Is it time to prepare for a General Election?

The war in Ukraine has certainly taken the pressure off Boris Johnson with regards to the so called ‘partygate’ affair, with some commentators now regarding him as ‘safe’. But is he? Instead, I get the feeling that there will simply be a series of gaffs, some minor, some serious, until the majority of Tory MPs have simply had enough. This weekend, for example, in a speech at the Conservative Party Spring Conference, he compared the struggle of the Ukrainian people for freedom to the instincts of voters in the UK who supported Brexit. This comparison was not only bizarre, but deeply offensive to those people in Ukraine literally fighting for their lives – a feeling openly shared by several MPs at the conference. The question is, how close are we to a General Election? And how should we be preparing for it?

Chris Bowers, the Liberal Democrat advocate for a closer working relationship between Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens, has argued that whenever this election is called it is unlikely that Labour can win by itself. Gaining the 120 seats it would need to have a working majority, he said in a recent Guardian article, “is a near impossibility in the current electoral landscape”. I agree that the three parties need to work together in the run up to the next General Election, but on three conditions.

First, that there is a national agreement between the three parties. I think it important that there is a quid pro quo attitude to any coordinated approach to defeating the Tories, with no bullying of small parties at the local level by parties who feel they have a right to fight the seat. Any agreement should be done strategically and as objectively as possible. During the 2017 election, for example, as the Green Party candidate for West Dorset, I came under a lot of pressure from the Lib Dem candidate who gave the impression that he thought that both the Labour candidate and myself were simply obstacles to his victory. In one sense he may have had a point, but the situation in the West Dorset constituency needs to be balanced against those in constituencies in Bristol, Norwich and Brighton.

Second, that this is a one off deal. Whilst such an agreement would secure decent press coverage for the Green Party at the national level, thus ensuring that the Green Party are not side-lined, this would not necessarily be the case locally. If a local Green Party agreed to stand aside in a particular constituency on a regular basis this could quickly affect its support base and popularity. A General Election is a much higher profile event than local elections where interest and turn-out is relatively low. For most people local elections are about local issues, so it’s only at national elections that the big issues get talked about. And as important as local issues are, it’s how we respond to these national issues that will determine our future wellbeing.

Third, it should be an agreement to achieve an agreed objective. Over and above the removal of a party with a large working majority after gaining just 43.6% of the vote, we need to ensure that such unfairness does not occur again. All three parties need to agree, therefore, that reform of our voting system through the introduction of some version of proportional representation will be a priority for any new coalition government. This should not be a promise of a referendum on the issue, but an absolute pledge for reform prominent in all three election manifestos. A major obstacle to this, however, will be the Trade Union wing of the Labour Party. At their last conference the majority of Constituency Labour Parties supported a motion calling for PR, but the vote was lost due to trade union opposition.

The next General Election may seem a distant event with all that is going on at the moment. The general consensus is it will be in May 2024, to coincide with the local elections, but it could be as late as December of that year. Two years in not long, however, to reach such agreement. We need to start having a public discussion about the unfairness of our ‘first past the post’ system. We need to start imagining how coalition governments could be so much more representative of public opinion. We need start talking about what democracy means. And we need to start doing this now. The political landscape could change quickly if the May local elections do not go well for the Tories, or if the police report into ‘partygate’ results in possible criminal charges be brought. And who knows what scandal is lurking around the next corner? Any of these could force an early vote.

How to respond to Russian aggression?

No doubt the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been dominating your thinking this last week or so – it certainly has mine. Such events seem to provoke everyone into having strong views as to what is happening and what should happen next. Well, I certainly have a view, but I’m not sure how strong it is. It’s at times like this that I realise just how quickly a situation can escalate out of control, and just how irrational we humans actually are.

The most expedient response from this (and every other) country requires a good understanding of Putin’s motives, but the complexity of the situation resists any simple analysis. It is too easy to simply dismiss Putin as mad, as many of the tabloids have done. We need to try to understand the how Putin views the place of Russia in the world and how he sees its ‘sphere of influence’. We may well disagree with this world view, but we also need to realise that we all have a world view that is not strictly true. We all tell ourselves a story, both individually and collectively, a fiction that allows us to make sense of the world as we experience it. We need to understand that none of our stories are objectively true. In order to resolve conflicts resulting from a clash of world views we need to try and understand the story from the other side.

Having said that, this invasion must be understood and responded to as a major global threat. For me the three most serious of these threats are nuclear, financial and a massive refugee crisis – threats that will affect us all. We need global solutions to global problems. We need to work together to resolve them. I have a real fear that Putin’s ‘story’ is one of extreme Russian nationalism, one in which he is looking for excuses to exhibit Russian strength on the world stage, an exhibition that could potentially involve the use of nuclear weapons. To prevent this, other countries need to be very cautious in their military response. They need to show a united front and effectively isolate Russia from the world stage. I am cautiously optimistic that this is happening.

However, a major refugee crisis has already begun. With reports of well over 1.3 million people fleeing Ukraine this is already becoming the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Again, such a global crisis needs a global response. All countries need to play their part in offering a safe home to those fleeing war, but the European countries (including the UK) have an obviously greater role to play. So far the UK government’s response has been dysfunctional, to say the least, with different ministers saying different, often contradictory, things, all against our own nationalistic background that seems to take a very negative view of refugees. We really do need to get over this. People do not flee war for the fun of it. They are our fellow human beings that need our help and our sanctuary.

With the obvious exception that this conflict escalates into a nuclear exchange, a major threat to the UK arises from a global energy shortage resulting from Russia shutting down its gas and oil supplies to Europe. This should be a wake-up call to us. As a matter of priority we need to become self-sufficient in energy. We need to do this, however, without resorting to the exploitation of any gas and oil reserves we may have – these need to remain firmly in the ground. We need to rapidly develop our use of off-shore wind and on-shore solar such that we become far more resilient against global threats. To repeat a well-used phrase from the green movement, we need think globally but act locally.

There needs to be an investigation and public debate about the extent to which the UK has encouraged the situation in Russia. A recent article in The Economist reported a “strong connection between Russian money and illicit finance”, whilst in 2020 Parliament’s intelligence committee concluded that London was a “laundromat” for tainted Russian money. We need to ask ourselves whether the development of London as a ‘global financial centre’, with all the associated sweeteners that attract the money of the global rich without asking too many questions about how the money has been acquired, has promoted government by oligarchs in many countries where democracy is fragile. Of even greater concern, perhaps, is the accusation that since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister the Conservative Party has accepted more than £2million from donors linked to Russia. We need to know what influence these donors have had on government decision making.

As I’ve said, the best way to deal with leaders like Putin is through strong international collaboration. All governments must resist any urge to ‘go it alone’, and we must do all we can to avoid escalation. However difficult this may be for some governments, this is not the time to demonstrate individual strength. The only way is to show global solidarity and effectively isolate such regimes, a response that requires us to prioritise international cooperation over competition.