If the Conservatives are to be defeated at the next Westminster election, Labour must back a coalition alternative.
It’s the open secret of politics in the United Kingdom: its next government will likely involve more than one party. And recently for the first time progressive party leaders were reported by the Financial Times to have acknowledged what it will take for them to form it—a non-aggression pact.
Yet what in other western-European countries is the norm is still regarded in the UK as a last resort, even shameful. Parties may join hands from Germany to Finland and indeed in Scotland and Wales (and much of local government). But the dominant Westminster politicians still place all their eggs—at least publicly—in the basket of a single-party parliamentary majority.
This is dishonest and a huge missed opportunity for Labour. If it wants to form a government, its best bet is to accept the electoral mathematics and seize the opportunities of inter-party co-operation. As a new paper from Compass demonstrates, while multi-party governments may have signalled a scraping through or loss of face in 2010 and 2017 they now look inevitable.
Even with this new pact the possibility of Labour securing a majority at the next election, scheduled as things stand for May 2024, remains extremely slim. After the worst imaginable spell for the Tories, Labour’s poll lead peaked around 10 per cent and has receded. The party must gain 124 seats and lose none just to win a majority of one; this would require a consistent 12-point advantage.
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The ‘first past the post’ Westminster electoral system system, the incumbency factor and potential boundary changes all work strongly in favour of the Conservatives. Yet despite Labour members’ best efforts—at the 2021 party conference 80 per cent of constituency branches backed a motion supporting proportional representation—the party can’t yet bring itself formally to reject a system which so clearly works against it and is even more unjust to other progressives.
At the very least Labour should recognise reality: the party needs other progressives to gain and keep power. As the Compass report shows, there are many possibilities for such a Labour-led government, from a minority administration to a formal coalition involving one or more other parties.
As things stand, the Tories have no obvious coalition partners. They have burned their bridges over ‘Brexit’ and Northern Ireland with the far-right Democratic Unionist Party—on which they had come to depend after the 2017 snap election—having seared the centrist Liberal Democrats in many ways during their 2010-15 coalition.
If the Tories lose the majority they won in 2019, Labour will be in prime position to form a government, but only if it has done its homework. It should not assume that smaller parties will fall into line, especially given the Lib Dems’ recent experience and the Greens’ 2017 debacle, when their vote share halved as they stood aside for Labour.
Much rests on pre-election strategy, when Labour must ask the right questions. What form does it want a multi-party government to take? Which parties might Labour be willing to govern with and in what order should they be approached? Who would represent it and what concessions might it be willing to make? And how within the party would any deal be approved?
Competent and constructive
The era of two-party politics at Westminster is way past its sell-by date. In 2019, three parties in Great Britain—the Lib Dems, Greens and UK Independence Party—secured 16.3 per cent of the vote but were rewarded with just 1.8 per cent of the seats.
Conservatives will argue that multi-party governments—despite their own recent dalliances—are undemocratic and lack transparency. Yet coalitions can be competent and constructive, as reflected in their consensual formation across western Europe. Indeed, it would be difficult for the Tories persuasively to claim they are ‘chaotic’ when their leader is embroiled in police investigations.
Labour could even integrate this approach with its broader message. While the Tories have divided the country, Labour will unite it by representing a wider cross-section of the public through relationships with other parties. Such a government would reflect the UK’s progressive majority, bound together by a belief in opportunity, collectivism and fairness.
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Keir Starmer even fought his leadership campaign under the slogan ‘Stronger Together’. This could be the progressive majority government Compass has been campaigning for—radical, liberal, democratic and green.
A multi-party government could bolster Labour’s authority to go bigger and bolder on key policy areas. This is more than just about strength in numbers. A plethora of parties means a multitude of voices speaking to different audiences and demographics—an alliance is about unity on the important issues, not uniformity in everything. Take Germany where, for the first time, three parties in the federal government have united around a bold climate platform.
Advantages of coalitions
Labour can point around the world to the electoral and legislative advantages of coalitions. In 2017 New Zealand’s Labour Party invited the right-wing New Zealand First Party alongside its more natural allies the Greens into power, with wins for climate policy, gender and ethnic representation and a cultural shift which has enjoyed worldwide attention. In Finland, a landmark five parties (each led by a woman) came together in 2019 to form a government, bringing in the most ambitious climate targets in the world, free childcare for all children under seven and a patient-centred healthcare plan.
Even in Portugal’s recent elections, where the socialists won a surprise majority, their leader, António Costa, remained humble: ‘An absolute majority does not mean absolute power. It doesn’t mean to govern alone.’ And if Labour wants to learn how to build alliances, it could do worse than take a transatlantic trip to learn about the internal Democratic alliances, orchestrated by Joe Biden, which helped him secure victory against Donald Trump. When progressives are serious about winning—and governing—they build alliances rather than seek to go it alone.
So Labour should get smart about taking power. This means opening channels—covertly or overtly—with others. It should learn the lessons of the past and from elsewhere. And it should embrace the possibility of multi-party governance as an opportunity to achieve big wins.
Perhaps most powerfully, pluralism might capture the public mood and allow progressives to reframe the debate. If we’ve learned anything through the pandemic, it’s the fact of our interdependence and that to build back better means collective effort. Labour certainly preaches this collectivism and solidarity—now is the time to start practising it.