The myth that is developing goes like this: Labour can’t win enough seats to form a majority government at the next election, however much the Tories may tank. They will need the SNP and almost certainly the Liberal Democrats to rule. Therefore, Labour needs to stand down in English seats where the Lib Dems have a clear shot at the Conservative party.
There are several problems with this myth, but one that isn’t being talked about: the price the Lib Dems would extract for bringing a Labour minority to power would be steep, and not worth it from a Labour perspective. If Labour leader Keir Starmer is wise, this must inform Labour’s strategy in Lib-Con seats at the next election.
Both contenders for the Lib Dem leadership have hinted that a precondition for supporting a Labour government after the next election would be scrapping first past the post as the voting system for Westminster elections, replacing it with proportional representation. To be fair, Layla Moran has spoken about this more than Ed Davey, but Labour figures should be aware of how deep the desire for electoral reform runs within the Liberal Democrat soul. It is difficult to see any arrangement working between Labour and the Lib Dems if a serious amount of electoral reform wasn’t on the cards.
Some within Labour may even be willing to let this happen. After losing four elections, letting yourself wonder what the big deal is could be tempting. Yet the Labour leadership needs to remember just how much first past the post works in their favour and how many times the current voting system has saved them in the past.
In the 1983 election, when the Alliance was only two percentage points behind Labour, Foot’s party got 209 seats to the Lib Dem-SDP’s 23. Had the Alliance been close to Labour on seats after ’83, Labour might have been replaced as the main centre-left party. In 2010, there were fears that Cleggmania would result in the Lib Dems becoming the official opposition, relegating Labour to third party status. Again, first past the post came to the rescue. In December, we saw another example of the current voting system saving the Labour party. The EU elections earlier in the year demonstrated what could happen to Labour when saddled with a bad leader under a PR system – the Lib Dems beating them in Islington of all places. Yet when the general election came around, those same voters rallied behind Labour, despite a lot of their doubts about Corbyn.
For those who just want a ‘progressive alliance’ to defeat the Tories and feel that a PR system could keep the Conservatives from power forever, I have some unfortunate news: a lot of continental European countries have PR voting systems; a lot of continental European countries have centre-right governments. As much as you can point to December’s general election and wonder how a PR system would have worked better for Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens, you could also take the time to consider how much better Nigel Farage’s Brexit party might have fared under a proportional system. They could have run in every seat without fear of splitting the pro-Brexit vote; Nigel Farage could be deputy prime minister under a proportional voting system. The idea that PR leads to eternally centre-left governments is nonsense.
Back to Labour – given that changing the voting system looks to be the price of Lib Dem votes in parliament after the next election, Starmer and those around him need to seriously think about how to strategically approach Lib-Con seats. Giving the Lib Dems a free run – meaning you are explicitly increasing the chances of them having more MPs – is not cost free. Maybe you think the Lib Dems are bluffing and that, when push comes to shove, they won’t stand in the way of Labour forming a government over the Tories, just because you won’t change the way votes are counted. Perhaps. But take a moment to recall the last time you thought of the Lib Dems as your little cousin; a party that would always eventually fall in line with your wants – they formed a government for five years with the Conservatives.
Starmer needs to look hard at the seats the Lib Dems came second in during the 2019 general election and figure out what to do. If he lets the Lib Dems win in too many of them, he has a big problem on his hands – he might have to make a move that destroys his party for good in order to form a government for one parliament. I think everyone should be able to agree, that is too high a price.