At the end of the film Terminator 2 Sarah Connor looks across the New Mexico desert and says ‘there is a storm coming’. That storm is here. The aftermath of Storm Doris is nothing compared to the aftermath of the political storm sweeping our country. Last night it tore through Labour in Copeland and subsided just enough not to do the same in Stoke Central, for now. But there is little solace to be found. Yes it was good to see Labour activists pour into Stoke, but mobilization without a message can only take you so far. There will be more by-elections, UKIP might falter but Arron Banks and his ‘People’s Movement’ is readying itself in the wings, the Tories rule supreme and, at the top at least, the progressive parties are too slow to learn the lessons.
In both Stoke and Copeland we wanted to see a local progressive alliance formed – an agreement not to stand or not to campaign to ensure in both of these cases Labour, as the best placed progressive party, would be more likely to win. Despite some local and national urging it proved impossible. The result: the progressive parties poll a majority of votes in Copeland between them and let the Tories through. The likelihood of a snap general election in which the left is utterly routed just went up a notch. When oppositions lose by-elections, they’re in massive trouble.
In Stoke, the opportunity for a popular front against Paul Nuttall was there and Labour just squeaked through against a Party leader whose credibility and competence was torn to shreds during the campaign. It could easily have been very different. But again it proved impossible, unlike Richmond Park, to assemble an alliance. Why and what comes next?
Many in Labour, it would seem, would rather lose to the Tories, than work with people they largely agree with in other parties. Anger at the Liberal Democrats for their role in the Coalition is understandable at one level but gets us nowhere. They did bad things and good things – just as Labour did when it was in office. What matters is what happens next. And for Labour the legacy of standing in Richmond Park rumbles on. They could have changed the game there by standing aside, but they refused. Labour only ever does well when it forms a progressive alliance – in 1906 when the Liberals stood aside to let Hardie’s candidates through, in 1945 when Labour relied on the energy and ideas of Liberal thinkers Keynes and Beveridge, and in 1997 when a pact with the Liberal Democrats saw the Tories all but destroyed. Labour will remember its past or that is all it will have.
But Labour isn’t solely to blame. The Liberal Democrats never gave the Greens the credit they deserved in Richmond Park, which would have given even more impetus to the idea of a progressive alliance. And while they gain some electoral advantage with a clear Brexit line, they build walls, routinely denouncing Labour over Europe. Surely the goal must be to build a new progressive majority which embraces members of both the 48% and the 52%. Does Tim Farron really want his only options to be the prop to another Tory government or the wilderness? He and they need to play a longer and better game.
And what were the Greens doing, standing a candidate against Paul Nuttall when they didn’t against Zac Goldsmith? It was a local decision, as it must be, and yet the lack of recognition for the decision not to stand in Richmond has triggered a kickback from the Greens. But the champions of the progressive alliance have to be brave and have to keep showing everyone the way. The prize is a non-Tory government and the introduction of proportional representation. On which, it is interesting to note that last night’s 38% turnout in Stoke was dwarfed by the 66% turnout in the EU referendum. The people are not stupid: they know when their vote counts and will have an impact change.
Our party political system is broken – not for the Tories, but for progressives. We are going to have to form alliances to win, to change the system so that we can change society. Then we can start to address the insecurity and hopelessness felt in de-industrialized towns and cities like Stoke, for which Labour and others have to develop a more coherent and credible message of change.
Some at the top of the progressive parties will be the last to shift – but the storm of change is coming. It seems almost every night there is a meeting in the country about a progressive alliance. Last night 150 packed a hall in Oxford, next week it’s Ramsgate and then Cambridge and then Birmingham, Twickenham and Liverpool. Across the country this is being driven from the bottom up – by local parties and people who are ready to do politics differently.
Compass is working like fury behind the scenes to support this surge for change, to put in place the arguments and resources to build a progressive alliance that can see our dreams become our lives. Soon, we hope to be able to launch a massive national progressive alliance project. The elements of it are coming together. By-elections will come and go, but the need to change our political system to change our society won’t. There will be a progressive alliance or we will be governed for the foreseeable future by a regressive alliance and everything that means for our country and our people. The progressive parties are fighting each other, not the Tories and not the system. We can’t allow this to happen.
We can’t build the platform for a progressive alliance without your help. Meetings, websites, leaflets and publications cost money and we have so little of it.