It will take more than a Christmas break for opposition parties to recover from such a devastating defeat as the December election. While leadership hopefuls line up for a tribal squabble in the Labour Party, a much greater problem requires the attention of all from the world of progressive politics.
This includes the Liberal Democrats, environment activists, the now-defunct People’s Vote campaign and many more. Headlines will repeat the political slogan delivered by politicians that “We need to come together as a country”. You’d be amiss to think this isn’t needed, but how can we come together? With such a despairing opposition, how can there be any form of reflection which posits a forward-thinking transformation of society?
Co-operation and mutual benefit should be at the core of left-leaning party politics. The problems that caused the election defeat can and must be examined by progressives as a collective. This will take a lot of work – honest attempts at alliance during the election campaign were met by abysmal self-interest, rather than optimism.
In Canterbury, there were green shoots of a united front against the Conservative candidate, in support for Labour’s Rosie Duffield. The Lib Dem candidate was met with hostility until his humble decision to step aside offered the first twinkle of an election without opposition infighting. This coverage delivered a returning seat for Labour with the help of students and a common cause, a rarity on the night.
However, there were other results on the night which showed a deeply despairing hostility from progressive parties, for example, Labour’s surge of activism in Golders Green, a seat which the Lib Dems’ Luciana Berger was destined to represent. It was discovered through a dossier leaked after the election defeat that Finchley and Golders Green was heavily targeted, but left Labour’s Ruth Smeeth off the list of necessary defences. A vindictive, ideological campaign.
So too in Kensington, Wimbledon, Cornwall, and across marginals in the North and Midlands. These were primarily battlegrounds for Labour and Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems, though in constituencies such as Stroud, even the Greens were eating into a majority that should have remained Labour’s.
Of course, this is an issue of electoral reform which every progressive party should now be supporting. Nevertheless, a more cooperative spirit would have saved many seats, presenting a stronger parliamentary challenge to the now-majority populist Tories. To establish this spirit, one must disarm. A new positive approach to inter-party dialogue where policies are not fought over, leaders are not sparring, and seats are not contested.
This method has history. In 1997, Blair hinted at a better working relationship with the Lib Dems, then represented by the late Paddy Ashdown. Coalition plans were mentioned, and there were whispers of a pact. In our time, parties must learn to collaborate on large problems, including defence against hostile right-wing politics, so that the opposition is stronger in face, thought and word.
It may sound too formal, too impossible to consider any type of ‘alliance’. Erase that word entirely and replace it with ‘mutual assistance’. This isn’t the Cold War, these groups are not so disparate in function and form. There are giant problems facing the world that are greater than party and ideological loyalties, so it is surely beneficial to all for a unified position on certain matters.
One of these is the climate crisis. This progressive unity project should include the organisers, activists and leading voices of the environmental movement. Caroline Lucas alone is not enough, however brilliant she may be.
Incorporating the expertise and activist base of such a wide political space would allow for a single message to be issued with substance, reaching people with a positive proposal. When presented with climate emergencies such as the Australian bush fires, words and action from a substantive voice would mean more than smaller thoughts and prayers.
Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy recommended in Spring 2019 that citizens’ assemblies be organised for a discussion around the Brexit debate. Extinction Rebellion are also calling for an assembly to discuss the needed changes for society to work towards tackling global climate problems.
This model will enable the progressive coalition to listen to the people, learn from them, and make important policy changes. It could look even further into social and political changes, eventually working towards a manifesto. A ‘progressive assembly’ would also act to unite the participants of this cooperative movement. It would indirectly bring attention to a future of better representation – especially for communities that feel cut off.
Direct democracy in action for a country gripped by archaic functions of governance. A chance for the people to speak to politicians, commentators, leading activists and voices. It’s how politics should be done – through discussion and mutual respect.
It would be a substantial undertaking by the organising bodies. Uniting to ensure this model can be sustainable through political party funding, Short Money, and donations. For it to be a legitimate assembly, it must be formed as an authentic arm of democracy, but separate from the workings of the state. A secondary power to listen but not dictate.
It goes without saying that this is entirely conceptual, based on successful assemblies in the past (particularly the Irish assemblies on social changes). The biggest challenge is giving parties a space to work together and in pursuit of a common message. Enormous existential problems await us all in the next five years and beyond. Allowing for a progressive vigour of hope to parse through the toxicity of Westminster politics would not only clean the air, but make us all breathe better too.