote in the city council elections and a vote for Caroline Lucas in the Parliamentary election, for the majority there was little sympathy for the Greens and a good deal of hostility for their record.
In the local elections Labour fought and won a bitter battle with the Greens, taking half of the party’s seats on the city council and winning 33,000 more votes. The majority of those Green council seats fell in Caroline Lucas’s constituency, where Labour candidates regularly faced hostility from Green supporters for daring to challenge them in elections. Just one seat changed hands between the Greens and Tories.
Where we did not win this time around we came second. Labour was first or second in all 21 wards in the city. At the next local elections in 2019 we will seek to take more seats from the Greens, just as we will seek to win seats from the Conservatives. That is how elections work. Voters expect a choice, not a pre-determined pact between parties they may not see as part of the same “grouping”.
For Labour to now enter into some kind of electoral pact or alliance with the Greens would be an utter betrayal of those voters who wanted the Greens out, and those Labour campaigners who suffered so much abuse and hostility from Greens who felt they were entitled to a free run at holding seats taken from Labour.
Since the election there has been little in the way of any “progressive alliance” from the Greens towards Labour. They joined with the Tories to block Labour having the casting vote on the council’s two most powerful committees, and pledged to “create havoc” for the newly-elected Labour administration. They have already signalled their intent to vote with the Conservative Group to frustrate Labour’s intent, as they did on a number of key issues during their period in office.
The sudden conversion to co-operative politics from Caroline Lucas understandably grates with those of us who have spent nearly two decades locked in a battle with the Green Party, a Green Party who’s stated aim throughout has been to replace Labour as the party of opposition to the Tories in the city. Labour has been the focus of the majority of Green Party attacks over the past decade, and frequently Green activists have stated that in their view Labour and the Tories are no different. If that is your belief, then surely there are no grounds for an alliance.
Rejecting the idea of a progressive alliance does not mean we adopt the Conservative agenda. I’ve made it very clear that my administration on the city council will set out to tackle poverty and inequality in the city, to eliminate street homelessness and long term youth unemployment. We will have to work differently, build new partnerships and innovate, as others have done. We will have to move beyond the false choices of council-run services and privatisation. Our aim is to ensure everyone shares in the city’s prosperity, not just the few clustered around the centre or the wealthy suburbs.
We are a Labour and Co-operative Administration. I state here again my intent to find common ground in the interests of the city with councillors of either party. We are as far from major elections in Brighton and Hove now as we will ever be, and the public want us to get on with the job and make their lives and the place where they live better. That, and not discussions around electoral alliances, is where I intend to put my efforts now and in the future.