2016 elections: Labour needs to build a progressive alliance and adopt a new far-sighted narrative

Labour’s showing in the 2016 elections was the worst of all possible worlds:  terrible, but not quite bad enough to precipitate a change of leadership and direction, and nothing like good enough to offer the faintest hope of winning a general election (in 2020 or quite possibly earlier) on its own.  Labour needs to learn two hard lessons from these results:

  1. To have an outside chance of ousting the present reactionary and incompetent Conservative government, Labour has no choice but to form an alliance with the other progressive parties, either formally or, more likely, loosely, in order eventually to command a majority in the House of Commons. 
  2. To have any hope of regaining sufficient popular support, especially in England, Labour needs a new and exciting narrative, a set of radical objectives reflecting its values of justice, equality and fraternity. Such a new narrative is there for the taking: the long-term vision of a democratic federation of the four UK nations.  The chief features of this are bound to include full internal self-government for each of the four nations, which means a parliament and government for England, and the assumption by each of the four nations of full powers and responsibility for its internal affairs, with the responsibilities of the federal government and parliament at Westminster strictly limited to matters which obviously need to be administered on an all-UK basis, mainly foreign affairs and defence.

The need to create an alliance with the other progressive parties will require a huge effort of imagination, determination and willingness to sacrifice the best for the sake of the good.  Labour needs to face the reality that its chances of winning an overall majority on its own at a general election in the foreseeable future are zero.  In the first fine careless rapture after Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory in the party leadership election last September, his supporters could imagine that it would be a relatively easy matter to replicate on a national scale the fervent Corbynism of mainly young voters yearning for a new kind of leader, sharply distinguished from the old, clapped-out Establishment figures reciting their meaningless irrelevant mantras at Westminster.  Alas, no such thing has happened: indeed, quite the opposite.  The Labour party under Mr Corbyn marginally increased its share of the total national vote compared with last year’s general election, but ended up with a net loss of 26 Council seats – at a time when the Conservatives are bitterly divided over Europe, in so much disarray over other policies that the government has been forced into multiple humiliating U-turns, when none of the Chancellor’s economic targets has been hit and almost none of his forecasts validated, and when the most reactionary government of recent years has wreaked fearful damage to the social fabric, including progress in dismantling the most appreciated features of the welfare state, including the NHS.  Even if the government had been doing fairly well, almost any Labour opposition leader fighting local elections in his first year and enjoying the honeymoon effects of novelty ought to have gained a good number of council seats.  Look at the record, even including that of Michael Foot when the Labour party was deeply divided and saddled with worthy but unsaleable policies:

2011     Ed Miliband     +   857
1995     Blair                    +1,807
1993     John Smith       +   111
1984     Neil Kinnock    +     88
1981     Michael Foot   +   998

2016     Jeremy Corbyn  – 25

In most of these cases, despite these positive results, Labour went on to lose the next general election, and in some case the one after that as well.  With Labour actually going backwards this time, not gaining but actually losing seats in every part of Britain in a political climate that is unlikely ever to be as favourable to Labour as it is now, any idea of winning a forthcoming general election outright is plainly delusional.  For Labour to pretend otherwise is simply to dig itself even deeper into its hole.  Even the possibility of a minority Labour government is hugely ambitious, although not an unreasonable aim if other conditions can be satisfied.  

For a minority Labour government to get parliamentary approval for its policies and to pass its legislation, it will need reliable and predictable support from at least one other party, and probably more.  The bitterest pill to swallow will be the absolute need for conditional support from the SNP at Westminster: support from the LibDems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru alone, though valuable and welcome, is unlikely to be enough to outvote a Conservative-UKIP alliance. Labour and the SNP will have to agree to disagree about Scottish independence, but they share a strong common antipathy for the Tories and a correspondingly strong preference for a progressive Labour-led government at Westminster as long as Scotland remains in the UK. The two parties have numerous domestic and foreign policy aims in common, certainly enough to keep a minority Labour government busy for a full term.  It’s significant that Tory leaders are already bad-mouthing the idea of a minority Labour government “propped up by” the SNP, with Nicola Sturgeon as its sinister puppetmaster. The Tories grasp, if Labour still does not, that much the greatest threat to continued Conservative ascendancy lies in precisely such a progressive alliance.

As long as Scotland remains part of the UK, it would obviously benefit like the rest of Britain from progressive government at Westminster. The clincher will be the promise of “devo max” for Scotland – full control over all subjects affecting only Scotland – and (perhaps later) for Wales and Northern Ireland, with the same full autonomy for England later still, after the establishment of a separate English parliament and government parallel with those enjoyed by the rest of the UK.  Full internal self-government for Scotland will not be a price to be reluctantly paid in exchange for SNP support for a progressive government programme, but a necessary and overdue stage in the planned journey from devolution to federation. Full federation will take many years to bring about:  but just the fact of a Labour party commitment to it would change the face of British politics for ever. 

The long-term case for English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland internal self-government within a UK federation has been set out here and elsewhere before now.  It always evokes astonished objections, to all of which there are cogent answers, mostly based on the positive experience of democratic federalism enjoyed by, for example, the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and many others, from all of whom we can learn invaluable lessons.  We shall not be inventing federalism from square one, as most objections to it seem to assume.  Its purpose will be to guarantee the smaller nations’ freedom from interference by much bigger and richer England – whose compulsive meddling in their domestic affairs has brought the Union to the brink of disintegration.  Our existing semi-unitary system contains very few such safeguards, even after devolution has brought us already into semi-federal territory without the roof falling in.  Federation will hugely reduce the number of professional politicians drawing salaries from the public purse: the number of new English parliamentarians will be massively outweighed by the reduction in the size of the federal senate (perhaps 80, with 20 elected from each of the four nations) compared with the present House of Lords (around 850 and still growing), and a big reduction in the size of the almost equally bloated federal House of Commons (650 at the last count, with Tory plans to reduce it to 600 as part of a gerrymander at Labour’s expense).  With its greatly reduced responsibilities, and none at all for England’s domestic affairs, both Houses of the Westminster federal parliament, namely the Senate replacing the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, can safely be shrunk to a fraction of their present sizes.  Those who complain that such a reduction in powers, responsibilities and size will make the Westminster parliament largely superfluous need only look at the federal legislatures of the US, Canada, Australia and plenty of others for an answer to that fear.  The US Senate and House of Representatives, and the United States federal government, have plenty to do. So do the federal governments and parliaments of Australia, Canada, Germany and the other democratic federations.

The full case for the completion of the devolution process to its logical conclusion, a full federation, needs to be set out again and again and developed in detail if it’s to attract a broad, non-partisan, nationwide consensus in its favour, which is a precondition for its achievement.  But it’s a case that fits the Labour party like a glove.  It is capable of evoking the enthusiastic support of all parts of the political spectrum.  The SNP would gain significant further autonomy for Scotland without in any way prejudicing their long-term goal of full independence.  Adopting it as Labour’s long-term political objective, with some steps that can be taken immediately by a Labour government (even if it needs SNP and other progressive support for them), will breathe fresh life into the party, building bridges between hard left, moderate left and centrists, and giving Labour a sense of purpose that will not depend on the identity of its parliamentary leader from one year to another.  The mystery is why the Labour leadership has not grasped it long ago.  The main reason is that old curse of British, especially English, politics:  cowardice.  It’s really a no-brainer.  Time to be bold!



2 Responses

  1. Chris Vine says:

    Two points of caution.  First, having a separate English Parliament risks destabilising the UK.  It could possibly be made to work but it seems highly improbable that (even with its near wipe-out in Scotland) Labour would do that.  It would prefer to use the SNP to see it into office in the UK Parliament (which is the de facto English Parliament).

    Secondly, having a minority Labour government passing laws for England for which they have no mandate by applying SNP votes to achieve that objective, runs the risk of destroying them at the following election, as well as also imperiling the union.

    I wonder if there is any answer to the conundrum to which the current constitutional arrangements have led us.  It would probably require restraint and self-awareness from any Labour government relying on SNP votes, but I doubt if they are capable of actuating that restraint.  It all looks pretty bleak to me.

  2. Brian says:

    Chris, thank you for that. But in my view, FWIW, it’s the preponderant size and power of England compared with the other three nations of the UK that risk destabilising the UK: a main purpose of giving all four nations full and exclusive control of their own domestic affairs (which would require a separate English parliament and government like those of the other three nations) would be to get the English to concentrate on their own internal affairs while being constitutionally prevented from meddling in the internal affairs of the other nations.  At present Labour is highly resistant to the idea of a minority Labour government dependent on SNP and other progressive parties’ votes at Westminster, because of its tribal dislike of the SNP, despite the fact that the two parties agree on a wide range of policy issues.  And you are absolutely right to deplore the idea of Westminster MPs, elected from all four UK nations, legislating for England whether through a Labour minority government with SNP etc support or through a Conservative government, probably in future relying on UKIP support.  This is the West Lothian Question, of course, and its only, obvious, solution is an English parliament and government governing England within a federal UK, and the federal parliament and government  at Westminster ceasing to act simultaneously as the de facto parliament and government of England. The existing situation is inherently unstable (hence the pressure for Scottish secession): the remedy can only be self-government for each of the four nations with the protection of the smaller nations against domination by England that federalism would provide.

    A minority Labour government at Westminster able to govern with SNP support would thus be a temporary and clearly unsatisfactory measure pending the achievement of what should be Labour’s proclaimed policy of a parliament and government for England within a UK federation, under which the Westminster federal parliament would no longer have the power or responsibility for legislating for England.  As for whether Labour would be punished at the next election for governing with SNP (and LibDem and Plaid and other external support, not in a coalition but by transparent agreement), the Tories don’t seem to have been punished for governing with the consent of their junior coalition partner, the LibDems, for five years: they went on to win an overall majority on their own.  The SNP, by contrast, might well actually win additional electoral support by making it possible for Labour to replace the Tories at the all-UK level by giving Labour its conditional support.  Don’t forget that last week more Scots gave their constituency seat votes to Labour than to the Tories — the Tories only overtook Labour in Scotland on the top-up votes, depriving the SNP of its overall majority at Holyrood. Anyway, the SNP is far better able to defend itself than the vulnerable LibDems were able to do.