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What does a Labour government mean for progressive parties in England?


By Charlie Murphy

Polls continue to point towards a Labour victory at the next General Election. While that is not certain and there is still a lot to play for, Britain’s progressive parties are now facing down the prospect of a left-of-centre government in Westminster. This fundamentally changes how the Liberal Democrats and the Greens operate, they can no longer function as part of a wider anti-Conservative ecosystem. Instead, the primary opponent of these parties becomes the Labour Party.

Nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales – arguably progressive parties themselves – have continued to face this issue even with the Conservatives in government in Westminster. Labour have not lost their foothold as the government in Wales or the primary opponent of the SNP across Scotland. A Labour government in Westminster will not be new territory for them, but it will be new for the current generation of English progressives.

The Liberal Democrats and the Greens have become bedfellows of convenience or necessity in local government in some parts of England. Notable examples are Richmond-upon-Thames where a Liberal Democrat/Green pact ousted the Conservatives from the Borough Council, and South Oxfordshire District, where the Liberal Democrats have continued an alliance with the Greens despite holding overall control of the council. At Oxfordshire County Council the Liberal Democrats and Greens have even gone as far as listing their party as “Liberal Democrat Green Alliance” on the council’s website.

These alliances have made perfect sense when the context has been a decade of Conservative government. Neither of the partners were ever likely to enter government or support the Conservatives, so neither would be associated with the government’s record.

Gradually we are approaching the General Election which so many now assume to be a day of reckoning for the Conservatives. However, as that day draws nearer, we are very likely to see polls narrow again, even if they don’t become neck and neck. It is possible that we then see an uptick in difficult questions, particularly for the Liberal Democrats around their relationship with Labour.

Keir Starmer and Ed Davey have each been asked the question already, and both of them refuse to rule it out. What if Labour doesn’t quite win? What if we get a hung Parliament?

With the prospect of a Labour government or going back to the ballot box with narrowing polls, it will be hard for Ed Davey not to offer his conditional support for a Rachel Reeves budget.

Where does that leave the convenient pacts the Liberal Democrats made with the Greens? Labour has committed to steady as we go finances, with a keen eye on their fiscal headroom, these budgets are likely to disappoint those on the progressive left, and they may even feel fairly similar to recent Conservative budgets. 

The budgets could feel lacklustre to the Lib Dems, but with climate pledges delayed they may feel like a disastrous anti-climax for the Greens. Can pacts of convenience survive such an opportunity for the Greens to direct their national messaging against the fiscally careful Labour Party and a supportive Liberal Democrats?

Liberal Democrat rules now stipulate that regional parties can pour cold water on formal deals with other parties. Some rules now govern how some Liberal Democrat local parties can stand aside in a ward for another party, such as the Greens, as we saw with Unite to Remain or some local council pacts. One such rule requires there to be nobody at all wishing to stand for the Liberal Democrats in that ward – if a member wishes to do so, the local party finds its hands tied, the ward will have a Liberal Democrat candidate.

Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour now seem to understand the strategic threat that an active Green party to their left may pose, but it could be too late should a confidence and supply agreement emerge next year, Liberal Democrat regional parties will not get a say on some formal pacts and agreements re-forming until 2027.

At Cratus we will be watching this space, where some coalition administrations might start to feel uncomfortable or divergent.

7 September 2023

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