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Yesterday, I wrote about the fallout from Brexit and the idea that, in a state of chaos and disarray, the ideologically possessed will take advantage and fulfill their decades’ old plans. Whatever you say about the good and bad of Brexit, it will enable free marketeers and those on the right of the Conservative Party to do their damnedest to change the narrative to their ends. I am fairly confident in saying that this will not benefit the working class who themselves predominantly voted for Brexit.

I left the last piece in discussing the opposition. So here goes to continue the exercise.

The Opposition

The main counterfoil in the traditionally bipartisan wars of the last 60 years, to the Tories, have been Labour. Rather like the US, power has swung from one party to the other. Slowly, over the last decade or so, the Liberal Democrats have come to the fore – Labour for the middle classes, I always think. They went into a rare coalition government in the last electoral cycle, with the Tories, forming an unlikely alliance. Even though they tempered the worst excesses of their Conservative partners to the good of the country, they were never going to appease their members and voters, going back on some promises. It was a no win situation, and they got decimated in the last election.

They did get one of their demands: a referendum on the electoral system (First Past The Post – FPTP –  as mentioned in the last post). Although FPTP is a pretty awful system for representative democracy, the campaign to reform it was overturned from a majority poll when David Cameron, knowing it would really harm the Tory (and Labour) power that they can wield under it, phoned four newspaper editors and requested they step in to campaign for a “No” vote for reform. The “No”s won. George Monbiot says of this, and Labour’s own refusal to grasp the nettle:

In none of its incarnations has Labour produced a credible response. It has, at different points in the past half-century, either burrowed back into the lost world or abandoned its core principles to deliver a slightly less toxic version of the Tory assault. It has not been able to find a place of comfort on the spectrum between dreary and frightening, perhaps because this is the wrong spectrum. It has failed to articulate what must be the core project of a new progressive politics: discovering the common purpose in diversity.

Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than its repeated refusal (which is now beginning to soften) to support demands for proportional representation. Our first-past-the-post electoral system served the old party well. It is disastrously mismatched to the fragmented and emergent politics that replaced the grey-green tide.

As Jeremy Gilbert, one of the crucial thinkers charting a new direction for the British left, points out, by placing general elections in the hands of a few middle-income voters in market towns, our system grants inordinate power to the corporate media, which needs only to influence them to capture the nation. A combination of a media owned by billionaires, unreformed political funding and first-past-the-post elections is lethal to democracy.

We are, for the time being, left with the skewed landscape of power that looks to remain predominantly blue. Labour have imploded, with the grassroots members overwhelmingly voting in Jeremy Corbyn (think Bernie Sanders) as their leader, but whom the parliamentary Labour MPs have revolted against (170 odd giving a vote of no-confidence), due to his perceived lack of charismatic and leadership strength (particularly in gaining those important swing voters). At a time when the Tories are at their weakest, losing a referendum that split their party, having their Prime Minister resigning, the Labour Party has been unable to capitalise as they fall to pieces.

It’s a political worry.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you need a proper and viable opposition to hold the ruling party to account.

Labour’s Working Class

Labour have typically held huge support in the working class. In the days before mass immigration, the enemy for the working class (I am being over-simplistic and generalised, but the point is broadly true) was the political elite, the corporate world, those who held power over the workers. And I can’t stress this point enough: they were strongly and effectively unionised. With the mass privatisation of national industries, with the academisation of schools, with the insidious creeping of private initiatives into the NHS, and many other political machinations over the last decades, the backbone of the collectivisation of the working class has been broken.

In the last few elections, UKIP (UK Independence Party) has stolen votes from across the board, particularly from Labour. With no, or far less, unionised, collective political movement, many of the working class native population are very often striking out at immigrants for their own lot, for their own perceived or real hardships. I have seen this personally, and in countless interviews. Labour support has moved to UKIP and Labour have lost their heartland.

A Progressive Alliance

I sit centre-left, broadly (mainly on social issues, more centrist on fiscal issues). Here are some graphs for the last general election. The three parties I would vote for don’t have a cat’s chance in hell of winning:

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This saw UKIP, in a very Conservative (big and small c) area steal votes from everyone (I would imagine from Tories, too, with the Tories taking from Lib Dem).

Labour have never been big here, in my very Conservative part of the South. Where up in Scotland they hemorrhaged to the SNP and the FPTP system, in England and Wales they have lost to UKIP.  Many reports surfaced of UKIP taking directly from Labour. Indeed, in May 2015, The Guardian reported:

Following the election, Ukip have said that they want to replace Labour in the north, and with 120 second places across the country, they have a strong basis on which to build.

We know that Ukip support has increasingly been drawn from working-class voters. Where in 2010 this was barely apparent, in 2015 it is stark. On average across England and Wales, for every 10 percentage-point increase in the share of working-class voters in a constituency, there was a five percentage-point increase in Ukip support.

This suggests that Labour’s answer to Ukip cannot be purely tactical or about tinkering with policy. The causes of Ukip’s rise are economic and structural – at root, a reaction to the insecurity that globalisation and technological change have produced.

Labour’s response must be similarly broad-based and bold: an entrepreneurial industrial policy that creates good jobs; a regional policy that helps blue-collar areas which have suffered the most; an immigration policy that stops the exploitative use of migrant labour; and active trade unions to protect the pay and conditions of workers.

But the roots of Ukip support in working-class areas are also cultural. So above all, we need a Labour party active in all our local areas with Labour representatives who can be seen as authentic voices for all parts of the country. This is not a change that can be done to working-class communities, only with them.

I am no particular apologist for Labour, insofar as I have never voted for them. But I would, if it would unseat the Tories. What I am calling for now is a progressive alliance. Labour will struggle to win back a large amount of that working class without a massive cultural shift, and a big shift back to work-related issues. Labour’s best chance is within a coalition. The Guardian’s George Monbiot knows this, as he called for it in his piece “Labour can still survive, but only if it abandons hope of governing alone“, in which he said:

Those who support Corbyn seem unwilling to understand that the Labour party will fail unless its leaders launch devastating attacks against established power. A kinder, gentler politics is a wonderful thing – until it allows the government and financial elite to get away with murder. Without a visible and effective demolition of the dominant political narrative, and the thrilling and voluble creation of a new story, his party cannot generate the excitement required to turn the vote. The lords of misrule will not be overthrown by mumbling.

But to blame the collapse of the party on its immediate difficulties would be unfair to both sides. Labour’s problems run much deeper than the current struggle between members and representatives. The party rose on what JB Priestley, in 1929, called the “grey-green tide of cloth caps”: a coherent, organised industrial labour force, with common goals and common means of achieving them.

This coherence was destroyed not only by deindustrialisation, but also by powerful and ineluctable social change, much of which pre-dated industrial collapse. As Tony Judt noted, the New Left in the 1960s rebelled against both the injustices of capitalism and the constraints of collectivism. “Individualism – the assertion of every person’s claim to maximised private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires … became the leftwing watchword of the hour.”

We now have this move, I think (and this certainly played into the Leave campaign in the EU Referendum), towards individualism. We see this in the materialistic change in society, all of us staying at home and playing on our affordable gadgets. The days of social causes being solved by collective movements of real people on real streets is being threatened by petition-signing internet apathy. We care, but we really only care from our armchairs, in front of our devices.

The result was an astonishing liberation: from millennia of social, gender and sexual control by powerful, mostly elderly men. But the flowering of identities that began 50 years ago led inevitably to a decline in the sense of common purpose.

Identity and autonomy, championed at first on the left, were soon co-opted by the neoliberal right. Liberating individualism was transformed into exploitable atomisation, creative self-expression replaced by a depoliticised, desocialising consumerism that enabled the rise of a new oligarchy. The most enduring political legacy of the New Left is not to be found in leftwing movements, but in the radical right’s institution-smashing insurgency….

Unless something drastic and decisive happens, the next election threatens to become a contest between the Tories and Ukip: in other words, between rightwing technocrats owned by the banks and rightwing demagogues owned by Arron Banks. What is this drastic something? A progressive alliance.

This means Labour, the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin and other parties agreeing to field just one candidate between them in every constituency. Whether that means a unity candidate representing all parties (perhaps chosen in an open primary, as the political innovator Paul Hilder has suggested), or making way for the party representative most likely to capture the progressive vote is a question that needs to be debated. The Greens and Lib Dems seem ready to play. What about Labour?

Joining such an alliance means giving up Scotland and giving up its hopes of a majority in England and Wales. You could see that as a lot to ask, or you could see it as accepting the inevitable. Here’s where the kinder, gentler politics is required: to abandon tribalism and strike generous bargains with old opponents. It’ll be hard, but the urgency of the task, as we confront an elite that is now empowered to tear down the remains of postwar social democracy, should be apparent to everyone. By giving up hopes of governing alone, Labour could be offered a last chance of survival – but only as part of a wider alliance.

Combined, these forces can win the next general election, whenever that might be. Apart, they will inevitably lose. A progressive alliance need win only once, then use that victory to reform our electoral system, to ensure that the parties of the left and centre never again engage in destructive competition.

After submitting this column, I jumped on a train to attend a mass meeting in London. The topic? Building a post-Brexit alliance. It brings together senior figures from the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP and, yes, Labour. Did hope die on 24 June? Or was it perhaps reborn?

Monbiot has nailed this. It is the only way that the weird mixture of the Tories and UKIP will be overcome. I say weird, because so many people who voted for UKIP, and followed their cause into the EU, did so on account of strict immigration issues. But UKIP are, at heart, a libertarian or corporatist (depending on how you look at it) party, and absolutely do not have the desires and needs of the working man, or “everyman”, at heart. It’s a terrible irony.


In sum, the Greens have been leeching the middle-class, university lefties from Labour; UKIP have stolen their working class heartlands to some degree; and the Lib Dems have been swinging around all over the place, both metaphorically and statistically. For any or all of these parties to have serious designs on a future with power, they must come together in some meaningful way to create a progressive alliance, either formally, or electorally and strategically.

Let’s change the narrative. Let’s take bold steps. Together.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...