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Why Labour shouldn’t do deals with other parties

Keir Starmer wipes his hands clean of the Labour dissenters. Credit: Getty

July 4, 2023 - 10:00am

The news that Neal Lawson, the chair of the centre-left pressure group Compass, faces expulsion from the Labour Party has raised hackles among many concerned about an increasingly authoritarian approach to party management under the leadership of Keir Starmer.

I have previously written about how Starmer’s manoeuvres to block Left-wing candidates and expel his predecessor from the party go further than any previous Labour leader. The excessive use of the party’s “due diligence” process to ensure a phalanx of Starmer loyalists in the next Parliament will do Labour no favours in the long run. It is imperative that Labour embraces a spirit of ecumenicalism within the party, in keeping with its “broad church” tradition. 

Lawson’s expulsion, however, is different. The think tank director has not advocated pluralism within Labour but, rather, through pacts between and with opposition parties. His apparent crime is that he tweeted approvingly of a deal between the Greens and Lib Dems in Oxford to turf out incumbent Labour councillors. The move succeeded and, consequently, a long-serving Labour councillor was narrowly defeated in Osney ward by a Green candidate last year. Frankly, this is legitimate grounds for expulsion from the party. While Labour members should be able to disagree among themselves, support for the party electorally, at every level, should be a basic expectation of membership.

A longtime advocate for a “progressive alliance”, Lawson has called for Labour to do deals with the SNP, a party whose core mission is the destruction of the country Starmer proposes to lead. In Mid-Bedfordshire, where polls show Labour on course to win the historically Conservative seat, Lawson recently instructed his party to “get out of the way by standing the thinnest of paper candidates” and hand the fight to the Lib Dems, currently polling fourth in the seat. Last month, he eulogised the Green MP Caroline Lucas as “the best prime minister we never had”.

Lawson makes the fundamental error in seeing the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, and Labour as varying shades of the same so-called “progressive alliance” against the Conservatives. Really, these parties’ interests are entirely different from Labour’s. Their anti-development, anti-growth, anti-trade union, and (in the SNP’s case) anti-UK politics run diametrically against the kinds of politics for which the Labour Party stands. 

Practically, these parties need Labour more than Labour needs them. For Starmer’s party to do what Lawson wishes — effectively to give up on competing electorally in large parts of the country — involves the kind of politics only contemplated in a position of extreme weakness. The Labour Party, blessed by both its historic strength in the electorate and an electoral system which is favourable to it, can form a majority government. Since Labour first overtook the Liberals to become the Official Opposition in 1922, it has been the only non-Conservative party in such a position. This would be foolish to squander. 

One of Lawson’s defenders this week was the Labour MP Jon Cruddas. The MP for Dagenham is one of the party’s few intellectuals and will be missed when he retires at the next election. However, his intervention this week was misplaced. Cruddas, who is writing a book about the first Labour government of 1924, argues that “Labour was created as an alliance of interests and traditions to oppose the Tories”, emphasising that Keir Hardie stood in West Ham in 1892 with Liberal support.

This is true, but it is a rather partial rendering of the history, especially for someone writing about Labour in the 1920s. Although the very early labour movement relied partly on Liberal compliance to make its first electoral breakthroughs, the Labour Party soon decided that it needed to carve its own distinctive path and put an end to these pacts. 

Labour recognised that it needed to defeat the Liberals, as much as it did Conservatives, if it wanted to win power. David Lloyd George, after all, had been propped up in office by the Conservative Party from 1918-22. The Liberals were no natural friends of Labour and liberalism was a separate political tradition, not one interchangeable with socialism and trade union power. This remains as true today as it was a century ago.

The Labour Cabinet minister Peter Shore once said that the Labour Party holds the “title deeds” to democratic socialism in Britain. There is responsibility on Starmer and his inner circle to protect this position by embracing a spirit of pluralism within the party. However, this should not extend to tolerating members who advocate for the defeat of Labour candidates and celebrate opposition parties.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

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Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

Everything Starmer does is calculated to make Labour more attractive to the wealthy middle class rentier voters he needs in order to win. Like his mentor Blair, Starmer thinks only about getting power. It’s clear he has no real idea what to do once he’s got it. The next government will be even more paralysed than this one.

j watson
j watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Thing is by time he gets there Tories will have implemented most of his policies!

j watson
j watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Thing is by time he gets there Tories will have implemented most of his policies!

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

Everything Starmer does is calculated to make Labour more attractive to the wealthy middle class rentier voters he needs in order to win. Like his mentor Blair, Starmer thinks only about getting power. It’s clear he has no real idea what to do once he’s got it. The next government will be even more paralysed than this one.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 year ago

We can agree the Tories are a poor govt. But this doesnt make Labour a good Govt.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 year ago

We can agree the Tories are a poor govt. But this doesnt make Labour a good Govt.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

If Labour formalises an agreement with the SNP, LibDems or Greens before the next General Election they may lose some of their existing support or even discourage discouraged Conservatives from ‘lending’ their vote as a protest.
So I imagine that Starmer will avoid such a commitment before the GE even if he comes to some arrangement after the GE to secure a clear majority.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

If Labour formalises an agreement with the SNP, LibDems or Greens before the next General Election they may lose some of their existing support or even discourage discouraged Conservatives from ‘lending’ their vote as a protest.
So I imagine that Starmer will avoid such a commitment before the GE even if he comes to some arrangement after the GE to secure a clear majority.

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 year ago

Blair did not take the pluralist approach the author suggests and Labour won three consecutive elections and made enormous changes to Britain, including Scottish and Welsh devolution, the creation of the GLA, the creation a permanent leftist administrative state, mass immigration.
Under the Tories we have had continuity New Labour with added Corbynism for over 26 years. The result has been catastrophic socially and economically, but one cannot argue that Blair’s expulsion of the hard-Left didn’t yield substantial results.
From a right-wing perspective I would have preferred Blair and Brown to have been bogged down with fighting a substantial fractious hard-left element within his own party. But if Starmer is looking to Blair as an example, he is hardly going to take the author’s advice and make a rod for his own back.

Last edited 1 year ago by Marcus Leach
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

In fairness New Labour was simply Thatcherism with a bit more spending on the health service. The UK has been following the same ideology for 4 decades

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

New Labour attacked the fundamental structures of British society . Regional devolution of Britain, the creation of the GLA and office of London Mayor, the advent of the age of mass immigration, the doubling of house prices, involving Britain in disastrous regime changes, the entrenchment of a permanent leftist quangocracy – this is New Labour’s disastrous legacy, left in place by the Tories, not the few years they followed Conservative economic policy.

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

New Labour attacked the fundamental structures of British society . Regional devolution of Britain, the creation of the GLA and office of London Mayor, the advent of the age of mass immigration, the doubling of house prices, involving Britain in disastrous regime changes, the entrenchment of a permanent leftist quangocracy – this is New Labour’s disastrous legacy, left in place by the Tories, not the few years they followed Conservative economic policy.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

In fairness New Labour was simply Thatcherism with a bit more spending on the health service. The UK has been following the same ideology for 4 decades

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 year ago

Blair did not take the pluralist approach the author suggests and Labour won three consecutive elections and made enormous changes to Britain, including Scottish and Welsh devolution, the creation of the GLA, the creation a permanent leftist administrative state, mass immigration.
Under the Tories we have had continuity New Labour with added Corbynism for over 26 years. The result has been catastrophic socially and economically, but one cannot argue that Blair’s expulsion of the hard-Left didn’t yield substantial results.
From a right-wing perspective I would have preferred Blair and Brown to have been bogged down with fighting a substantial fractious hard-left element within his own party. But if Starmer is looking to Blair as an example, he is hardly going to take the author’s advice and make a rod for his own back.

Last edited 1 year ago by Marcus Leach
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
1 year ago

Lawson makes the fundamental error in seeing the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, and Labour as varying shades of the same so-called “progressive alliance” against the Conservatives. Really, these parties’ interests are entirely different from Labour’s. Their anti-development, anti-growth, anti-trade union, and (in the SNP’s case) anti-UK politics run diametrically against the kinds of politics for which the Labour Party stands. 

They are not a million miles apart on the issues of immigration and Brexit and the value of our culture, though, are they? Anyone wanting to destroy the UK and then make a bid to commandeer the wreckage might find this sort of alliance to be very useful.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
1 year ago

Lawson makes the fundamental error in seeing the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, and Labour as varying shades of the same so-called “progressive alliance” against the Conservatives. Really, these parties’ interests are entirely different from Labour’s. Their anti-development, anti-growth, anti-trade union, and (in the SNP’s case) anti-UK politics run diametrically against the kinds of politics for which the Labour Party stands. 

They are not a million miles apart on the issues of immigration and Brexit and the value of our culture, though, are they? Anyone wanting to destroy the UK and then make a bid to commandeer the wreckage might find this sort of alliance to be very useful.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago

What is this pro-development, pro-growth, pro-trade union, and pro-UK party to which Richard Johnson refers? If I knew of such a party, I might be tempted to vote for it.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago

What is this pro-development, pro-growth, pro-trade union, and pro-UK party to which Richard Johnson refers? If I knew of such a party, I might be tempted to vote for it.

Andy White
Andy White
1 year ago

We won’t be getting pluralism with Starmer, either inside the Labour Party or outside it. This is not about the history of the party, it’s about the current leader not being the slightest bit interested in political debate, reaching out, joint working, decentralisation or making people feel represented. If he wasn’t so bloodless, people would maybe worry a bit more about him. He’s not just fixated on getting power, he’s fixated on keeping it all for himself.