by Olivia Hanks
“I will never campaign on anything with the Tories! Not Europe, not anything!” Marina Prentoulis’s passionate declaration summed up why we were all there, as did the title of the panel discussion: ‘Taking the Fight to the Tories’.
The event, organised jointly by UEA Greens and Momentum UEA, brought Greens, Labour and the People’s Assembly together to discuss how the left might co-operate to get the Tories out of power.
One thing was clear: the five panellists really, really didn’t like the Tories. Prentoulis, the Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley, Jessica Lauren Barnard from Young Labour, Ana Oppenheim of the NUS and the People’s Assembly’s Jan McLachlan lined up to criticise selective schooling, the marketisation of education, anti-migrant rhetoric and boundary changes. There was a general consensus that we are at a watershed in British politics; that we have to seize the moment.
But the audience knew all that. That’s why we were in the room. Where it gets interesting is where we differ, how we accommodate those differences, and generally how we make this happen.
Yet the only panellist to really talk about what an alliance between parties might look like was Bartley. He argued that electoral reform to achieve proportional representation had to be key to any agreement, and that it would be a “one-time only” deal to co-operate in “50 or 60” Tory marginals: elsewhere, “we would fight Labour, just as they would presumably fight us”. The arrangements would have to come from local parties, and could take various forms, including open primaries to select an independent candidate.
It would have been interesting to hear other perspectives on this, or alternative models for an alliance. But it felt at times as though the panellists were talking about different things; and it became clear why when Bartley said he did not believe Jeremy Corbyn could win a majority in 2020, and asked people to raise their hands if they thought he could. A smattering of hands went up, including those of Prentoulis and Barnard.
Barnard certainly had a point earlier in the evening when she argued that “unelectability” is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Labour would stand a better chance if they stopped talking their own party down. After that comment, it would have looked strange if she had not raised her hand. However, the realisation that at least two members of the panel were principally interested in winning a majority for Corbyn was a significant one – because if Corbyn can win without help from other parties, then all talk of electoral pacts or open primaries with independent candidates is null and void. If Labour think they can win a majority, they will not enter into an alliance. For those who believe they can do so, ‘taking the fight to the Tories’ only means winning votes for Corbyn – who is not himself in favour either of an alliance or of proportional representation.
Not only were the panellists not talking about the same thing, none of them acknowledged this situation. This does not bode well for the tricky business of co-operation. Bartley said it was positive we had started talking about the ‘how’ – but he was the only one who was actually doing so. And for many activists, whether this idea can go anywhere is entirely dependent on the ‘how’.
All panellists agreed that what is needed is a grassroots movement, something that really speaks to people. It would be an immense challenge to bring electoral reform into this category. More compelling is the anti-austerity narrative taken up by groups such as the People’s Assembly. So, asked an audience member, how do we get that message across? How do we make it clear to people that this really is something new?
McLachlan and Barnard lamented the right-wing bias of the mainstream press, and suggested that any movement needs to harness the growing power of social media and radical community media (hello there!). Prentoulis, however, cautioned that most people still get their news from mainstream outlets and “we mustn’t leave the space of the mainstream media for the other side to dominate”.
As has often been observed, social media tends to echo our own views back to us as we surround ourselves with people who think like we do, convincing us that everybody feels that way. This was starkly illustrated by Barnard’s comment that Labour had done a lot recently to promote anti-austerity policies, and that “I think potentially we’ve won that argument”. You could not ask for clearer evidence to back up McLachlan’s observation that “we tend to talk to each other in rooms like this – we need to talk to people who disagree with us”.
choosing not to contest a seat has potentially serious implications for both the party’s mission and its position with the electorate.
And we need to acknowledge those disagreements, not gloss over them – whether we are talking to each other or the wider public. Several of the panellists bemoaned tribalism; but we are, in the end, talking about elections, and at elections, party ‘tribes’ fight each other. Deciding not to do so is not a simple matter of a handshake; it would inevitably involve difficult negotiations, disagreements and compromises. Political parties exist to implement their policies through winning elections; choosing not to contest a seat has potentially serious implications for both the party’s mission and its position with the electorate.
Like many panel discussions, this one involved too many people – three would have been better – and would have benefited from more back-and-forth discussion. The common practice of taking three audience questions at a time is practical in some ways, but it prevented the panellists from really engaging with each other, and allowed them to offer vague responses where it wasn’t always clear which question they were addressing.
For some audience members, it was the first they had heard of a progressive alliance. John, a supporter of the People’s Assembly, was very much in favour of parties working together. “I thought the parallel with Martin Bell [the independent candidate who ousted Conservative Neil Hamilton from his ‘safe’ seat in 1997 after Labour and the Liberal Democrats stepped aside, mentioned by Bartley during the debate] was interesting, because that did show how someone who comes in and challenges wrong stuff that’s going on can be hugely successful, and that can happen again. We need to be clever about this, because we need to get the Tories out before they wreck the country.”
Others in the audience were less positive – among them Green Party activists, for whom progressive alliances have been a hot topic since the party leadership floated the idea. Nannette, a member of the UEA Greens, found the discussion “uninspiring; quite pointless in a way. Nobody was really talking about the practicalities.”
Does she like the idea of a progressive alliance? “It’s a fantastic idea in principle, but it was clear tonight we don’t really know how we’re going to do it.
“Jonathan made some really good points, but everybody else was just reproducing rhetoric. Unless we can get some firm principles on the ground, it’s not going to happen any time soon.”
A conversation has started, and that can only be a good thing. The very fact that UEA’s Green and Momentum groups were able to work together to organise the event gives some cause for optimism. Until we can get to grips with the ‘how’, though, the whole idea of uniting against the Tories seems little more than wishful thinking.