As the two candidates for next Conservative leader strut around the country, pitching to the tiny fraction of the population (party members) who will select one of them to be the next prime minister, it’s all too easy for those of us who identify as a progressive to allow a perpetual fog of malaise to descend upon us. The Tory hopefuls behave as though they are campaigning to a country of voters that have some kind of say in the whole charade, rather than consisting overwhelmingly of bemused bystanders, struggling to distinguish one privately educated millionaire from the other.
It’s very hard to feel upbeat when Brexit Party MEPs grotesquely compare the U.K. being released from European food safety regulations with the emancipation of the slaves, and Brexit Party rallies kick off to the sound of World War II air raid sirens as though the baby boomers who dominate them were — in the words of James Felton — as a sperm, ‘personally dodging bullets on the beach of Normandy’.
So, I thought I’d try starting a regular blog that sought reasons for progressives in the U.K. to be hopeful — and I aim to do one about every fortnight.
1/ The Tories are on the cusp of having their already tiny majority cut to a nanometre.
It may have not bothered you when they went into coalition with the Tories in 2010, or it may be that you would sooner take up permanent residence in your kitchen freezer than ever vote Liberal Democrat, but I presume that — as a progressive — you can at least get behind the idea that a further reduction in the Conservatives’ already perilous majority can only be a good thing.
There is a good chance of this happening on August 1st, after both Plaid Cymru and the Greens announced that they were standing down their candidates in the upcoming Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. The Lib Dems held it until 2015 and polling suggests they are the best placed to retake the seat, but they face stiff competition — not only from the incumbent Conservatives — but more so from the insurgent Brexit Party. By standing down their candidates, the Greens and Plaid Cymru are trying to avoid a split in the progressive/pro-European vote which would risk the Brexit Party or Conservatives taking the seat. True to form, the Labour Party are running a mile from this initiative — they don’t really ‘do’ cross-party working — but Plaid Cymru have indicated that this could be a testing ground for a broader cross-party strategy at the next general election. The Greens already do informal deals with the Liberal Democrats at local constituency level.
If the Liberal Democrats take the seat, the next prime minister’s welcome gift will be to have his majority cut to a wafer-thin and completely unmanageable three votes. This makes an autumn general election even more likely.
2/ Even if Corbyn doesn’t shift Labour’s position, conference will probably force him to
Technically, a no-confidence vote in the government could take place before the summer parliamentary recess, particularly if Boris Johnson becomes PM. However, this is considered unlikely, not least because the Conservative MPs required to pass such a vote will not be prepared to do it in the first few days of the next prime minister’s tenure. There will be another opportunity in September, before the party conference season begins, but none of the party leaders — including Jeremy Corbyn — will want to disrupt the main set-piece events of the year. Realistically, this means that the most likely point at which a general election would be triggered is in the autumn, as we hurtle towards ‘no deal’ on 31 October, either because parliament successfully passes a ‘no confidence’ vote or because Prime Minister Boris Johnson calls one. And this timing is a good thing for anyone who wants Labour to have shifted their position on Brexit before a general election takes place, because it will be after their party conference.
At the moment, the outcome of a general election is anyone’s guess, but if the Tories and Brexit Party were to form a pact, all polls currently point towards them securing a landslide victory. To avoid this, most analysts agree that Labour have to switch to a pro-referendum and pro-Europe position. You know something’s stirring when even Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal supporters, such as Owen Jones, express grave concerns about Labour’s confusing position on Brexit. In a remarkable article in the New Statesman, another Corbyn-loyalist, Paul Mason launched a stinging attack on the party chairman Ian Lavery, union boss Len McClusky and Corbyn’s inner circle of advisers who refuse to allow Labour to move from their current ‘all options on the table’ fudge.
But after this mush of a position was agreed at 2018’s Labour conference, the membership is unlikely to be in such compromising mood at this year’s gathering. As almost 90% of members are in favour of a second referendum, it’s quite likely that the Labour leadership will be forced to swing the party firmly behind a second vote, possibly with a commitment to campaign for ‘remain’. That’s unless they jump before they are pushed and announce a shift before then. Apparently, Jeremy Corbyn has been reading up on how Harold Wilson dealt with divisions in the party over Europe during the 1975 referendum campaign, perhaps as a guide on how to handle the ongoing divisions he’ll face over the next one.
As a side note, it is worth mentioning that this week, Conservative ‘rebel’ MP Dominic Grieve is introducing an amendment to a bill that — if passed — would commit the government to giving an oral statement on the status of Northern Ireland power sharing at some point in September or October 2019. Doing so would make it impossible for the next Prime Minister to prorogue parliament to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit because parliament would have to remain open in order for that statement to be given. Clever ay?
3/ Voters are smarter than they are given credit.
Whilst the direct impact of a Plaid Cymru/Liberal Democrat/Green Party arrangement would be minimal, it could do a lot — indirectly — to raise the public’s awareness about the merits of tactical voting. This could mean that — if there is an autumn general election — the numbers that vote tactically might be even more than the 6.5 million, or around 14% of the electorate, who did so in 2017.
Unless the polls shift dramatically, a majority government of any colour is unlikely, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to hope/believe that the majority of seats could go to parties that are in favour of giving the country a final say on whether or not we leave the E.U. (including — by November 2019 — the Labour Party) and for the version of Brexit on offer in that referendum one that maintains a close relationship with Europe. Perhaps a so-called ‘rainbow coalition’ or ‘progressive alliance’ might even be able to move onto the issues facing the country that are currently ignored, like soaring food bank use, the creaking NHS and the climate emergency.
Most importantly, such a result would stop a Conservative/Brexit party government dead in its tracks — and that alone should give us all reasons to be hopeful.
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