More than a year ago, Labour won its lowest number of parliamentary seats in a general election since 1935. Sir Keir Starmer began by saying Labour was “under new management”. He now offers new leadership. That is unlikely to be enough. Whereas managers want to do things right, leaders do the right thing. Leaders scan the horizon for destinations; managers are guided by short-term considerations. Sir Keir’s task is to lead his party to victory while building a coalition to unseat the Conservatives. Organisations fail when they are over-managed and under-led.
Sir Keir says Labour has a “mountain to climb”, higher than that scaled by the party in 1997. It needs to win 124 seats to form a majority at the next election, expected in 2024 but possibly sooner given the government’s ambition to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The political situation may be even worse in four years’ time. The law requires independent reviews of constituency boundaries every five years. The next review could recommend changes that, if enacted, could see Labour left with a steeper ascent and a higher peak to conquer.
Some think the party has become too liberal socially and too radical economically for voters. This seems an overreaction. In a paper for the Compass thinktank, Neal Lawson and Grace Barnett suggest Labour ought to drop its tribalism rather than its policies. The electoral map holds out hope for Labour if it could work with like-minded parties. The Compass report identifies two clear battlegrounds emerging primarily in England: one between Labour and the Conservatives, another between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. There are few constituencies where Labour and the Liberal Democrats are vying for supremacy. Hence Mr Lawson and Ms Barnett’s call for a progressive alliance formed from parties given to tolerance, solidarity and greenery – a politics that sets them apart from the me-first, rightwing nationalism of their opponents.
These lines may be harder to draw in the years to come. Sometimes coalitions in politics are overt. Often they are covert. Whether they work depends on whether political allies are closer to each other, and to the mood of the nation, than they are to those outside their ranks. An informal agreement among centre and centre-left politicians has an undeniable appeal. But it is difficult to see how a Lib-Lab rapprochement would lead to a majority government without building bridges with the Scottish National party.
To defeat a common enemy, parties should set aside differences and cooperate. The political right understands this. The Conservatives have been in power for seven out of the last 10 years thanks first to a coalition with Lib Dems led by Nick Clegg and then a pact with the Democratic Unionist party. What might bring about a progressive alliance in Britain? All its major constituent actors – apart from Labour – recognise that the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system has frozen a dysfunctional pattern of politics.
Brexit shows that a different political culture is desperately needed. Proportional representation is a way of redistributing power more fairly and encouraging consensus to be built across party lines. FPTP’s defenders say it delivers durable single-party administrations rather than fickle pacts. This is untrue: the Tory party is an unstable coalition in government. Labour is unlikely to change a voting system that took it into government unless it adopts a policy to do so before entering power. Progressive parties could limit the damage to each other’s chances in an election with a common front. But they need a shared sense of policies to unite them.