I went to Liverpool on Sunday and Tuesday last week, to participate in Momemtum’s lively and inclusive event which took place alongside the official conference down the road. A diverse collection of radicals, including a good few greens, debated the important challenges we face and the opportunities which Jeremy Corbyn’ s election and re-election as Labour Party leader provides to those of us committed to a ‘ new politics’ . It was an entirely positive experience.
Unfortunately I missed the debate about ” Building a Progressive Alliance” which John Harris writes about here
However I did attend two events on the ‘ official’ conference fringe itself , which strengthened my belief in the possibility of winning the Labour Party over to supporting electoral reform . It also confirmed my view that the initiative taken by the newly elected Green Party Co-Leaders ,to call for a Progressive Alliance to elect a Government committed to bringing in proportional representation ,should be welcomed by Green Party members.
On Sunday evening an event organised by Compass promoted a new book called The Alternative. Co-edited by Caroline Lucas and Labour MP Lisa Nandy, the book is a collection of articles in favour of cross party working to achieve progressive reform. Neal Lawson from Compass opened the meeting, arguing that electoral reform was essential as part of a process to make politics fit for the 21st century. The ‘ old’ politics , where a dependable block of voters could be relied upon to vote Labour with the reasonable expectation that Labour could win a majority under first past the post , was gone forever. A new Progressive Alliance had to be built, involving parties of the Left and Centre-Left being prepared to co-operate. An important priority of a progressive government elected on this basis would be introducing proportional representation. This would mean that no party would be likely to be able to govern on it’s own, which would be a good thing because ” ( in the 21st century) the idea that any single party can control everything, pull all the levers and make the good society happen is over”.
Caroline Lucas developed this theme further “We need to do politics differently and we need to do this urgently……..we need a more inclusive and representative democracy ” Cooperation between parties to remove this dreadful government and bring about electoral reform could not be on the basis of an instruction from the centre(s). Greens for one wouldn’t allow it ! . Rather there should be ” a grassroots led conversation up and down the country” focussing on how local alliances might be built, including the question of how best to agree on a single candidate, if that was the aim. A US style local primary ( although presumably without all the corporate money ! ) might be a way of achieving this. The good news was that ” there is a growing recognition in the Labour Party that they will not be able to win a majority on their own at the next election ”
On Tuesday evening I attended a conference fringe organised by the campaign groups ‘ Make Votes Matter ‘ and the ‘ Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform’. The organisers said that at the same fringe last year there had been more speakers than members of the audience. This time there were 140 in the audience with an overflow meeting for those who couldn’t get in. There were lots of speakers ( at least 12 ) all making 5-10 minute contributions and some unable to stay for the whole meeting because of other commitments. The platform covered the whole spectrum of the Labour Party including John McDonnell ( cheered by a significant number of the audience ) along with 2 other Shadow Cabinet members ( Cait Smith and Clive Lewis ) who are strong supporters of the leadership. Chuka Umunna and Steven Kinnock also spoke , along with several other MPs , an MEP and Neal Lawson from Compass.
The meeting was chaired by former Blairite MP Stephen Twigg. A prominent member of the PCS reminded the meeting that the TUC policy was in favour of electoral reform. The speakers were all complimentary ( even comradely) to one another and although I didn’t stay for the contributions from the audience, having a train to catch, there was every indication , from the applause for the various speakers, that at least the majority of the audience agreed with the platform’s basic message-that the Labour Party should commit itself to electoral reform, ideally before the next election. All thought it would be a ‘ game changer’, one of the speakers quoting Thatcher who apparently had said ‘ we can’t have a Labour Government because it would bring in PR and there would then never be a Tory Government again’ . There was general agreement that Labour should already have acted to make her prediction come true.
The only speaker to actually advocate a Progressive Alliance was Stephen Kinnock, although he didn’t elaborate on what he meant by that. Intriguingly Clive Lewis suggested that a deal needed to be struck with UKIP !
The fact that such prominent figures from the left and right of the party were in agreement on the issue of PR was very encouraging. Chuka Umunna said ” we have a multi party democracy but not a multi party electoral system. This is unsustainable for anyone who considers themselves a democrat”. John McDonnell couldn’t have been clearer, stating ” we need to secure a commitment from Labour to introduce PR before the next general election campaign”.
I think the Green Party campaign for a Progressive Alliance to get rid of the Tory Government and then bring in PR might be kicking at a half open door. We should give it our support, and make it a central part of our political work in the months ahead.