So, last week, the Lib Dems won the Richmond Park by-election.
Some context for foreigners, or those who don’t follow politics very much — the Lib Dems were, until about ten years ago, a formidable by-election fighting machine. We didn’t do well in general elections, but give us a single local seat to fight, and we would do much, much, better.
That had changed, though, by the time I joined the party in 2006, which was the last year we’d gained a seat in a by-election. And the last year we gained a seat *from the Tories* in a by-election had been in 2000. As a result, and given the poorer-than-expected result in 2010 and the utterly catastrophic one in 2015, 2006 was the last year we made net gains in Parliamentary representation.
Until last week, when new Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney overturned a majority of 23,000 in Richmond Park.
I give you that history to provide some context as to why, to Lib Dems at least, this is worth noting.
The first thing to note about it is that this makes the calls for a “progressive alliance” seem much more valid than they did even a month ago. Both the Greens and the Womens’ Equality Party decided not to stand (the former in return for us not standing in a couple of council seats they’re targeting in the next council elections) and both parties’ leaders came out to campaign for Olney. MoreUnited — a group I have been pretty brutal about in the past — actually did something useful, backed Olney, and got a hundred volunteers out doorknocking and leafletting.
Even Labour, who did put up a candidate (and a candidate who campaigned explicitly as an anti-Lib Dem one, rather than an anti-Tory one), got involved — there were many Labour members who campaigned for the Lib Dems in what they knew was a seat that was unwinnable for Labour, and the final Labour vote was lower than the number of Labour members in the constituency. Apparently the decision to put up a candidate at all was one imposed by Labour centrally, rather than by the local party…
(Similarly, though, there was a regressive alliance, with both the Tories and UKIP backing the former MP, Zac Goldsmith, who had stupidly resigned to stand as an independent over a point of principle, forgetting that this was a principle (not expanding Heathrow Airport) shared by all his opponents…)
Now, the point of this isn’t that the Lib Dems are automatically going to win everywhere from now on — there’s another by-election this week where we’ll be lucky to come fourth. Richmond Park, while it had a substantial Tory majority, was in many ways as straightforward a choice as it gets. On one side was an “independent” backed by both the Tories and UKIP (a party fast heading towards outright fascism), a billionaire’s son with an obscene fortune, who supported Brexit in one of the most Remain-leaning constituencies in the country, who went to Eton, whose only job before becoming an MP was as editor of a magazine his uncle gave him as a present, who had spent ten years avoiding paying more than half a million pounds a year in tax, and who had a few months earlier run a disgracefully racist campaign to become London Mayor. On the other side, a woman who’d been to a comprehensive school, who was backed by the Lib Dems, Greens, and Women’s Equality Party, and who has actually had jobs that weren’t given to her by her uncle, and who has never used images of terrorist atrocities to smear a Muslim opponent.
So this was a very clear-cut case. There will be other, much less clear-cut, cases where “progressive alliances” make less sense. There are, after all, a lot of Lib/Lab marginals, Lab/SNP marginals, and so on. There are also very real differences in policy between the various parties that might be categorised as “progressive”, including on some of the most crucial issues facing us.
But what this suggests is that local, constituency-based, collaboration between parties *can* work. What kind of collaboration that can be would depend very much on the constituency. In some constituencies that might involve some parties stepping aside for each other — for example in Brighton Pavillion, the Lib Dems, who came fifth last time and lost their deposit, might stand aside for Caroline Lucas to ensure the Greens keep their one MP, while the Greens might stand aside in return in Torbay, where *they* came fifth and lost their deposit, and support the left-wing environmentalist former Lib Dem MP, Adrian Sanders, who lost by a tiny margin.
In other seats, such collaboration might be more subtle. In a Labour/Tory marginal, for example, the Lib Dems might still stand a candidate but not campaign at all. That might, in some cases, actually be better for Labour than the Lib Dems not standing — there are a number of centrist and centre-right small-l liberals who will choose the Lib Dems over the Tories, but who would vote Tory over Labour (no, I don’t understand why, but they exist in relatively large numbers). Taking those votes away from the Tories, while giving Labour a clear run at squeezing the left-liberal vote, would actually give Labour a better chance.
All of this, though, would have to be done at a local level, and without any consideration of formal country-wide pacts, or it just wouldn’t work. The Lib Dems need to be able to attack Labour in the North of England (where Labour are the right-authoritarian establishment party), and the reverse is true. The Greens need to protect their identity as an environmentalist party, and not be swallowed up in Labour’s “movement”.
We need to keep every party’s identity separate. There are *many* Labour MPs I’d like to see out of Parliament — just not if they were replaced by an even worse Tory.
But something like this needs to happen if we’re not to have another right-authoritarian Tory majority government at the next election. Remember that the terrible electoral system we have is biased against the Labour party, though not anywhere *near* as much as it is against the smaller ones. Only three Labour leaders have ever won majorities — Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair. The first took the Second World War to get in power. The second and third were after periods of thirteen and eighteen years, respectively, of Tory rule, and required some of the most inept, stupid, lazy decisions ever made by a government in order to dislodge a Tory majority.
The lesson of Richmond Park, though, is that even in that terrible system, local, concentrated, specific collaboration can allow the forces of progress to defeat the forces of reaction. Now we need to replicate that.
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