The case for an electoral pact, to secure a greener, democratic future

Houses of Parliament

Green politician and UEA lecturer Rupert Read, joins Caroline Lucas in making the case for some kind of electoral pact among the ‘progressive’ to secure proportional representation for Westminster elections.

Caroline Lucas has recently issued a striking public call for a new politics of unity among ‘progressives’- among those, that is, who seek at minimum to rein in the excesses of neoliberal BAU, Tory-style. My aim here is to extend the logic of her argument further, and to systematically answer objections that have been raised against her argument.

Caroline opens her article by praising Jeremy Corbyn, one of the Labour leadership contenders. I second that praise. I’d also add this, however; let’s be honest, Corbyn’s chances of winning the leadership election are slim, to say the least. The next Labour leader is almost certainly not going to have the assets that Corbyn has, that Caroline mentions.

But many Labour voters, members, candidates and Parliamentarians- and by no means just those who might vote for Corbyn- share much in common with Greens. And that’s one reason among several why it’s crucial that all of us interested in implementing a genuine alternative to Business-As-Usual work together whatever the outcome of the Labour Leadership Election.

Because, and let’s be quite clear about this, the alternative is grim; it’s the risk that that awful moment when we saw the exit poll on the night on May 7th will be repeated again in 2020, and again, in 2025.

The 2015 General Election resulted in a radically distorted electoral map of Britain, and a majority Government lacking a solid democratic mandate. It is now clear to anyone with a sense of justice that this country must abandon its antiquated electoral system and adopt a system of proportional representation; probably the Additional Member System, a simple system which preserves the constituency link while ensuring overall proportionality of outcome. This is the system employed in the Greater London Assembly, and it works well there.

The question that Caroline addresses in her Guardian piece of course is how we can get to a point where such electoral reform becomes a practical political possibility, as for the next five years, we will be governed by the most reactionary beneficiaries of the current undemocratic system. And they will not change it.

Like Caroline, I believe therefore that the time has come to consider a bold step. ‘Progressive’ parties need to start to discuss some kind of informal electoral pact, a ‘popular front’ that would look to avoid fragmenting the vote among ourselves in winnable seats, and that would look therefore toward electing a Parliament in 2020 that would have a progressive majority for democratic change.

Such a pact, to actually fly, would have to be done in such a way that it has real advantages- real possibilities of gains- for all parties involved in it. Political pluralism in this country is not going away. There will be testing-grounds for building positively (on) such pluralism in the coming years. The London Mayoral election in 2016 could be one, the coming EU-referendum campaign could be another, and the 2017 County Council elections. Another set of first-past-the -post elections across most of the country which, if there are no pacts, often result in radically distorted ‘one-party-state’ outcomes would certainly be a third, possibly a kind of dry-run for 2020.

In short, these elections offer real opportunities to test out a new more plural politics across the country.

My belief therefore is that the logic of Caroline’s argument needs to be extended a stage further, beyond the two key points that she makes in it, of (1) the need for the parties in question to permit local pacts and (2) the need to draw up some basic list of commitments, including crucially  to serious and swift action on climate, that those ‘pacting’ could share. The third stage in the argument needs, I believe, to be this; that the five parties who pose together a potential progressive alternative to (otherwise potentially endless) Tory rule should seek, regionally or nationally, to assist local parties to get ‘quid pro quos’ for any willingness on the part of some to stand down for others for the greater good.

In other words, if what I am calling for here is to work, there simply has to be something in it for everyone. If, for example, Green candidates are willing to stand down in Labour’s favour in some seats, then the compliment needs to be repaid, in a few others.

To take stock then, of the argument thus far. There is much soul-searching and rebuilding to do in the light of the deeply worrying General Election result that we saw last month. What I’m mentioning in this article covers only limited aspects of that. But, vital aspects. New leaderships, policy-reviews, even deep re-examinations (among the parties which lost the election) of parties’ structures and character and values, vital as these too are, will in the end all come to nothing, if the ‘change-vote’ in 2020 is once more entirely divided. It is therefore time, both at the grassroots level and at the highest level, to take the bold step of thinking at last beyond narrow and self-defeating-party-interest, and of beginning actively to consider the idea contained in the present article, and in Caroline’s.

Let me now deal with the three main potential objections to my argument here. The first such objection is that such a pact is unlikely to be able to be formed. My answer is (i) That if the logic of the position that Caroline and I are defending is strong, as I think it is, then we ought at least to try, and we certainly won’t succeed unless we try! And (ii) That there are historical precedents, that were no doubt similarly disparaged as pipe-dreams when they were first floated. The most striking such precedent is the 1903 pact with the Liberals that in effect enabled Labour to get into Parliament in the first place in numbers, in 1906.

For this reason alone, there is a powerful historical argument for the consideration of such pacts. For the only way that a new party managed to break through in a significant way was through an electoral pact with an old party. Then it was Labour with Liberals. Now it would be Greens, with Labour and Liberals and nationalists. It’s not about enabling the Labour Party to remain the main alternative to the Tories. It’s about enabling change, under the crazy FPTP system. As soon we get electoral reform, EVERYTHING will open up.

1903-6 was an electoral pact in some seats that enabled a good new small party to grow exponentially and that prevented what would otherwise have been disastrous Tory hegemony under FPTP. Just what I am proposing now. But such a pact now could have even more exciting and long-lasting results, if it brings electoral reform in its wake!

A more recent precedent is the little-known ‘non-aggression pact’ between Labour and Lib Dems which in 1997 was responsible for the scale of the destruction of the Conservatives at the hands of both those parties, and in particular of the largely-successful ‘decapitation strategy’ that they jointly practiced, that year. Here is a rare mention of that pact, which was unofficial and basically involved Labour and Lib Dems not doing work in each others’ target seats in the mainstream press.

The second objection is why exclude Ukip? Now, I strongly agree that we should seek common-cause with Ukip in relation to the extraordinarily undemocratic outcome of the 2015 General Election, and Greens have been doing that. But that’s one thing. An electoral pact with Ukip would be quite another. For me, such an idea is beyond the pale, and one key reason why can be seen to come directly from the centrality of some kind of basic commitment to climate justice and climate action among those who would benefit from any pact among Britain’s progressives. For Ukip stand diametrically opposed to any such idea. They are, of course, outright and absurd climate-deniers.

So much for Ukip. But the third objection is why include Labour? Aren’t they too right-wing now to be worth including?

I’ve already sketched my answer to this objection. It’s this: let’s be clear that we are not calling for an arrangement in every single seat in the UK. Like in 1903/6, we are calling for an arrangement in some seats, including hopefully many marginal. Signing up to a basic set of commitments that would include some kind of line against austerity, for real climate-action (some kind of Green New Deal), and for electoral reform (PR) would be required. In short, we might stand down for the Jeremy Corbyns of this world, but definitely not for Liz Kendalls. The proposed pact would be an intelligent way of pulling the Labour back to being more anti-austerity, pro-electoral-reform, pro-climate-action.

So I believe that the line of thought I have taken in this article is sound, and withstands objections. For all our sakes, and for the sake of the future, it is vital that leadership candidates in any ‘progressive’ party open up now the question of working together. Members, supporters, bloggers, citizens at large, can create the pressure such that that happens.

Let me seek then to sum up. Are we determined to simply keep plugging away, and stay ‘pure’? In which case there is now I think a likelihood of Tory government for a generation, as under Thatcher-Major. Or are we willing to make some compromises, in the name of achieving democratic reform, achieving something closer to climate-sanity, etc? Those compromises would be parties like the SNP that have quite a lot going for them although their record on climate is weak, and like Labour who have lots of genuinely progressive people in them. Do we want to give ourselves (I’m writing from a Green point of view, here) a decent shot at gaining a bunch of seats in 2020, and the country a decent shot at democracy (PR), and the world a decent shot at avoiding runaway climate change? Or not? I speak (not) incidentally as someone who ran on an uncompromising platform in Cambridge,…and who saw literally thousands of wannabe-Green voters- probably 6000 or more-defect to Labour (or Lib Dems), because of FPTP.

And notice again the terms of Caroline’s bargain: she is not talking about a blanket deal with Labour nationally. She is talking about the willingness to pact with candidates worth pacting with.

I don’t want the Green Party of England and Wales to become less pure- I co-founded a think tank, Green House, precisely, to help keep it pure. But: what I want is a future, and some realism and pragmatism is needed on how to get there. I want us to stay pure in what we believe- and to co-operate with others to seek to prevent the complete destruction of the NHS, the social security system, the climate ‘system’, etc.. I want electoral reform. And I want it in 2020, not 2060. We literally can’t risk waiting that long.

In conclusion then, my position might sound surprising, even paradoxical, to some. But I think it is actually highly logical. Seek to remain ‘pure’ as a Party- don’t sell out on (y)our own values and beliefs and policies. But also seek to make deals/compromises with other parties as much as possible provided that they are done in ways which do not cross red-lines (and dealing with Ukip would for me be a red-line; though of course there are people who disagree even with that-they think we should simply have as wide an alliance as possible, for electoral reform). This is in my view the most logical stance to take in a permanently plural political/electoral system. in other words, it seems to me that the only reason for staying ‘pure’ on both fronts is if one thought that a Green majority government were a realistic goal within the medium term (10 years). But it isn’t.

So, it’s time to consider an electoral pact of the kind sketched by Caroline and myself. One with candidates who have something in common; and one that would directly electorally benefit all parties that signed up for it. And this would have to mean e.g. the Labour Party standing down in favour of the Greens in some places where Greens then have a shot at winning, such as perhaps the Isle of Wight, and even a few of its northern powerhouse-seats.

This is actually about enabling more people to vote for what they believe in, and to get it. By achieving PR, which will at last end tactical voting which was still our utter bane in 2015. Most voters did not vote for what they believed in. In Cambridge, where I stood, we reckon there were at least c.5-6k Greens who voted Labour, for example.

And even under the proposed pact itself, by seeking to ‘trade’ (vote-swap, if you will) Green votes in some marginals, votes that would otherwise mostly be tactically squeezed into semi-non-existence anyway, for enabling Green votes en masse in seats where, under the pact, we will be able to win.

Above all, in 2020, this would enable people to vote for (and achieve!) what they believe in, in the sense of voting for an achievable alternative to endless Tory rule, and in voting for an end to FPTP. An end to our broken system.

It’s time to take the bold step of considering such a pact, for the greater good. The prize is democracy itself, as well as getting rid of the Tories. Any leadership contender in any ‘progressive’ party unwilling to contemplate such a pact risks leading their party only into the dustbin of history.

Rupert Read is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and Chair of Green House.

This post originally featured in the News Hub Blog

Image Credit: Wikipedia


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3 thoughts on “The case for an electoral pact, to secure a greener, democratic future

  1. Are you active in the cross-party efforts to achieve proportional representation? On 3rd. September there is a meeting in a committee room in the Lords of members from all parties.
    Are you a member of the Voting Reform Team, which has a facebook page? There you will find, the retired Labour M.P. Gwynoro Jones comments, amongst others, and details of cross-party efforts at achieving reform before the next election.
    We have The Cambridge Electoral Reform Group in Cambridge, but have had barely any response from the local Green group, who, when I brought the issue of voting reform to them, did not seem to appreciate its significance for the future electoral success of the Greens. There are MP’s from all parties anxious to see proportional representation. I’d like to hear what your own contribution to this movement is.
    with kind regards,
    Eve Steadman

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