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.