In a year’s time, will the Peterborough by-election be remembered by anyone outside of the town? The by-election in which the new right-wing kids on the block failed to make their much-heralded Westminster breakthrough! It didn’t happen, and everyone must be relieved that Labour beat the Brexit Party, but the seismic shifts in UK politics continue apace.
Peterborough tells us what we know, that the Brexit Party is a real force, but maybe not as unstoppable as many thought. It tells us that ground campaigns matter and while Labour can get troops to grind out a technical result, it does nothing to resolve the Brexit and personality tensions that are holding the party back. It reconfirms that first-past-the-post props up the two-party system and can keep on propping it up – the winning candidate got 30% of the vote and we are moving towards a four party system.
More ominously, it tells us that a regressive alliance could be looming. The result will have tipped the balance in the Tory Party further to ‘no deal’ and away from traditional one-nation politics in general. Between them, the Tories and the Brexit Party got 50% of the vote. If, or probably when, Johnson wins the Tory leadership, it’s very easy to imagine a north-south carve up in which the Brexit Party gets a free or clear run at Labour leave seats and the Tories are unhindered to take on Labour and the Lib Dems in the south. The message from Farage today is that more Tories should vote tactically and that if you vote Tory then you get Corbyn. Johnson will say the same about Brexit Party voters where the Tories can win. The ground for a Regressive Alliance is being prepared.
Another looming possibility in the autumn, or early next year, is a general election. Johnson is committed to sorting Brexit, one way or another, by 31st October, but with no parliamentary majority to seal a deal or no deal. If there is a bounce in the polls and any possible leave/regressive alliance is on the table – it would make sense to go for a general election in which you can secure a majority on 35%, rather than risk a second referendum, in which the barrier is 50%.
Meanwhile Labour can’t talk to itself, as the internal battles continue, let alone to other parties, to find ways to counter this emerging right bloc. It is up to everyone, however difficult, Labour, the new leadership of the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid and, yes, Compass, to unpick the remain/soft leave/progressive knot and to game the first-past-the-post system in a way that both stops the great moving right show and allows a new politics to finally flourish. Today’s YouGov poll gives progressives a clear majority of 54-46 over regressive parties. But that putative alliance has to be mobilised.
Key to this is a new social settlement for the country, in which much greater equality is made real, climate chaos is averted, and not just talked about, and there is a democratic revolution that sets the people free to decide how to make this good society possible. Whatever happens with Brexit, this country cannot and will not go on as it has. Progressives will either get their joint act together or suffer the consequences of the right getting there first.
One final thing – with the Tories doing nothing, except focusing on who their new leader will be – and Labour locked into stasis over Brexit – the need for a citizens’ assembly to break the logjam and allow a responsible, deep and respectful conversation about how we might at last deal sensibly with the outcome of the 2016 referendum feels palpable. Rory Stewart wants a Brexit citizens’ assembly. It’s not too late for this to happen.