For those who regard themselves as progressives, the bleakness of the landscape reminds me of Alan Bennett’s drollery when asked if he was gay or straight. That’s like asking a man dying of thirst in the Sahara, he said, if he would prefer Evian or Perrier.
Stumbling through this political desert, any vision of an oasis for the centre left feels like one of those mirages that taunt the terminally dehydrated with false hope.
Yet nothing lasts for ever. Bennett’s romantic drought ended, Spurs will finish above Arsenal for the first time since the 1994-5 season, and one day this Tory imperium will fade.
How soon, far and fast the pendulum will swing, and in which precise direction, is anyone’s guess. Tony Blair’s is that it will swing to him. Pledging to “get my hands dirty” (yup, those would be the hands that emerged unbefouled from Iraq), he’s back in messianic mode. He styles himself as the Moses to part the red sea of Marxism, and lead the Children of Islington (the £4m house part, not the poorer Corbyn bit) back towards the land of soya milk and manuka honey.
Rather than pour a bucket of wotsit over him for the 11,342nd time, let’s envisage a different path ahead by asking if the long-term future of a revived centre left might lie, at least in part, with the Greens? At first glance, that may seem as implausible as a Cleanhands restoration. The Greens, with only one MP, are currently polling in the low single digits.
For all that, the identity of that MP and Labour’s surreal vulnerability offer another opportunity to mould themselves into a serious electoral force.
The last one came in 2015, when many fools (this one included) foresaw the demise of the two-party system. Technically, of course, we were correct. Where we went slightly wrong was predicting its replacement by a multi-party system where minor parties like the Greens, who during a brief polling surge hoped to pick up a few seats, would have real influence in a coalition. What we got was the one-party system the Tories are expected to cement on 8 June.
The Greens fizzled out two years ago for various reasons, not least then leader Natalie Bennett setting a record for policy detail confusion unbroken until Diane Abbott’s musings on the cost of extra police.
This time round, Caroline Lucas, the solitary Green MP for Brighton Pavilion who made the error of standing aside in 2012, is back in charge. Officially, she is in co-charge with one Jonathan Bartley, a gifted blues drummer, though one hopes the job share is a sop to the membership’s distrust of authoritarianism. The Greens need Lucas running the show and grabbing every minute of air time available because she may be the most talented media performer in British politics.
Smiley, articulate, pleasant and gloriously reasonable, she might with enough exposure propel the Greens to a result – three or four MPs, and nudging ten per cent of the popular vote – that would lay the ground for them to develop into a national force in the decades ahead.
To achieve that, she needs more than charm and intelligence. She needs Labour to stand aside in seats (Isle of Wight, Bristol West, and so on) where the Greens are the main challenger to the Tories, as she pulled her party out of contesting the Labour marginal neighbouring her Brighton seat.
This week, some high profile Labour figures, including anticipated future leadership contender Clive Lewis MP, signed an open letter urging Corbyn to do this. Inevitably, given the rampant absurdity of gifting the Tories seats by splitting the left vote in constituencies Labour cannot win, he has ruled it out.
With Corbyn rejecting the chance to kickstart the left’s transition into some form of anti-Tory electoral alliance, Lucas’s next step is clear. She has to summon the ruthlessness to go for his throat.
Millions of potential Labour voters, many young and idealistic and deeply concerned about climate change, are traumatised by Brexit. Lucas has to remind them that the essentially Eurosceptic Corbyn, while he paid insipid lip service to Labour’s official preference for Remain, effectively sat out the campaign. He might not have altered the outcome had he campaigned for Remain as strongly as he has to keep his own job. The point is that he never tried.
The Greens’ manifesto commitment to a second referendum on the Brexit terms, with the chance to reverse it, strikes the contrast with a Labour Party too terrified of its own voters in the post-industrial wastelands to do the same. But if she is to draw away enough young people (who may not have warmed to the Reverend Farron’s anguished struggle to sanctify gay sex) she should personalise the message.
Corbyn betrayed you and your future, she has to say. He can no more win the election than us – so vote with your hearts and we’ll leave the grand electoral alliance talk until Labour has a leader, like Clive Lewis, who appreciates the realities of forming a resistance in a one-party state.
If that brand of bare knuckle politics goes against her nature as well as her party’s mannerly ethos, this is not the moment for Queensberry rules. In the political Sahara, vultures are encircling the parched body of the centre left. If Lucas is serious about helping to keep it alive, she should fortify herself with something stronger than Evian or Perrier, and use the Dutch courage to fight rough.
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