On May 6th, we were already going to see the biggest and most important set of elections this country has ever seen outside of a general election. The Welsh Senedd, the Scottish Parliament, mayoral elections all over the country and two years’ worth of local elections.
Already in this context, the need was becoming clear for those of us advocating a progressive alliance – a collaboration of some sort across parties including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to beat this increasingly authoritarian Conservative Party at the next General Election – to start actually working towards meaningful change in the relationships between parties on the ground. Local elections are after all where these relationships and the trust they depend on will be developed, or crushed.
Then the Hartlepool by-election was thrown into the mix.
By-elections matter disproportionately, especially the first by-election of a parliament. They set the tone, give the party that wins energy, and take it from those that lose. British political history is strewn with examples. And you couldn’t have scripted it better than have Hartlepool be the first by-election of this Parliament.
Hartlepool was one of the few ‘Red Wall’ seats held by Labour in 2019, and it was arguably held because the Brexit Party chose to stand against the Conservatives and split their vote. In other words, it was one of the few places where the progressive vote combined more effectively than the Conservative, with the Liberal Democrats not posing a threat and the Greens not standing.
The risk this time is that the opposite might happen. Without creative thinking and alliance building, the nightmare scenario is this: the Liberal Democrats try to show their renewed commitment to grassroots campaigning; the Greens try to show their ever greater presence and relevance across the country; the new Northern Independence Party tries to break through and establish itself … some or all of them succeed at Labour’s expense … and the net result is that Johnson’s Conservatives take the seat, increasing their majority and thereby their licence to bulldoze through their increasingly authoritarian policies.
The question, then, is what do we actually do – now, in Hartlepool? This is where the rubber hits the road.
We have to start by recognising that there’s no point simply arguing that everyone other than Labour should simply stand aside, or better, put their shoulder to the Labour wheel. That argument may make sense in the abstract, but when you step into a specific local context you immediately understand why it doesn’t add up. Working with the first-past-the-post system (as we must for now), by-elections represent rare opportunities for smaller and newer parties to make a noise. Each has its own imperatives, and a by-election is a rare and precious chance to fulfil them. With Labour yet to offer even a nod to constructive collaboration, the motivations of all the smaller parties are valid, and must be acknowledged.
What I believe that means is that we need to get smarter when it comes to by-elections, and I have two suggestions for how.
The first and simplest starts with each of the smaller parties working with their members and supporters to develop their top priority ‘asks’ of the most likely progressive candidate to beat the Conservatives – in this case clearly Labour – and pledge to support him (in this case) in return for the incorporation of these into his platform. These asks could be defined top-down by each party in turn, or developed using a simple crowdsourcing tool like allourideas (here is my own personal illustration of what this might look like for my own party, the Liberal Democrats).
It doesn’t end there, however. Crucially, in addition, the parties and progressive funders would collaborate to establish an annual Citizens’ Jury – a random sample of 12–20 people, selected to be representative of the population of the constituency on some key demographics, a little like a criminal jury. The remit of this group would be to hold the MP to account publicly for fulfilling the agreed commitments, after hearing from ‘witnesses’ representing each of the smaller parties, and putting forward a public report as an output. As well as ensuring accountability, this would also guarantee visibility for the agenda of the smaller parties.
This first approach is absolutely possible, even on the very short timescale imposed by the Hartlepool by-election on May 6th. With more time, however, an even richer and more participatory approach could be taken.
At the centre of such an approach would be a Citizens’ Assembly, not just a Citizens’ Jury: a larger sample of the population, probably around 60, coming together for longer, around a convening question along the lines of ‘What do the people of Hartlepool need from their MP?’ The various candidates would act as the witnesses, presenting their manifestoes to Assembly participants, who would deliberate on and prioritise the various elements of them to arrive at a combined agenda. Where there was an obviously best-placed candidate, as in Hartlepool, this person might again commit to integrate these priorities into their campaign in return for wider support; where the conditions were closer, it might even play a primary-esque role, ‘refereeing’ a choice between candidates. Regardless of this nuance, the winning progressive MP would be held to account by an annual Citizens’ Jury to ensure smaller parties remain visible and their contributions recognised, as with the simpler approach.
This latter, Assembly-driven approach would be my preference. I even made the calls to see if it would be possible now as soon as I heard about Hartlepool being called. But the process of recruitment takes time to do well, and it’s vital that it is done well.
This former process however is completely feasible if the political will is there, even on the timescale of a by-election on 6th May. It requires creative thinking and a determination to focus on the good of Hartlepool, the place and the people, before individual party imperatives. But it does not mean those party imperatives have to be set aside completely, as if they were of no value.
With the increasing authoritarianism and cronyism of this Conservative Party, that doesn’t seem like it should be too much to ask.
Jon Alexander is a member of the Liberal Democrats and Co-Founder of the New Citizenship Project, an innovation company which promotes the role of people and encourages better participation in society. He tweets @jonjalex.