New Frontiers in UK Politics?

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Lecture date: Sun, 5th Feb, 2017
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The new leadership of the Green Party has called for a “progressive alliance” involving Labour, Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Lib Dems to take on the Conservatives in a 2020 election. On 5 February 2017, Jonathan Bartley (Co-Leader, Green Party), Peter Taheri (Secretary/Chair Nominee, Hampstead and Kilburn Labour Party) and Timothy Barnes (Conservative candidate for Bloomsbury Ward 2018) discussed this proposition, or whether the way forward in the UK is best left to one of the established main parties. Jonathan Bartley outlines his position.

Our democracy is broken. How else to explain the depth of the divisions that scar our country, which were revealed in all their visceral rawness by the bleak, bitter EU referendum campaign and its aftermath?

It has shown the divisions within political parties are as large as the divisions between them. If we are to heal both our country and our democracy, then we urgently need to build a progressive alliance for electoral reform. The alternative is the chilling prospect of Tory rule for a generation, with all the social and environmental destruction that would bring with it.

Progressive politics is not dead – but let’s not pretend that it is not staring death in the face. Just look at the polls.

The situation is not explained by a lack of enthusiastic supporters. Labour is Europe’s biggest socialist party, my own party’s membership is more than four times bigger than it was five years ago. The Lib Dems and the SNP have been buoyed by swelled ranks in recent years.

The situation is not explained by the ruling party governing well, either. The country is in chaos, whichever way you look at it. We’ve been steered out of Europe with no clear plan about where we are heading. Our NHS is broken – with people waiting in corridors for treatment. Local Government is buckling under the strain imposed by central Government. Our welfare state is being weaponised against those who can’t fight back. The truth is that we are failing at a time when we should be winning.

There are some who put the blame for this failure entirely on individuals and, if we’re honest, on Jeremy Corbyn particularly. But we – collectively – lost the last election and we’re now living with the consequences. Yes, my party has our criticisms of Jeremy’s leadership of Labour – we wouldn’t be a separate party if we didn’t – but the blame for our current predicament does not rest on his shoulders.

To prevent the formation of a UKIP driven Tory government that will maximise an extreme Brexit, I believe we should explore the possibility of a pre-election agreement between progressive parties, and the glue holding together such a pact would be a commitment to proportional representation. Because that is the antidote to a sick electoral system which produces Governments with the votes of just 24% of those eligible to vote. The movement for PR has grown – already it is supported by the SNP (even though it would play against them), by Plaid, the Lib Dems, the Green Party and increasingly by members of the Labour Party.

Simply put, anyone who wants to stop progressive party politics dying needs to actively support real democracy and proportional representation, and the best route to that is through a progressive alliance

How would such an agreement actually work? Firstly it does not mean stitching things up behind closed doors. This has to be an open, inclusive, bottom up process, involving as many people as possible in each local area.

One proposal would be to hold open primaries to elect the best progressive candidate – either in every constituency or just in marginals where an electoral alliance could make most impact – which could provide unprecedented democratic legitimacy and harness a wave of grassroots excitement and energy.

There are plenty of other scenarios, from individual party candidates signing up to a set of core progressive principles, perhaps championed by a third party movement – a concept explored by Guardian journalist Stephen Moss last year with his Platform proposal – to less formal non-aggression agreements.

I know a progressive pact is not an easy concept, especially for people who have spent hours banging on doors for a party they really believe in. But my plea to other parties is quite simple: let’s at least explore whether some form of joint working might deliver us a progressive Government in 2020.

The bottom line is that the alliance needs to empower individuals, not party elites, and better reflect the diversity of opinion that is at the heart of modern Britain. No one party has a monopoly on wisdom and we are better working together.

Thinking on Sunday

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party with Caroline Lucas MP and the Party’s Work and Pensions Spokesperson. He has a passion for social justice and studied Social Policy…

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