Forget standing down in Richmond: we shouldn’t have to make that choice

Josiah Mortimer

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Almost as quickly as Zac Goldsmith announced his resignation this week, talk turned to the other parties in the race: should they clear the way for a candidate with a better chance of beating him?

Within hours, we had articles about ‘progressive alliances’ – pacts of left-of-centre parties standing aside to give the Liberal Democrat candidate to a clear run. There were spats, open divisions and public calls for Labour and the Greens to stand aside – both from within and outside those parties.

Both the Greens and Labour had to have serious (leaked) talks about whether they should step down in order to avoid ‘splitting the vote’. And on Wednesday, three key Labour figures – Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonny Reynolds – wrote for LabourList: “If there is any chance of kicking Goldsmith out of Parliament, the vote against him must not be split. That’s why we think Labour should consider not standing a candidate in this by-election.”

And the Greens were briefing similar sentiments: “Jonathan [Bartley] and Caroline [Lucas] are longstanding advocates of progressives working together to beat the Conservatives.”

But it’s an invidious position to be in. No party really wants to stand aside. And why should they? Voters deserve a choice, and pacts along the lines of ‘I’ll step aside here if you step aside there’ can come across as stitch-ups to voters.

Whether you’re a senior party figure – or even just a supporter – you want your party’s vote to be high. You want to stand everywhere. And you want to stand out as unique, not a watered-down or beefed-up variation of another party.

Both parties – Labour and the Greens – have now, after some rancour, decided to stand. If the Liberal Democrats lose by a small margin, they may well be blamed. It’s absurd. But it’s also depressingly understandable given the nature of our voting system.

The thing is, in most modern democracies, the concept of ‘splitting the vote’ is totally alien. It’s is what happens when you have a winner-takes-all electoral system – one that too often forces people to vote for ‘lesser evils’ rather than the party they most agree with, namely for fear of ‘letting the [x] party in’.

Perhaps ironically – given that Labour doesn’t (yet) back electoral reform – it’s First Past the Post that has led to this centre-left malaise and hand-wringing over Richmond.

There is, obviously, a solution. While the Alternative Vote isn’t the best electoral system for electing a whole Parliament, when it comes to by-elections it’s the fairest system. Allowing people to rank candidates by preference totally abolishes the ‘need’ for parties to stand down for another.

Tactical voting is a scourge on 21st century British democracy: it’s what happens when a formerly two-party system breaks open, as it has done in the UK, but the electoral system can’t cope.

Under AV, it is massively reduced. You don’t have to ‘hold your nose’ and vote for the Lib Dems if you’re a Labour voter: you give your first preference Labour and your second preference to the Lib Dems. If Labour don’t have enough support to win, your vote is moved to the Lib Dems instead. It’s not hard. No more accusations of parties being ‘spoilers’ and handing the seat to x, y or z.

This isn’t new to the UK. Scotland has seen a number of AV by-elections this month alone. And, lo-and-behold, a number of centre-left parties stood, and yet – far from splitting the vote – centre-left parties won in both instances. Northern Ireland, which also uses PR for its Assembly, like Scotland uses AV for its by-elections.

It’s time we put paid to the awkward and childish debates about ‘spoiler’ candidates. The way to do that is to have a voting system where it’s always OK for voters to vote for their party. That, surely, is not such a radical idea.

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  1. Posted by Matthew Rees

    I’ve had thirty years experience of dealing with the Lib Dems in Kingston/Richmond (Zac is my MP) and I strongly oppose standing down to give them a free run, all they’ll do is use their victory as a stick to beat Labour with in future elections. I also oppose AV because I do not want to be called a Lib Dem supporter by the Lib Dems after I’ve given them my third preference.,

  2. Posted by David Whalley

    Sadly, Josiah completely ignores the elephant blocking his way to any sort of reformed electoral system – a Tory run House of Commons. We can talk all we like about AV or any other new system of voting but Tories must be defeated under the current rules. I see no way of achieving this except by some form of “progressive alliance”.

  3. Posted by Paul

    Shouldn’t the first and foremost goal of a Progressive Alliance, or a looser coalition, be the introduction of PR, with this being the clearly stated goal? The issue seems to be that, there won’t be fair representation whilst the Tories are in power; no one party is likely to unseat them in the next election on its own; and therefore, only a coalition of parties (of some sort) can resolve this.

    A major part of the effort should be directed at getting Labour to commit to electoral reform – plus a dose of realism re their chances at the next election. I’d love to be wrong about this. But even if they could win the next election outright, it seems to me that the priority should be to keep the Tories/UKIP alliance out *first*, and second (only) for Labour to try to get a Labour majority, if that’s possible. To do otherwise would be for Labour to risk letting down its own members, by ignoring a route to keep the Tories out.

    It might be a good idea for the progressives to start talking about the surreptitious, collusive (but real, I think) Tory/UKIP alignment as an actual – if informal – alliance. A progressive alliance to counter a hard right-wing alliance would be justifiable as reasonable balance. It would help dampen any suggestion that a progressive alliance is some form of tactical machination, rather than modern, grown-up politics.

    Some solidarity between left-of-centre and progressive parties would seem to be a rationale strategy too. Negotiating common positions, even if only on individual policy issues, would be a start. It might be a good idea if the progressives could stop scoring minor points off each other. (I was slightly disappointed to see Jonathan Bartley get in a cheap joke re Labour’s ‘unity’ at the leadership speech.) I’m not suggesting they don’t critique each others’ policies: in fact open progressive debates about alternatives (to hard-right neo-liberal policies) could be turned into an asset – a public show and airing of realistic possibilities other than austerity. In time, the progressives can stopping being seem to be ‘anti-austerity’ and start agreeing some common ground on being ‘pro-social progress’.

    In time, as the consequences of Brexit evolve, the progressives could even start agreeing some common position here too. In some small ways this already seems to be happening, in fact.

    But perhaps this is an area where the progressives should agree not to agree (on any common position) too early. If it turns out – and this is my personal expectation, with no disrespect meant to anyone who voted Leave – to be almost entirely negative in terms of trade; worker and environmental protections; international courts; mutual solidarity; and research and education, then some rethinking will likely be in order, along with a renewed mandate for an alternative (for example, to hard-brexit). If Brexit can be positive there will still be a good deal to be decided on for many, many years – and I don’t think many progressives will want that future decided by a combined Tory/UKIP world-view.

    Either way, a loose coalition of progressive parties that are already engaged and examining each others’ policies and positions, coming to agreement where possible, and contrasted against right-way policies, could be exactly what is required for in navigating the brexit labyrinth.

    A progressive alliance will need visible symbols for the concept to crystallize around. Has any work been done on logos, posters, or other such resources? Is anyone engaged in this kind of work at the moment?

  4. Posted by Martin Childs

    Update – The Green Party has decided not to stand. Labour are standing and have announced their candidate.

  5. Posted by James Smith

    In critical swing states Clinton lost by the margin taken by Johnson and Stein. Lesson? We’ve have to decide if our party political pride is more important than keeping fascism at bay or whether we will look forward to the UK maintaining a special relationship with a hideous U.S. Goverrnment. If we do believe in this cause, much compromise will be needed to give a unified movement that the nation can rally around. It’s a bad decision of Labour to block a Lib Dem chance – party pride is more important than the future of our nation. We must find a way to form a progressive alliance of some kind. Richmond will be another squandered opportunity to road test an alliance before a general election.

  6. Posted by John Littler

    When the “miserable little compromise” of AV was set up as an Aunt Sally by the Tories. Such was many back benchers opposition to any kind of electoral reform that it took Cameron a great deal of persuasion to get them onside on even this.

    AV was a measure which was estimated to change the result in only around 15-20 seats out of 650 and which the No to AV” campaign
    ( actually the Tories) pointed out could actually turn out to be less proportional than FPTP.

    Why anyone could waste time discussing this soundly rejected and highly flawed voting system as some kind of reform to be welcomed, is strange to say the least.

    However, it is worth remembering that Blair and Ashdown worked out an agreement on AV+ which was proportional ( top up list) and which appeared in the ’97 Labour manifesto. Needless to say, while Labour benefited from their second strongest result ever, gaining most centrist voters, PR voting was dropped under pressure from Brown.

    Dropping PR voting was probably Labour’s most foolish ever long term decision and one which will likely guarantee decades of ever more right wing and nationalist governments, based on minority votes, unless the opposition centre left parties realise that they have more in common than what divides them.

    The centre left parties need to put single candidates up against the right in winnable seats for an agreed programme under a common banner like Reform or Change. The novelty of the situation ought to have an appeal greater than the sum of the parts. There are no guarantees, but what are the realistic alternatives?

    For Labour to shun this common position in favour of the one more heave argument, would put their wish for an unrealistic return to majoritarian power over the needs of an increasingly damaged country and people, who are instead reaching for any populist answer which tells them whatever simple lie they want to believe.