Electoral pacts: the siren voice of destruction for Labour

Electoral pacts: the siren voice of destruction for Labour


Q Nothing else would so effectively combine surrender with contempt for the electorate

Parties that do badly at elections should always reflect on why that was the case. It’s not an easy question to ask because almost certainly there’ll be tough answers, if the question’s answered honestly. In all probability, those answers will include ‘our campaign was ineffective’, ‘the public did not support our policies’, ‘we did not look credible as a government / force of opposition’, ‘our record in government is disadvantageous’, and the like. Such answers invite blame. One way to avoid that risk is to place the blame elsewhere: misled or selfish voters, rival parties ‘cheating’ (morally, if not in fact); above all, a ‘system’ rigged against them.

So rather than try to address the real causes of failure, parties or their supporters indulge in the distraction of trying to counter-rig the system in their favour. After all, correcting an existing bias must be fair mustn’t it? And it’s in that tradition that Nat Le Roux’s suggestion that Labour should form an anti-Tory electoral pact for 2020 is, like so many similar ideas before it, a grand self-deception.

There are so many errors of analysis in the prescription that it’s difficult to know where to start, but these are the main reasons why Labour would be mad to even consider it:

It’s a surrender

Trying to arranging a pact would be an explicit admission that Labour could not win on its own terms; not now and not in the foreseeable future. Le Roux in fact states this outright. It would be giving up on ever running the country again. It is to essentially write off Scotland and consign Scottish Labour to the bin (because if the SNP were to be given a free run there for Westminster, on Labour’s behalf – see below – then how on earth does Scottish Labour fight as relevant for Holyrood, or for Scottish councils?).

The split vote on the left is a myth

The idea of an anti-Tory majority is one of the biggest deceptions in British politics because it’s true. There is indeed an anti-Tory majority. There’s also an anti-Labour one, an anti-UKIP one, and anti-Lib Dem one, and so on. There’s nothing particularly special about the anti-Tory one. In fact, one of the reasons there is currently a majority Conservative government is that the anti-SNP majority was effectively mobilised in England. To lump UKIP, the Lib Dems and Greens in together as a ‘broad-left’ coalition is stretching terminology beyond usefulness. Can we really imagine Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett sitting round the cabinet table together? One suspects that Le Roux knows this but can only make his case if he includes UKIP and their 3.9m votes within his stable. In reality, had the election been held under PR and resulted in the MPs in his table, Britain would in all probability now have a Con-UKIP coalition with DUP support. Even to include the Lib Dems in the column is pushing it, considering their record in coalition-forming.

Other parties would demand a high price

Le Roux also errs when he only considers the arguments just in terms of benefitting Labour or voting reform. To make a viable pact, Labour would have to gain the support of the other parties; parties which have their own priorities and independence. To make sacrificing that independence worthwhile, they would have to be given a very high price. The SNP could reasonably expect a free run in every seat they already hold, plus, presumably, something like devolving referendum powers and FFA to Holyrood. What would UKIP’s price be? A guaranteed referendum on the EU, perhaps, but also a clear run not only in seats where they challenge the Conservatives (of which there aren’t that many), and in a decent number where they were second to Labour. In other words, Labour would have to sacrifice perhaps a dozen or more seats to bring them on board. The challenges of bringing the Greens or Lib Dems into the camp might, if anything, be even higher.

Voters cannot be so easily corralled

And even if by some miracle, the party leaderships could agree on seat allocations (which notwithstanding everything else, the new boundaries would make even harder), the fact remains that voters are not there to be corralled like counters on a board. They have their own minds. One feature of British politics since WWII has been how Con and Lab votes have declined in parallel. When there were only two parties, they polled about 50% each, give or take floating voters. They now poll about 30-35% each. If Britain were to revert back to just two sides, what is to prevent those that don’t like the ‘rainbow coalition’ / ‘herd of cats in a thunderstorm’ from slipping over to the Blue side of the divide and restoring something approximating to parity? Former Lib Dem voters might prefer Con to, say, UKIP; former swing voters who went Labour might prefer Con to, say, Green; unionist Labour might go SCon rather than SNP; former Green voters might well abstain rather than back anyone else. And so on.

The precedent would be hard to break

Le Roux advocates the pact as a one-off but the reality is that once formed it would have a dynamic of its own. Scotland, as already mentioned, is something of a special case but if Labour did have to sacrifice perhaps another thirty seats elsewhere to bring in UKIP, the Lib Dems and Greens, then they would be writing off the chances of a future outright win under FPTP for ever. If they lost in 2020, the logic of maintaining the pact for 2025 would be just as strong, and Labour’s self-weakened baseline would make it all the more necessary. Of course, under the PR that Le Roux advocates, it would be far harder for anyone to win outright meaning that Labour would always be reliant on smaller parties.

What would the coalition be for?

It’s all very well fighting the Tories and opposing what they do in government but suppose the coalition did win. What would it do in power? How does it keep its component parts together and focussed on a common policy? What would education policy be? What about tax, borrowing and spending? International aid? Trident? Alternative medicine? And so on. Even if the parties could campaign independently, they couldn’t govern as such.

It takes Labour’s eye off the ball

In reality, such a coalition is an unobtainable objective. Furthermore, unless it all happens, none of it happens. To the extent that the logic fits together, it only works if all the anti-Tory parties join; if only two or three do, the smaller ones run the risk of seeing their ‘not the other two’ votes slip off to the independent minor parties (and this might happen even if all those named did join – there’d still be others). The dynamic would be that of the National Liberals.

However, for all the parties, there’s a bigger risk. All this navel-gazing would take their collective eyes from what the government’s doing. Simply trying to put the coalition together would involve so much arguing between leaderships, and between front-benches and back-benches, about what their own policy line was that the government would have policies enacted before the opposition had their amendments ready. Lib Dems of a certain age no doubt recall the many hours wasted deciding which of the Liberals and SDP should contest Little Maltingham South and which Little Maltingham North.

But Le Roux has ended in the wrong place because he’s started in the wrong place. His assumption that Labour can’t reach office without the support of the smaller parties is simply wrong: Labour has been in a worse state before and has come back. There is no reason it cannot do so again with the right personnel and policies. His argument is defeatist, it takes the electorate and other parties for granted, and misreads the dynamics of how politics works. Labour has made some bad decisions over the last decade but this strategy, were it adopted, would outweigh them all.

David Herdson

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