The electoral math is simple: only a coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens will be able to depose this administration.
Politics is usually both difficult and straightforward. If we needed another reminder, the North Shropshire byelection serves as one. The Liberal Democrats won big in this Tory stronghold. And yet, in six of the last seven general elections, Labour, not the Lib Dems, came in second place here, so shouldn’t it have been the progressives’ choice? How should we respond, and what does this outcome tell us about the prospects for a non-Tory government?
The Lib Dems are experts at running byelection campaigns; it’s their Mastermind topic. Their supporters pour in from all throughout the country, putting their lives on the line. Perhaps most importantly, their vote share has greater highs and lower lows than Labours. It has the potential to rise like yesterday. It may surge, like it did yesterday, or plunge, as it did nationwide in 2015. However, Labour’s support in this seat was likely already at its peak in 2017, at over 30 per cent, and therefore, rather counterintuitively, the third-placed Lib Dems were the best set to win.
Consider any safe Tory seat, such as North Shropshire, which was considered to be secure. If Conservative voters are going to kick their party, who are they going to kick? Labour or the safer and more moderate Liberal Democrats? Even under the watchful eye of Mr Starmer, it’s a no-brainer for them.
At the time of the previous general election, the Liberal Democrats were second to the Conservatives with 80 seats. Labour may either withdraw from these seats or divide the vote and allow the Conservatives to win. Attacking the Lib Dems for not always being as left-wing as Labour on every policy issue is electoral suicide, whereas allowing them to win over soft Tory voters can help Labour win power.
However, for some key members of the Labour Party, the Lib Dems will always be the enemy to be defeated. This is a catastrophic misinterpretation of history, particularly in 1997, when collaboration with the Lib Dems aided Labour’s win. It is also a misinterpretation of Labour’s historic victory in 1945 when its whole platform was based on Keynes and Beveridge’s economic and social liberalism. Attacking the Lib Dems and Greens at the same time locks the country into a Tory destiny. Labour needs to gain 125 seats to secure a one-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Of course, some in Labour have devised a method to entice Tory people to vote for them: by replicating the New Labour model of the 1990s. Back then, “New” conveyed to Tory voters the message that New Labour was, in fact, “Not” Labour. Tony Blair made it easy for millions of Tory voters to support him by posing no threat to their way of life or beliefs. This inexorably planted the seeds of Brexit, the loss of critical Scottish seats and later “red wall” seats, and four successive Tory general election triumphs in Labour’s backyard. It is not a place where Labour should return.
This is the politics of hypocrisy and failure: the party leaders make a deal, then claim they didn’t, confusing everyone. There is enough commotion in a byelection for progressive voters to figure out who has the best chance of winning. But extrapolate this to a national election, and you have a prescription for disaster. Meanwhile, Labour continues to endorse first past the post, despite the fact that the majority of its members want to see an end to the outmoded voting system that benefits the Conservatives while punishing progressives by splitting their votes. And, just for good measure, every Labour member who says, “Vote Lib Dem to beat the Tories,” is dismissed. Maintaining the “two-horse race” feels more vital to the Labour machine than winning.
So here are some hard realities. First, while the Liberal Democrats can surpass their national performance in byelections, they frequently fail to retain the same seats in a general election.
A byelection plan cannot be used in place of a political strategy. The Liberal Democrats should make use of their opportunity, but not delude themselves. They still have a lot of work to do.
Second, Boris Johnson will either recover or be replaced as a result of this blow. Conservative politics will not remain steady. They are cruel and unyielding. If they are to be denied a record fifth victory in the next general election, all progressive parties will have to perform better individually and collectively, not least in finding a way to reward the Greens, who are now potentially king-or queen-makers for Labour or the Lib Dems in up to 30 seats.
So, here’s the easy part. The electoral map is unmistakable. It’s progressives vs. conservatives. All progressive parties have to do is work together to build a national sentiment for change and then stay out of each other’s way in the next general election. If local constituency choices for one-time “stand-asides” to defeat the Tory candidate could be made, together with an agreement that the next administration would implement proportional representation, progressives may have a chance of both ousting the Tories and establishing a new type of politics. Last night, voters demonstrated that this is what they want. The alternative isn’t even worth considering.
Neal Lawson is the director of Compass, a progressive coalition campaign organization, and we have a tiny favour to ask. We think that everyone has the right to knowledge based on science and truth, as well as analysis based on authority and honesty. That’s why we made a different decision: to keep our reporting accessible to all readers, regardless of where they reside or how much they can afford to pay. As a result, more people will be better educated, unified, and motivated to take real action as a result of this.
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