The Democratic Chasm
There is a sizeable progressive majority in the UK—which might seem surprising given this very Tory Government and the nature of the Cabinet. However, according to recent polls of polls, the support for a combination of progressive parties is 63%–these figures appear below (Note: These figures are from poll results which preceded the collapse in Tory support since the “fiscal event” and subsequent market meltdown, which would have the progressive majority at over 70%):
Lib Dem 10%
Total–4 above 63%
The results of the last general election are displayed below:
Lib Dem 12%
Total—4 above 51%
The results are not as solidly progressive, but the total still adds up to a majority at 51%. We can quibble about whether or not the SNP is really a progressive party, but the implication is clear. The majority, or at least a plurality of UK voters are progressive, but the political system returned a Conservative majority of 80ish seats; the Tories secured 56% of Parliamentary seats on 43% of the vote (on 67% turnout). The quirks of a first past the post (FPTP) voting system are well known and much studied, but I have seen little comment on the grotesqueness of this imbalance at the present time. And with the Conservative Party implementing legislation which moves the country in an increasingly extreme direction, the democratic chasm between voters and rulers grows dangerously large.
Those of us with a progressive bent may choose to cheer at current voting intentions–especially since the fiscal event. However, anyone with an interest in the state of our democracy must be deeply concerned at the widening gap between the electorate and the elected. How one approaches these figures and their implications will be partly determined by political orientation but also one’s mood. Allow me to feel modestly optimistic—I am praying for a Tory defeat, which I also believe is almost certain. Regardless, they have important consequences for the Labour Party and in particular Keir Starmer in the run up to the next election, which will take place by the end of 2024.
The key test for Starmer’s leadership
Should Starmer become the next Prime Minister, there will be a bulging in-tray—the cost of living crisis, the plummeting Pound, surging interest rates, massive debt levels, etc. However, I believe that one key issue will determine the long term political direction of the nation—and it will also tell us a great deal about Starmer’s level of courage and whether or not he is a leader with principles. That issue is voting systems—in particular, what I believe is a necessary shift to more proportional voting. To become Prime Minister, Starmer may have to collaborate with the other progressive parties, given the FPTP system. Even if Labour are elected with a massive majority, Starmer must resist the temptation to ignore attendees at the recent Labour conference (who voted to support PR) and make PR one of the centrepieces of his tenure.
Starmer has already demonstrated a sensible willingness to work with the other progressive parties and this is already showing results. The first sign that an important change was underway was in the Chesham and Amersham by-election on 17 June 2021. the Liberal Democrats won that seat with a swing from the conservative party of 25%. Later that year, by-elections in Batley and Spen, and Old Bexley and Sidcup saw Labour and the Tories returned, respectively.
But the big sign that there was an earthquake underway, and that Amersham and Chesham was not a fluke, was in North Shropshire. It struck me as an early indicator of what can be achieved when progressive parties put their narrow interests aside and work together. A 23,000 seat majority was massively overturned, and for the first time in nearly 200 years North Shropshire did not return a Conservative MP (a Lib Dem MP was elected, and Labour fell from 2nd to 3rd place). By-election results can often be dramatic and not a reflection of likely outcome in a general election, but the implication of the results are clear—progressive parties must put aside parochial interests and concentrate on what is best for the country. Thereafter there was no change in Southend West and Birmingham Erdington, but the success of tactical voting was once again evident in Wakefield, where a swing of 13% saw Labour defeat the Tories (importantly, the Lib Dem share fell from 4% to 2%), and in Tiverton and Honiton saw the Liberal Democrats overturn a Conservative majority of 24,239 with a swing of 30% to take that seat. This demonstrates the potential for progressive parties to defeat the Conservative party in the next election—to be held by December 2024.
The blockage here has historically been the Labour Party. It has held to the idea that it must run a candidate in nearly every seat, avoid pre-electoral deals, and shun cooperation. Things could have been vastly different if Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the aftermath of the 1997 general election, followed the recommendations of the Commission established under the chairmanship of Roy Jenkins and supported a form of proportional representation (the Jenkins Commission recommended the “Alternative Vote Top-Up System”). Blair and then Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown spoke at length about this before the election and many observers were surprised when Jenkins, a Lib Dem, was made Chair of the Commission. The Labour Manifesto in 1997 also stated that, “We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.” Who remembers that campaign promise?
Unfortunately, the Blair-led Labour Party in 1997 was just too successful. It won 418 seats out of 659 available in that election—this was 63% of seats on 43% of the vote, making the 2019 pro-Tory allocation look mean by comparison. It would appear their belief in a fair electoral system extended only to the extent they might need Lib Dem support to govern. When this proved unnecessary, their principles and manifesto commitment were summarily jettisoned, and they decided to enjoy an unfair system which now worked solidly in their favour. Starmer and his Cabinet must avoid this temptation, because today and for the last twelve years, we have been living with the dire consequences of that missed opportunity! The Labour leader has an hoistorical opportunity to fix this tragic historical mistake. How should he go about doing it?
The tactics for a non-deal deal
Negotiating a deal between the four progressive parties will be well-nigh impossible. Although staunch support may exist for such a move in the Liberal Democrat party, the Greens will be less enthusiastic, and it would be an unnecessary distraction at this moment for the Labour Party. The SNP might be supportive, but one can well imagine what the price for such support will be and how Tory shrieks of “destroying the union” will promptly follow. But the key problem will be the Labour Party and the fact that there is both a principled objection and a practical one. Many potential Labour MPs will be robbed of their opportunity to win seats—and Labour supporters robbed of their chances to vote consistently with their interests (the principled reason). And the UK public hates such formal deals (witness the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition)! And it would pointlessly give the Tories ammunition. This is the practical objection.
However, Starmer does not appear to be as popular as Blair was, although that is beginning to change, and the Labour Party of 2022 is not the Labour Party of 1997. Also, it is worth remembering that in May 2021 they saw the previously safe seat of Hartlepool switch to the Tories, with the Conservatives winning over 50% of the vote and Labour barely held on to their seat in Batley and Spen (their vote share declined by 7% from the poor 2019 result). I guess this is a long way of saying a 1997-style Labour landslide may not take place. But even if it does, thanks to the Truss/Kwarteng inspired collapse in Tory support, progressive parties should by now have learned they must work together to ensure that Britain’s progressive majority should not be undermined by the quirks of the British electoral system. They must work together. But how to do this in the absence of a formal deal?
First, they need to focus on winning—and this Starmer seems to be saying and doing. He talks about winning being the main goal (he describes himself as an extremely competitive player on a football pitch—and intends to bring that competitive spirit into the campaign) and has put in place a Shadow Cabinet which looks ready to govern—comparing very favourably against those currently in Government. He brought back Yvette Cooper and replaced Annelise Dodds with Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor and appointed Wes Streeting as Shadow Health Secretary—these were all smart moves. It seems clear from the extent of Lib Dem victories that Labour did not put up a strong fight in these constituencies. The British electorate is sophisticated about tactical voting and, to defeat the Tories, will know what to do (and sites like “Swap My Vote” are there to help them with smart tactical voting advice). People forget that in the 1997 General Election, the Lib Dems won 46 seats (up sharply from 18 beforehand) partly thanks to smart tactical voting, but this jump was overshadowed by the Labour landslide.
Labour will need to make some hard choices in order to bring both the Lib Dems and Greens onside. The former will be much easier—the seats which could swing yellow are easier to identify and are mostly Tory-held. There are few seats likely to swing Green—the mountain is too high to climb. Here Starmer and the Labour Party should exhibit a quality all too rare in politics—generosity—and identify a few seats where Greens could possibly have a chance at winning and effectively step aside. For the Green Party to go from 1 to even 3 or 4 seats would be an enormous boost for them, not much skin off the other’s noses, and probably good for the country (confession: I have a bias as a Green Party member). In Scotland, there is no need for any deal or cooperation in advance of the election—the hard negotiating will come after the election is fought and the key issue will be obvious. Starmer can take a view then on what is the practical and principled arrangement to be struck with the SNP.
If asked by political journalists they should just repeat two things: 1) “there is no deal”, and 2) “Isn’t it an affront to democracy that the 60%+ (or 70%) of voters who want a progressive Government are ignored by a system that is sustaining a right wing cabal whose only interest is their rich mates?”. Or given the current preference for three word catch-phrases, “Represent the 60%”. OK, maybe its technically four words, but at least it rhymes.
Starmer needs to be practical, principled, and courageous to become Prime Minister. I think he can do it. I think he will do it. Given the outcome of the recent Labour conference, it is clear that the blockages of support within the party are disappearing. And if he moves towards PR, he will help to transform himself from being “that boring guy who lacks any charisma” to being “the bold PM who fundamentally reformed British politics and our democracy.” I told you that I was in an optimistic mood 😊.
London, UK—27 September 2022
I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.
 Politico.eu downloaded 27/09/22 at 13.50