The Tories are terrified of a Labour-Lib Dem pact – and they’re right to be

Neal Lawson is director of the cross-party campaign organisation Compass.

Faced with the ongoing Partygate scandal, a porn-watching MP and a potential rout at Thursday’s local elections, the Conservative party chairman, Oliver Dowden, has gone on the attack. A front-page Mail on Sunday splash accused Keir Starmer and Ed Davey of making a pact to give each other a free run in seats at this week’s polls. The Tories fear a progressive alliance, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats seem to fear saying openly that they want one. What’s going on here, and what could it mean for the next general election?

From Dowden’s point of view, on one level this is straight distraction: make a loud noise and hope people look at your opponents, not you. But he is also on to something. In February the Financial Times ran a well briefed story that Starmer and Davey had an informal pact to avoid competing with each other in certain seats: they stand candidates, but make minimal effort in the campaign. It worked for the Lib Dems in the Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire byelections, and for Labour in Batley and Spen. Not spending money you don’t have, in seats you can’t win, makes obvious sense.

But Dowden is alleging something deeper. His research department has found a dip in the number of Labour and Lib Dem candidates standing this May. Some of this is by accident, as local parties don’t have the money or even the candidates to stand in many places. But it’s also happening by design. Finding they have values and policies in common, not just an enemy, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens are cooperating on a local level, whether their leaders like it or not. But this breaks party rules, and so has to be done under the radar.

Of course, in crying foul, Dowden is in danger of hypocrisy – the Tories are well aware of the benefits of electoral pacts. On Thursday, Ukip and Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit party, are standing only a quarter of the candidates they did in 2018, thereby consolidating the regressive vote. And at the 2019 general election there was a clear pact between the Conservatives and the Brexit party, the latter’s candidates standing aside because of shared values and the imperative not to split their vote. It helped deliver a big majority for the Conservatives. Dowden rightly fears the gains progressive parties could make if they replicate such deals.

How should Labour and Lib Dem leaders react to Dowden’s accusations? Davey and Starmer have both already insisted there is “no pact”. But whatever they say, while the polls show a hung parliament is likely at the next general election, and unless and until Labour secures a consistent 20-point poll lead, these accusations of secret pacts and a “coalition of chaos” will continue.

And the ace in Dowden’s pack isn’t Davey but Nicola Sturgeon, whose SNP MP bloc is likely to be decisive in any hung parliament. Labour can try to deny this obvious truth and look evasive, or it can make a virtue of the electoral and intellectual strength of cross-party alliances. Who, after all, wouldn’t want Caroline Lucas the Green MP in their dream cabinet? Upcoming byelections in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield will make it obvious once again that there is some sort of deal. Starmer and Davey must own the new politics or mire us forever in the old.

On the same note, they should stand up for the morality of standing aside to let a better-placed progressive win. Dowden’s argument is that “backroom deals” deny voter choice. This must be confronted. The reality is that the first-past-the-post voting system means 71% of votes are wasted to the benefit of the Tories. Remember, it takes only 38,000 votes to elect each Tory MP but 50,000 for Labour, 250,000 for the Lib Dems and 850,000 for the Greens. First past the post underpins our tribal, adversarial, winner-takes-all politics. The big fraud is an electoral system that shuts out millions of voices, to the Tories’ delight, and locks in a nasty and arrogant political behaviour. By standing aside once and gaining office, progressives could pass legislation for proportional representation so that votes match seats – and usher in a new democracy.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the nation celebrated a Labour landslide, won in part because of cooperation with the Lib Dems. Later this week in local elections across the land there are seats that Labour or the Lib Dems can’t win but the Tories can lose. The same is true of the next general election. Dowden knows this and fears a pincer movement where progressives focus on all the things that unite them, not the few things that divide.

While leaders dither, activists are building a new politics from below. Compass, the organisation I direct, is campaigning for a Labour rule change to allow local parties the right not to stand a candidate where they can’t win. And Labour for a New Democracy is pushing for Labour to back proportional representation. Think of fans invading a pitch, or events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall: if a few people defy the officials, they get carted off, but if everyone does it, the people can’t be stopped.

Whether it’s progressive primaries to select candidates, citizens’ assemblies or a commitment to proportional representation, politics is in desperate and obvious need of renewal. A dysfunctional democracy is incapable of even decent behaviour, let alone solving huge challenges such as the climate crisis. But to get there, progressives are going to have to work together. They have a choice: win as one or lose apart. The stakes have never been higher.