Steve Jones looks at the calls for a “progressive” alliance of the “centre” being made by Lib Dems and Blairites in relation to the upcoming Richmond Park by-election. At a time when the Corbyn-led Labour Party has 600,000 members, there must be no concessions to those clamouring for coalitions based on a return to the failed status quo.
In the upcoming Richmond Park by-election, Zac Goldsmith will be standing as “an independent” in the seat he held up until recently, when he resigned following the Tory government announcement that they would be supporting a third runway at Heathrow. Just how “independent” Goldsmith is can be judged by the fact that both the local Tories and UKIP are supporting him. The Heathrow third runway is hugely unpopular in the area, which includes Richmond Park, and it is clear that Goldsmith is trying to avoid the impact of any electoral fallout at the next election and, at the same time, provide a way that the local Tories can be seen as anti-runway whilst the Tories at Westminster support it.
However, the other interesting thing about this election is that it is being used by the chattering classes to once again raise the old issue of a “re-alignment of the left”, as they like to put it.
Earlier in November, Tony Blair rose up from his political grave to announce a new, well-funded, campaign for “political intervention”, supposedly around some form of pro-EU framework. The usual suspects, including Peter Mandelson, have tied themselves to this, even though the exact framework and direction of the “project” is not yet clear. Even if you ignore Blair’s delusional belief that he can be the saviour of British politics, or that people up and down the country are secretly wishing that he was back with us – neither of which has any basis in reality – it is pretty clear that this Blairite fantasy is a lame attempt at trying to float the idea of a new “centre” party.
Now the Richmond Park election is being used to show how “progressive” alliances could, maybe, defeat the Tories. It is the “centre” party concept once again, only this time in the form of an electoral pact. Labour is being castigated because it rightly chose to put up a candidate against Goldsmith, rather than standing aside and backing the Lib Dems, who came second in this seat at the last election.
One of the chief pushers of this “progressive alliance” idea has been Guardian journalist John Harris. He has written a series of articles attacking Corbyn and the Left in recent months, and has been raising his own alternatives. This week he returned to the subject:
“…at the same time, in Richmond and elsewhere, more and more noise is being made about cross-party campaigns and electoral pacts on the left and centre-left,” says Mr. Harris.
The Greens are backing this (although there has been rank-and-file opposition to this tactic), as are the careerist hopefuls of the Women’s Equality Party. This apparently is enough to justify the “more and more noise” statement from Mr. Harris. Needless to say, a Blairite clique inside the local Labour Party also wanted this and walked out when they did not get it.
The rogues’ gallery of the centre ground
So does this idea have any credibility? Mr. Harris presents a number of organisations – all of which have good levels of funding and are well connected, if little else – to justify his proposals. Up first is More United, which is feeding off the memory of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox and her statement that “we are far more united than the things which divide us”, to excuse the open call for class-collaboration. Involved in this are: former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown; Simon Schama, the famous historian; and an assortment of business-types – the sort of characters you used to see hanging around Blair. Just how ‘left’ this lot really are can be judged by supporter and TV presenter Dan Snow, who is quoted as saying that they should support candidates of the “progressive centre” (whatever that is)…including some Tories!
Another group being quoted favourably by Mr. Harris is Common Ground. They just want to support any pro-EU candidate – this, it seems, is enough to pass as “progressive” these days. The Blairite Compass group has also put out a leaflet saying, without naming names, that people should have the chance to “vote for new politics”. No visit from the compliance unit at Labour HQ for these people it seems.
Away from Richmond Park, Mr. Harris is reduced to flagging up an assortment of campaigns spread rather thinly around the country, many comprising a ragbag of ex-lefts, eco-nutters and, of course, Lib-Dems.
All of this has one theme at heart: dump Labour and left policies, and go instead for an alliance with the most right-wing group you can get away with without being labelled Tories. It seems odd, you might think, that in any such proposed alliance or deal it is always necessary to pander to the most right-wing section of that agreement, e.g. the Lib-Dems. And so a Georgia Amson-Bradshaw from the Sussex Progressives hopes for a pact of all parties around a “narrow set of commonly agreed policies”. Very narrow indeed!
The strange death of Liberal England
None of those raising this tactic seem to have any problem with dealing with people who were in cahoots with the Tories in government, helping carry out austerity, for five long years. That was the real face of the Lib Dems. They are not “progressive” at all. Indeed, in every case where Lib Dems have been in office at a local government level, they have carried out cuts and attacked local services. No wonder their base in the big cities of England has largely been wiped out.
People like Mr. Harris and the rest are reduced to spouting on about the “centre-left” – or, more often, just the “centre”, as if it is somehow a good nice thing that will always dominate politics if given a chance.
In reality, however, this “centre” does not exist. There are two options: either support capitalism and all it demands, or oppose it. You are in either in one camp or the other. The crisis of the system has wiped out the centre. In truth, the term has become a cover for Toryism with a sick smile. Why should people vote for that?
That is why this tactic will come to nothing. People like Harris, Ashdown and the like want a safe alternative to Labour, who they no longer trust to be the ‘2nd XI’ under capitalism. The (double-)election of Corbyn as Labour leader, despite the opposition of the whole establishment, has stunned them. They think this not-so “new politics” of pacts and alliances will beat the Tories – but as we saw with the Lib-Dems in 2015, the party just lost a whole number of seats to the Tories, with people punishing them for what they did whilst in government. Instead, those who wanted austerity and cuts voted for the real thing.
The status quo has failed
All the recent evidence suggests that people want a genuine change and a break from the status quo. The “progressive alliance” in all its various permutations will not offer this with its “anyone but the Tories” approach. It is a variation on the “lesser evilism” tactic raised in America by some on the Left as justification for their backing of Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. And clearly that didn’t work either.
In both the US election and the recent elections in the UK there has been a marked rise in the number of people who could vote but chose not to. When supporters of electoral pacts, etc. talk about the “combined progressive vote” they tend to just add the Labour, Green and Lib Dem votes together, and then put that figure up against the Tory vote. However, the “did not vote” factor is often ignored.
Rather than pandering to the so-called centre, it would make more sense to stand on policies that would energize the non-voters – workers and youth who up until now have seen nothing to vote for. These are the people who, if they had a reason to vote, could provide the numbers to beat the Tories. To do that, however, we need a party, a programme and a leadership that is willing to break with establishment politics, not embrace them.
Whether it is a not-so-new party of the centre, centre-left, centre-right, or whatever stupid title they want to hang themselves on (“not-Labour” would be more honest); or whether it is some form of electoral pact, mainly aimed at pushing Blair-like candidates: the truth is that it will not work. You can push out a Tory or two in a by-election, but another establishment type will just walk in.
The right of the Parliamentary Labour Party are already closer in every sense to the Tories than they are to their own party members and trade unionists (let alone the working class at large). People will see through this, and already are.
The only way forward for those who genuinely want change for the better is to support and fight for a Corbyn-led Labour Party, and to fight for candidates and policies that are based around a bold socialist programme. That is where the real “progressive” forces are, not in the deadwood of Lib Dems and Blairism.