If Labour wants to win again, it needs to do something really radical – work with other parties

How could Remainers ever counter the simple ‘Get Brexit Done’ message when it looked like the parties would continue to argue under a rainbow coalition?

Naomi Smith
Thursday 16 January 2020 10:30 GMT
Clive Lewis says Labour should have been firmly anti-Brexit

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Despite the race for the Labour leadership – and, with it, the future of the party – there’s been a lovely sense of admiration among candidates for one another. Such bonhomie marks a welcome change from the hostility we saw between progressives at the election. While Nigel Farage and his now obsolete Brexit Party agreed to stand down for the Tories in over 350 seats across the country, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson were at each other’s throats.

Everywhere from Twitter to the streets, this dislike of one another was palpable. It’s not hard to imagine why voters thought putting both in government was a disaster waiting to happen.

In the months leading up to the general election, Boris Johnson set about rebranding the Tory party – leaving behind the fractured Theresa May era. Yes, he courted controversy in expelling rebels, but his vision was clear: he wanted unity. By the time an early election was called, all Conservative MPs and candidates had signed up to back his Brexit deal.

While Johnson learned a lesson from May’s disastrous tenure as prime minister, and was then further bolstered by Brexit Party supporters who no longer had a Brexit Party candidate to vote for, Labour and the Liberal Dems did not.

Sadly it was therefore no surprise when poll after poll showed a majority for the Tories – and those predictions came to pass on election day. How could Remainers ever counter the simple “Get Brexit Done” message when it looked like the arguments that had brought parliament to a grinding halt over the past three years would continue under a rainbow coalition government?

My organisation, Best for Britain, attempted to heal the divide by encouraging tactical voting – voting for a party which isn’t your first choice in order to keep out the Tories. This was relatively successful: 10% of the electorate voted Labour even though another party was their first choice.

However, politics is a results business. Despite our best efforts, Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority and with it the ability to ram through his deeply unsatisfying Brexit deal.

In this light, I applaud the political instinct of Clive Lewis. Despite his elimination from the contest earlier this week, his calls for Labour to adopt a more gentle approach to the other parties that operate on the progressive side of our politics should now be taken up by those through to the next round.

It was brave for a leadership contender to suggest Labour cannot do it alone. While there’s a growing realisation that our first-past-the-post system injures Labour, not just parties like the Lib Dems and Greens, many Labour members still reject the prospect of working with others. Indeed, there is no small amount of irony in being among those candidates who want the UK to work with other countries, but not themselves work with other internationalists within the UK.

Working with the Greens is a relatively easy sell – they’re economically left-wing, socially liberal and prioritise (as their name suggests) a move away from the energy policies which have heavily contributed to the apocalyptic-looking bushfires in Australia that continue to rage.

But while the Greens are seen as natural allies, Labour currently seems to find it harder to work with the Lib Dems, and vice versa.

Both parties need radical leaders; ones who aren’t afraid to reach across party lines. Twentieth and twenty-first century history show that Labour and Lib Dem fortunes rise and fall in sync with each other. They both have more to fear from competing than collaborating.

Having long ago surrendered Scotland to the SNP, Labour doesn’t appear to have a clear route to power that doesn’t involve working with other progressive parties. Indeed, the party has now lost the last four elections, and another failure in five years time would mark the longest period Labour has been out of government since the Second World War.

The sooner the party acknowledges this, the sooner it can stop fighting with one arm tied behind its back and get back to winning elections.

So while Clive Lewis may no longer have a shot at being the next Labour leader, those moving onto the next round should take a leaf out of his book and urge greater progressive cooperation.

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Not doing so could consign Labour, and the wider progressive movement, to electoral oblivion. And that would make isolationists the biggest winners of this leadership race.

Naomi Smith is chief executive of Best for Britain

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