As throughout Europe, right wing populism is on the rise in Britain, alongside a continued dominance of traditional conservatism. The British electoral system poses unique challenges to progressive political parties responding to that situation – challenges which can only be overcome by collaboration and electoral alliances.
It’s been repeated so many times it’s reached the point of cliché – 2016 has been a monumentally bad year for the European left. Brexit has put at risk many environmental protections and workplace rights, in addition to threatening an even more aggressive border enforcement policy. In Austria, an openly fascist candidate very nearly became President, narrowly losing in two separate elections to Green Party member Alexander Van Der Bellen.
Resurgence of the far right, and their populist Eurosceptic offspring is swelling across much of Europe. Polling for the Dutch General Election in March suggests a victory the Party of Geert Wilders, a man recently convicted for incitement to discrimination. Spring will also see the French Presidential election, a likely two horse race between The Republicans and the National Front – a historically anti-semitic and fascist party remoulded in populist Islamophobia. Golden Dawn have crept up in the polls since Tsipiras’ capitulation to European capital through the third bailout package.
What’s remarkable is that for the most part, this hasn’t brought about a dismantling of existing right wing party structures. Perhaps as a result of the co-option of leftist economic principles, perhaps due to the failure of the centre left to offer a compelling alternative vision, perhaps just down to the despair of a working class left behind by neoliberal globalisation, it is instead, the institutions of the left which are in decline. The French Socialist Party could finish as low as fifth in the Presidential election. As Syriza’s popularity wanes in Greece, it is the conservatives of New Democracy that are the biggest beneficiaries, with PASOK languishing in single figures in polls. Similar phenomena can be seen in Hungary, in Finland and elsewhere.
Right Wing Populism in Britain
Britain’s political system has created circumstances that mimic the European trend but have taken on their own unique character. Nestled between the pluralistic European democracies and the rigid two party system of the USA, Britain’s winner takes (almost) all electoral system makes rapid political insurgency through parliamentary means much trickier.
Because of this, our own populist right has not made shock waves in our legislative chambers, or in Government. Nigel Farage and his band of migrant-bashing, EU hating xenophobes currently hold just 1 seat in the House of Commons making up roughly 0.2% of our nationally elected lawmakers. Rather, the success of the hard right came through the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
But buoyed by their referendum victory, UKIP are looking to seek political influence with renewed gusto. UKIP are now well-versed in the slog of political campaigning. Previous elections have seen the party plagued by political naivety – limited infrastructure for running ground campaigns, a lack of multiple experienced media performers, and an unpolished election strategy. Many of those youthful deficiencies have been shaken, and a professionalised, strategic UKIP could now translate their success in shaping public opinion into winning seats in parliament.
As elsewhere in Europe, the rise of a populist hard right hasn’t necessitated a decline in Britain’s Party of right wing orthodoxy. Although their majority in parliament is just 13, Theresa May’s Conservative Party occupy a commanding position. A weakened opposition caused by the decimation of the centrist Liberal Democrats and a Labour Party riddled with division and reeling from their wipe-out in Scotland has allowed the Conservatives to dominate much of the political debate in Brexit’s wake. At the time of writing, the Conservatives have somewhere between a 7 and 15 point lead over Labour in the opinion polls.
Britain’s Next Election
Britain is currently due a General Election in 2020, but the political turmoil that has followed Brexit could force one much sooner.
In the event of an early election, or if current trends continue, the Conservatives look set to consolidate their position in Government. UKIP, ready and primed for a short, intensive campaign could see a small splattering of gains, or else poll just high enough to deny Labour from taking or holding multiple seats.
After years of triangulation, Labour face a perfect storm of problems. Their core support has become culturally and politically divergent, with wildly different outlooks and priorities: portions of a white working class increasingly identifying migration as the cause of their plight, yet broadly supportive of a left of centre economic policy; a liberally minded, metropolitan middle class that prioritises diversity and tolerance but unconcerned by the impacts of neoliberalism, from which they have largely benefited and to which they owe their social position; a growing number of ethnic minority voters who overwhelmingly opposed Brexit, are intimidated by public attitudes towards migration, which so often manifests itself in violence towards their own communities – many of whom had their faith in the Labour Party shaken in part due to the Iraq War. These three traditional voter bases with pulls the party in three different directions. Whichever political path is chosen, they risk alienating pools of their own support. Life long left-winger Jeremy Corbyn faces an impossible challenge to satisfy all three camps, and risks haemorrhaging support to UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
Liberal Democrats may see a minor resurgence, positioning themselves as the party that represents the 48% of voters who didn’t vote from Brexit. Aside from that, their role in the election may well be similar to UKIP’s – pulling enough of the traditional Labour vote away to allow Conservatives to sneak into seats typically unfavourable to them. Similarly, for Greens, immediate prospects of growth are limited. Outside of a handful of constituencies, the chances of electoral gains are slight. The 2015 General Election showed that in some instances, Greens on the ballot paper can lead to Labour losing out on winning key seats.
Enter the Alliance
The above scenario is predicated on the political status quo, where in a given seat a Green candidate and a Labour candidate, whose biggest difference may be the colour of their rosette, stand against each other, pulling votes from one and other and allowing a Conservative into Parliament. We’ve seen the impacts of vote splitting for years, but as Britain’s political system aches under the weight of an increasingly pluralistic and less tribal electorate, the impacts are exacerbated.
Recent developments suggest that status quo may be shifting though. In November, a parliamentary by-election saw prominent racist and arch Brexiteer, Zac Goldsmith lose his seat. The Green Party chose not to stand a candidate and the Liberal Democrats won the seat by fewer than 2,000 votes, a smaller share than had been won by the Greens in 2015. We can never know for certain, but the arithmetic implies that by standing aside, the Greens assisted the ousting of a high profile right wing MP from parliament.
This has set a precedent for what has come to be known as the ‘progressive alliance’ – a proposed electoral cooperation between progressive parties in a future General Election. The logic behind the proposal is that under Britain’s anachronistic electoral system, political parties with some shared aims and values, have more to lose if they stand against each other in certain seats. In many constituencies, where the gap between the first and second placed parties is narrow, or else has the potential to be, progressive political parties can end up ensuring that a Conservative, or now more worryingly, a UKIP MP is elected by causing a split in the electorate’s vote. In such seats, were agreements to be made between political parties, either to not stand a candidate, or else to not engage in public campaigning, the likelihood of more progressives in parliament is far higher.
Such a strategy would not only help to deliver seats to progressive parties where the margin of victory is remarkably mall, it would also free up time, energy and resource for the same parties to campaign harder in seats that are much more difficult to win. What benefit is there for the Labour Party in attempting to unseat Britain’s sole Green MP – Caroline Lucas – at the risk of allowing a Conservative to take her place? Moreover, could the resources, volunteers, campaign momentum and time not be better spent trying to unseat a Conservative in the first place?
Through working together, rather than against each other, Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats could collaborate to remove the Conservative government from office, form one that would reverse the austerity and privatisation that has been pursued so rigorously by it, reinstate many of the workers’ rights and environmental achievements that have been abolished and, crucially, replace the electoral system that made an alliance at the ballot box necessary in the first place.
Why Britain? Why Now?
Those used to the European model of democracy may find the idea of electoral alliances bizarre. Cooperation between political parties comes through fraught negotiations after the conclusion of voter choice at the ballot box, not before. But British elections (usually) provide clear winners – a single party in government, typically largely unchallenged in parliament, having obtained around a third of the popular vote. In Britain, that now means a right wing Conservative Party, egged on by Brexit and the rightwards pull of UKIP, governing with a fractional mandate from the British public. Without the luxury of post-election coalition or confidence and supply agreements, should Greens, socialists, progressives and others seek to implement their desired policy and instigate a government of the left, that collaboration has to come prior to or during an election. The uniqueness of Britain’s electoral system, requires a unique response from progressive parties to halt the rise in the anti-establishment far right and the continued dominance of the Conservatives, and a part of that response must come through some form of electoral alliance.
Naturally, many have been hesitant in supporting such a proposal. Within the Green Party, many point towards Labour’s failure to acknowledge the urgency of the environmental crisis and the Liberal Democrats role in the coalition Government of 2010-15 as evidence for their ineligibility for any electoral alliance based on progressive values. Others feel that the Green Party, undoubtedly the smallest party in any alliance, would struggle to maintain relevance under such circumstances. But proponents of the strategy would argues that while its instigation may pose risks to the immediate interests of the Greens, those risks are much smaller than the prospect of continuing Conservative government and the ascendancy of UKIP.
Inevitably, agreement between political parties with persistent differences, partisan interests and entrenched tribalism will be difficult, particularly when considering the many years of hard work and campaigning party activists will have done in their local area, against, not alongside other parties. Any alliance is unlikely to be uniform across the country, is unlikely to be smooth and is unlikely to attract universal support from within each party. But the political realities of our times demand progressive parties find ways to work together.
The Green Party of England and Wales has so far led the way in moving the idea of a progressive alliance, and seeking to make it a reality, with some movements from leading figures in other parties. Only time will tell if those endeavours are successful. Without them, the paths available to progressives implementing their values and policies appear few and narrow.