‘What if Labour Can’t Win Alone?’

Caroline Lucas

Monday, 23 September 2019

Below is Caroline Lucas’ opening remarks at the Compass fringe event – ‘What if Labour can’t win alone?’ – at the 2019 UK Labour Conference in Brighton. 

Thank you – always a pleasure to be part of a Compass panel and the reliably constructive debate that follows. 

I want to start by challenging the premise of the question we are being asked because I don’t think it’s a case of What If Labour can’t win alone? 

All the evidence suggests they can’t. The question I think it’s more important to explore is what do we mean by winning? I’d like to redefine winning as about far more than who gets the most MPs – and in doing so to challenge the idea that any Party can do it alone.  

Let’s start by getting some numbers out the way.

Labour took home only 14% of the vote nationwide in the European elections.

Most current polling puts the Conservatives ahead and even the best-case General Election scenario for Labour is not an outright majority. 

This isn’t the whole story of course and what needs saying is that Jeremy Corbyn remains the party leader who is the strongest challenger to Boris Johnson. Of all the nationwide opposition parties, Labour has the infrastructure to fight an election, and Corbyn increased Labour’s share of the vote in 2017 by more than any other leader of any other post-war party.

But then there’s Brexit. 

In June, YouGov found that if Labour sticks to its alternative Brexit position, it would lose half (51%) of its post-2017 defectors to the Lib Dems.

A shift to Brexit opposition doesn’t automatically bring them back though – and what the latest variation of fence sitting will do to voting intention isn’t yet clear.

What we do know is that YouGov found if the Remain vote is split equally between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would enjoy their strongest showing. Sure, that predates Boris Johnson and the prospect of no deal, but his ratings are soaring and all the evidence is that he’s prepared to do whatever he thinks it takes to neutralize the Brexit Party and steal much of their vote share. 

In other words, nothing is certain, everything is fast moving, and political allegiances are shifting constantly.

If we accept that and simultaneously accept that Labour can’t win alone, what are the circumstances in which they can win?

I think it’s helpful to reflect on the lessons of the 2017 general election, when Greens stood aside in 24 marginal seats to give more viable candidates to give them a free run at beating the Conservatives. Crucially each of those candidates was committed to advocating for voting reform if elected and for proportional representation to replace first past the post.

Out of those seats, 10 went to either Labour or the Liberal Democrats and half of those were gains – including Clive Lewis in Norwich South. 

These local alliances helped reduce Theresa May’s majority – but the Tories still hold the keys to Number 10.

If Labour had taken part in electoral coalitions in any shape or form, it’s perfectly possible Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister right now – and how different things might be.

Labour can’t currently win alone in part because of our voting system, which makes forging alliances the smart thing to do. And co-operation can also be how we change the voting system, as the first step towards transforming the rest of our democracy. 

Which takes me onto what we mean by winning. 

I think we have to think so much bigger than one election. And I have something much more profound in my sights – forging a new, exciting, plural, diverse and radical politics. 

The redistribution of power, not just wealth. 

This is the big prize not just because democracy matters but because responding to the climate emergency with the urgency and on the scale the science demands requires the involvement of eight billion people and this can only be guaranteed by democracy.

Climate breakdown is creating a world in which it is literally true that we are all in it together.

We cannot succeed in tackling it unless we all pull together – starting with here in the UK.

Climate policy cannot succeed without the rule of law, social cohesion and democracy – and climate policy failure will destroy all three.

So the question to grapple with is so much bigger than what if Labour can’t win alone – because if winning is as big as it needs to be, nobody can do it alone. 

The question isn’t even what can politics and government do to rescue people from climate change?

It’s can the climate emergency rescue politics and government from people’s loss of confidence? 

I think the answer is yes.

We have choices: between a future in which people are in control, the planet thrives, we live larger more fulfilled lives, and embrace the power of co-operation.

Or a future where the state or corporations run our lives and use the illusion of free choice to tie us into a destructive growth obsessed economic system.  Where those of us who share the same progressive values tear one another apart. Where we let the regressives win elections and capture people’s imaginations with better stories, albeit ones based on lies and scaremongering.

Some basic principles should inform our decision making. 

First – a recognition that nobody and no single political party has a monopoly on wisdom. 

We face huge challenges and the most immediate and long-term crises we face are falling across new fault lines.

So let’s stack things in our favour – not shut the door on the potential to transform the future because someone with the skills or ideas we could use is in a different tribe.

Secondly, how we do democracy matters.

If you thought I was not going to mention Brexit – apologies. It’s coming now. 

To heal the deep divisions in our society which the Brexit referendum has laid bare, we must forge a new representative politics – one that’s plural, diverse and inclusive.

Movements not machines are the future – our allies are in unions, civil society groups, grassroots movements, green groups – and other parties.

And to fix Britain, we’ve got to break open the system. 

Such as confronting how millions are locked out of politics permanently by first past the post. 

In 2015 the Tories claimed a mandate on 37% of the vote and backing from just 24% of electorate. The Greens got 1.2m votes, UKIP 3.8%.  

In 2017 General Election, 68% of votes cast were wasted – they made no difference to the outcome.

With proportional representation every vote would count. 

Thirdly, it’s time for bravery.

Eton educated insiders dressed as rebels in charge. We need leadership with the courage to bring bold ideas to the table, and the confidence to win public support for them. 

We need to agree values before tactics – I accept that. But the brave thing isn’t to hide behind our values or use them as an excuse to continue doing politics in our tribes. 

The brave thing is to seek out those with whom we have more in common than divides us. To work with them when we can and robustly call them out when they get it wrong. 

Even if the electoral math is stacked up and Labour could get more MPs under first past the post, that isn’t winning big enough.

To really win is to win people’s hearts and minds.

It’s winning a country that works for the 21st century – and for its citizens – where our approach to the environment has been re-imagined alongside a re-imagined fair and cohesive society, a re-imagined economy which offers dignity and opportunity, a re-imagined powerful engaging democracy. And winning is about re-imagining the relationship between all of these too.

It is not policy change we need but fundamental system change. 

A new story of national pride and renewal.  

Nobody can do that alone.  

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