Local elections: progressives must work together to deal the Conservatives a decisive blow

It’s odd how often we hear that “British voters don’t like coalitions”, when coalitions run so much of British local and regional government very successfully. Make no mistake: this aversion to cooperative politics is a Westminster phenomenon. At the local level, we recognise that we, as progressives, have far more in common than that which divides us. By emphasising these commonalities, we can achieve far more than we could alone. It’s cooperation that can help unite the divided progressive vote and build an alliance that can truly challenge the Tory hegemony. If progressives work together, we could deliver a clear and decisive blow to Conservatives in the local elections on Thursday.

The local elections last year delivered a huge electoral wipeout for the Conservatives, with Rishi Sunak’s party losing nearly 1,000 councillors across the country. But while the Tories clearly emerged as the losers, the spoils of victory were shared between parties and independents. It wasn’t that either Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens or Independents did well: it’s that they all did well. Over 60% of the vote went to progressives and the Tories were left with just 29%. This was thanks to unofficial electoral alliances up and down the country. Despite the diktat handed down by party leaderships, local activists forged agreements to work together in the best interests of their communities, and voters went to the ballot box with one clear priority: getting the Tories out.

It was thanks in part to this quiet movement among voters that the Tories were left without an overall majority on Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council last year for the first time in 17 years. As Leader of the Independent Forum on the Council, including the Greens, I helped negotiate an agreement that saw us form an executive along with the Liberal Democrat group, which was supported by the Labour group. I had the privilege of being elected Leader of the Council. While we belonged to different parties and none, there was a coalescence of agreement between us on key issues and a sense that we wanted to do things differently — not just the same old party political merry-go-round. We wanted to change politics because the overriding message from voters was how sick and tired they were of the current political malaise. That message has been amplified this year through the chaos of national politics.

If we want different politics, we have to do politics differently.

When it comes down to it, principles — not party politics — should be our guiding light. Local political campaigners know that their goals are greater than just power for power’s sake. They want to fight for socially rented housing, for local NHS services, to tackle climate change and protect our environment and tackle child poverty, among many local priorities.

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The raw electoral logic of First Past the Post (FPTP) often forces progressives to make an uncomfortable choice: hand power to the Tories or work together to get the best-placed progressive elected. While some might struggle with this trade-off, our political system demands it — there is, at present, no other way. This is the maths of compromise — getting 80% of what we want, or 100% of what we don’t. All of this might sound cold and instrumental — but this is the rough reality of FPTP, which serves to divide the vote and makes a mockery of democracy. As long as FPTP remains in place, our democracy will remain unrepresentative and progressive parties and groups will be permanently disadvantaged.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the data: new research from Compass reveals the Tories won nearly 85% of their councils facing re-election this May on a minority share of the popular vote. On average, they won 59.9% of the seats with just 45.9% of the popular vote. That means more than 50% of people in these councils voted for non-Tory parties and candidates, but because the progressive vote was divided, the Conservatives took a majority of the seats — and all the power. In all of these areas, greater progressive cooperation could have toppled the Tories, just as we did last year in Basingstoke & Deane.

But cooperation among progressives isn’t just about charting a path to electoral victory – it’s about what we do with power when we get there. By working together we can deliver bigger answers, better government and a broader political reach than any one party or independent alone can muster. None of the huge issues we face as a country can be solved in one single term or by one single party. We have to build towards a long-term negotiated settlement built on consensus and cross-party agreement capable of outlasting any one government.

Any one party that takes control of a council by itself only represents the narrow slice of the electorate that voted them in. But by working together, parties and Independents can lay claim to a greater mandate and a broader base of public support. In Basingstoke & Deane, our coalition represents the urban and rural parts of the borough. We represent 264 square miles of north Hampshire. It’s important that we represent as many people as possible.

As progressives, we need to set aside the purity tests and understand that when we work together, we can achieve so much more. The fundamental driver for us all is doing the best we can for our communities by using the best ideas and policies that actually make a positive difference to people’s lives – our focus is on delivering the Good Society for all.

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