The British Labour Party and its leader, Keir Starmer, are engaged in furious self-flagellation after a round of local elections in England where they lost ground in traditional working class and industrial areas of the West Midlands and the North, and lost a high-profile parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool.
Eighteen months after ditching Jeremy Corbyn – arguably the worst leader in the party’s history – and a crushing defeat at the 2019 general election, they appear to have moved no further forward. The party attracted 35 per cent of the vote then and are still on no more than 35 per cent now, around 10 per cent behind the Conservatives. The situation is sufficiently desperate that spokespeople are clinging to crumbs of comfort, including improbable council seat victories in Conservative bastions such as Worthing and Chipping Norton.
Perhaps Labour should count themselves lucky. They are one of the three great European social democratic parties, alongside the German SPD and the Swedish Social Democrats. Their German counterparts are currently polling at only 15 per cent, well behind the Greens on 25 per cent, and have been on a downward trajectory in Länder and federal elections for years.
The Swedish Social Democrats are in government, but currently on 26 per cent in the polls, having fallen from the 28 per cent of the last general election, which was itself a disastrous fall from the heights of 50 per cent or more in the party’s heyday.
In all three countries (and others like France, Italy and Spain, where the position is generally worse) there is nostalgia for the past: the glory days of Tony Blair or Clem Attlee in Britain, Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt in Germany and Tage Erlander or Olof Palme in Sweden.
The problem, activists complain, is the lack of a leader to inspire and a lack of “vision”. “We need a return to socialist values”, they say, or some other way to reconnect with the voters who have gone elsewhere.
Nonsense. Even if these parties were led by reincarnations of their former heroes they would be struggling. The nature of politics has changed. It is no longer mainly about social class or the degree of enthusiasm for public spending and ownership. We now have the “politics of identity” in which parties of the “right” – with varying success – represent “cultural conservatism”: the traditional values and prejudices of nation, race or religion and the “politics of the soil”.
The antitheses are “progressive parties” who, by contrast, are inclusive, liberal, outward-looking and for the wider “public good’’: Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens. In Britain, the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Greens together make up, at present, 50 per cent of voter preferences, excluding the 6 per cent for Celtic nationalists who also self-identify as “progressive”.
In Germany, a progressive “traffic light” coalition of SPD, Liberal FDP and Greens currently commands 51 per cent of votes. The Swedish Social Democrats, together with the two Liberal parties and the Greens, have 43 per cent, but make up a majority with the Communists who, in Sweden, are not very communist and often work in social democratic coalitions.
The figures are a snapshot and could obviously change in the heat of an election. But, far from a story of relentless decline and marginalisation, “progressive” parties taken together represent a (small) majority of public opinion. They have no reason to be apologetic, defensive and pessimistic; but each needs to see themselves as part of a bigger movement.
In countries where there is proportional voting, as in Sweden and Germany, the emergence of “progressive” coalitions is a matter of choice. For tactical reasons, German Greens and Social Democrats may not want to work together. The Liberals may fear losing their identity. Swedish Social Democrats may see the Liberal Centre Party as insufficiently progressive. These are self-indulgent luxuries which are affordable under proportional voting systems where the public gets a government not too far removed from their preferences.
The problems are much more serious in countries, such as the UK (or the US), without proportional voting. The inability of British “progressive” parties to think beyond narrow tribal identities and to recognise their common interest is crippling. Their fragmentation was the main reason for the failure to stop a “hard” Brexit from the EU. It promises to gift the Conservatives years and possibly decades in power.
And the Conservatives are ruthlessly reinforcing their hegemony through voter suppression (identity documents for voting), intimidation of independent broadcasters (muzzling the BBC) and the judiciary (clipping the wings of the Supreme Court) and feeding their supporters with tasty pork from the barrel of public spending.
Yet the progressive parties still squabble and indulge in the narcissism of small differences. The smaller parties become over-excited by little victories and campaigns they have no chance of winning. The Labour Party goes out of its way to stigmatise the Liberal Democrats for past complicity in the evil of “austerity”, which it would undoubtedly have pursued had it been in office. Greens are “holier than thou” with both rivals. Petty local grievances and dislikes invariably take precedence over the big picture.
The three parties are now fishing in the same pool of progressive voters mainly at the expense of each other. And the dominant player – Labour – appears to have no strategy beyond hoping that, sometime in the distant future, a throw of the electoral dice will produce the magic number of seats. Meanwhile, progressive voters in Scotland may well decide that a quicker and surer way to get the kind of politics they want is to set up their own country.
There is a better way and the United States gives some clues as to how it can be done. American politics, helped by the primary system, encourages factions and insurgents to operate through the two-party system rather than by fragmenting it. The costs of third-party involvement in presidential elections were demonstrated rather vividly by the US Green Party campaign in 2000, which helped gift the presidency to George W Bush in a very close contest against Al Gore.
Nonetheless, one of the remarkable achievements of the Biden presidency, at least so far, has been the creation of an effective progressive coalition, ranging from relatively conservative Democratic senators and business funders to young, idealistic campaigners from the left in Bernie Sanders’ camp. The coalition is not as diverse as the one which unified under Roosevelt’s New Deal, and which ranged from Southern segregationists to radical socialists, but it has united to win a crucial election and then to deliver results. To an admiring outsider, this looks like the politics of grown-ups.
How could that maturity and discipline be transplanted to the UK? The first difficult but crucial step is for the progressive opposition parties simply to recognise that, unless they hang together, they will hang separately. That means a prior understanding about how to fight future elections. At the very least, tacit acknowledgement of each others’ priority seats is essential, and better still would be an explicit agreement of the kind Liberal Democrats and Greens negotiated in 2019, but which failed in the absence of Labour.
Discussions along these lines are happening around the country, with de facto coalitions forming in local government and the emergence of cross-party forums like Compass. But they currently lack endorsement and encouragement from the top. Mr Starmer could “shift up a gear” by taking the lead in this trialogue, in a clear move away from the “one more heave” brigade in the Labour Party.
To ensure the effort is a real campaign – not just a calculation – he should seek common ground around a progressive programme for government, based on quick-acting policy measures of the kind that Biden has been able to put through in a few months. Essential to that programme is political reform to ensure that future elections are fought on a proportional basis.
It is easier to talk about coalition-building than to do it. But until the various “progressive” parties think of themselves – and act – as part of something bigger, they are doomed to frustrated impotence.