This is my opening speech at the debate at The World Transformed 2019 about whether it would be right for the Labour Party to enter into electoral pacts or coalitions with other parties. The other speakers were Nadia Whittome (Labour for a Socialist Europe), Clive Lewis MP and Caroline Lucas MP.
Audio file, photos and comments on the discussion to follow!
I’m going to put the case that Labour’s job is to be the party of the working class, and that therefore, its priority is to build itself as that rather than make alliances with non-working-class parties.
Unity and pluralism are important. Labour needs to be a coalition rather than seek to make coalitions with non-socialist parties. It needs more member control, more trade unions affiliating, to readmit unjustly expelled socialists - to recruit, involve and represent working-class people in all our diversity.
But let’s look at some examples of Labour in coalitions and pacts with other parties:
- We can look at the Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s - which paved the way for Thatcher's Tory government.
- Or more recently, at coalitions with nationalists in local government eg. the dreadful Labour-SNP lash-up in Edinburgh
- An even Labour-Tory coalitions, such as the one in Derbyshire council that pushed through PFI schemes.
Every one of these attacked working-class people and discredited Labour.
Our attitude to the Greens can be more nuanced, as they are, broadly-speaking, part of the left, and are not as straightforwardly a capitalist party as the LibDems or Tories.
We could discuss the future relationship between Labour and Greens. But it would be wrong to advocate pacts or coalitions with the Greens in advance of that discussion.
Without asserting working-class politics as central to how we organise, pacts with the Greens become a gateway to pacts with LibDems, nationalists, even Tories, as shown in Caroline’s recent suggested cross-party Cabinet.
It is important to build bridges - but not the sort of bridges that our enemies can march across.
Supporters of electoral pacts tend to treat this as an arithmetical issue, as though we can just add together the votes of the various parties and that will give the total. But it doesn’t necessarily play out like that.
Who do you think a Labour voter and Brexit supporter will vote for in a constituency where Labour has withdrawn in favour of the LibDems? Not LibDem. Maybe Brexit Party. Possibly even Tory. Maybe not vote at all.
What would have happened in the 2017 general election if this electoral pact had been applied? Significantly fewer seats for Labour, a boost for the LibDems, a weaker opposition, a better terrain for the Labour right to swing the party back in their direction ... and not the major boost we gained from fighting that election as Labour on a popular and radical manifesto.
Elections are not won by mathematical tinkering, but by fighting for inspirational policies, and enabling working-class people to vote in our own interests (ie. not for the LibDems).
Lots of people voted LibDem in 2010 to "get the Tories out". It achieved the exact opposite.
Advocates of electoral pacts and coalitions often argue that they are made necessary by our non-proportional electoral system - and I agree that we need a more democratic, proportional system.
But the way we organise politically is not just about maths - it’s about politics.
Calls for anti-Tory electoral pacts define our politics by what we are against. We need to know, and to fight for, what we are for: and there is precious little that Labour and the LibDems could jointly advocate.
The aim of an electoral pact is to elect a coalition government - but partners in that would exact a price from Labour. They will block its radical policies and force their own reactionary policies onto the agenda.
That government would not be accountable to the labour movement. That government would fail, setting Labour back decades.
Labour can build support by arguing for its policies everywhere in the country - in every constituency. Because although there may be constituencies that Labour can never win under our current electoral system, there are no constituencies where there is no class struggle, no capitalism, no working-class political interests, no potential recruits and activists.
Under an electoral pact, many people are denied the chance to vote for who they support. It is hard to build a party by urging your supporters to vote for another party.
Labour was formed because the workers’ movement realised that we would not achieve progress for working-class people’s interests, let alone achieve socialism, by picking the lesser evil of the two capitalist parties: the Tories and Liberals - or by lashing up with the Liberals.
Why would we want to reverse that important step forward?
Instead of seemingly-clever electoral tricks and backroom deals, let’s breathe new life into the principle of independent working-class political representation - stop looking for solutions in electoral pacts and coalitions and confidently build our own movement.