The result of the Richmond by-election is being used to argue for collaboration between the Lib Dems and Labour. That analysis doesn’t add up, writes Colin Wilson – and a “progressive” alliance isn’t an effective tactic against the populist right.
How significant was the result in Richmond? For Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, a veteran of the Labour right, the overturning of Goldsmith’s 23,000 majority was “volcanic” or indeed “seismic”. Toynbee’s enthusiasm reflects her belief that in Richmond we see a vindication for her favoured political strategy – that “only a progressive alliance can overcome the dark forces being stirred on the other side.” In this view, the Blairite maxim that elections are won from the centre still holds, so the task at hand is to assemble as large a centre-left grouping as possible. The Labour Party didn’t give the Lib Dems a clear run, but fielded a candidate who did badly, earning them Toynbee’s gleeful contempt: “Losing their deposit was a well-earned embarrassment.” A progressive alliance can expect electoral victories, of which Richmond is the first example, while Corbyn is, in this view, unelectable.
I don’t imagine many people reading this are fans of Polly Toynbee. But I am seeing socialists worry that Labour is doing badly in the polls and the right is on the ascendant, and that in this situation we need as many friends as we can get. Is now really the time to isolate ourselves further by insisting on pure revolutionary politics? I agree that we always need to look reality in the face: the wave of racism after the Brexit vote, the election of Trump and the rise of far-right and fascist parties around the world are all things that people are right to be very worried about. But I don’t think that the facts of the Richmond by-election support the claims that are being made about a “progressive alliance” – and I don’t think that such an alliance would be effective in pushing back the populist right.
Firstly, Richmond isn’t the UK in miniature. Since at least 1997 it’s been a Tory-Lib Dem marginal, with a Lib Dem MP two-thirds of that time. In the last two elections, the Labour percentage share of the vote has been in single figures, and at no point has it got much above 12% – so Labour’s bad result on Thursday is no big surprise. Zac Goldsmith got elected in Richmond by presenting himself as a highly unusual Tory, a one-nation environmentalist. That worked in 2010, and even more so in 2015, when the LibDem vote collapsed nationally after Clegg’s participation in a Tory-led government. But that “caring, moderate Conserative” image has fallen apart. For one thing, his election campaign this May, against Labour’s Muslim candidate Sadiq Khan for Mayor of London, was the most racist in living memory. Goldsmith went as far as writing an article in the Evening Standard headlined “On Thursday, are we really going to hand the world’s greatest city to a Labour Party that thinks terrorists are its friends?” – that headline printed over a photo of a bombed bus from the attacks of 7 July 2005.
An even more important factor in Goldsmith’s collapse was Brexit. More than 70% of people in Richmond voted Remain in June, while Goldsmith was a eurosceptic, backed in the by-election by UKIP. Now – in a period when, time and again, to the right or the left, people are voting to express their anger at the status quo and the ruling class – Goldsmith suffered for his identification with a Tory government pursuing a “hard Brexit”. Because, after all, despite his nominal independence, he was the Tory candidate – no Conservative stood against him. The by-election at least looked like a manoeuvre to draw a line under his mayoral campaign and relaunch Goldsmith as an environmental campaigner against Heathrow expansion, the populist voice of the west London suburbs. Such manoeuvring implied contempt for voters, who responded in kind.
Richmond does reflect a step forward for the Lib Dems from the annihilation of 2015. But in many ways it’s a return to a pattern they established before 2010 – of winning by-elections by acting as a focus for disillusioned voters. They talked left to win votes where their main opponent was Labour, right to win them from Tories. This “all things to all people” strategy works only while you have MPs and control councils in various locations, but you aren’t in government or opposition, so you aren’t called on to have a consistent national strategy. As soon as the Lib Dems were in government, it broke down.
So, the Lib Dem success in Richmond reflects the nature of that constituency, and the course of Goldsmith’s career, more than any national enthusiasm for centre-left politics. The Lib Dem approach that has been successful here is one which has inbuilt limitations. Toynbee’s seismic shifts aren’t happening.
This brings us to the second question – even if the “progressive coalition” isn’t on the rise now, is it something we should hope to see in future, as part of a strategy to take on the populist right? Experience has repeatedly shown this to be a disastrous approach. An obvious point is that no one should trust the Lib Dems when they supported a Tory government for five years. More generally, around the world people are rejecting the neoliberal status quo, either by supporting left alternatives like Corbyn or Sanders, or right-wing ones like Trump or Le Pen. When centre-left politicians are identified with the neoliberal policies, their support collapses – as with Hollande in France.
The example of Italy provides an even more striking example of the dangers of the centre-left alliance as a way of opposing the right. As Cinzia Arruzza writes in a recent article for Jacobin, just such a centre-left coalition ruled Italy from 1996 to 2001, initially with the support of the radical left Rifondazione Comunista. The coalition attacked workers rights, introduced neoliberal education reforms, carried out a massive privatisation programme, took part in the NATO bombing of Serbia and built the first detention centres for undocumented migrants. As they did so, they argued that such measures were necessary for them to stay in power and so defeat the right populist Berlusconi. But the effect of their actions was to normalise neoliberal policies and so pave the way for Berlusconi’s re-election in 2001. Rifondazione’s intermittent support for such centre-left coalitions, meanwhile, saw their support crumble.
In fact, far from being reliable opponents of the populist right, the centre-left have much in common with them. For example, Labour right MP Stephen Kinnock – the son of an MEP, former director of the World Economic Forum and husband to the former Danish Prime Minister – has suddenly developed a concern for workers, or more precisely the “white working class”. Speaking at the LSE, Kinnock argued that Labour has been “obsessing over diversity” as regards “ethnicity or sexuality or whatever you might want to call it”. As always, the notion of the “white working class” is a caricature of the ideas which most workers accept, portraying them as ignorant homophobic racists. That claim is used as political cover for Labour shifting towards homophobia and racism itself, while claiming that if it doesn’t do so, even worse homophobes and racists will come to power. But of course this doesn’t stop the homophobes and racists – the adoption of a diluted version of their ideas by the centre left strengthens them.
The key political significance of Richmond, then, is not the increase in the LibDem vote. It’s that the Brexit policy to which May’s Tory government is committed is massively unpopular with many Conservative voters, which means that many problems lie waiting for them. This isn’t just about attitudes among the middle classes of multicultural London, though that’s clearly one factor. It reflects real divisions in the ruling class. For example, May is committed to attacks on migration. But companies want to employ migrant workers – whether it’s flying in a star software developer from India, or having a low-paid and undocumented migrant from Bolivia hoover the office floor. The reality of Brexit will involve a messy package of deals and compromises. Brexit minister David Davis told MPs this week, for example, that Britain might pay the EU for access to the single market. It remains unclear how Britain can both block freedom of movement for EU citizens and maintain an open border with Ireland – one proposal is that the UK and Ireland share border controls. On these issues and many more, simplistic slogans like “Brexit means Brexit” simply don’t work – what’s more likely is that the government will be repeatedly forced to make compromise deals which are open to criticism from all sides. This is not to say that things will automatically improve for the left after the setbacks of 2016. But it is to say that many problems lie ahead for May after a very unchallenging first few months. And when those problems emerge, we shouldn’t be looking to the centre left for support. After all, 2016 was also the year when over 300,000 people voted for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. While there’s no denying that the radical left is on the back foot, it’s also clear that there is a large potential audience for our ideas – and those are the people who actually can form the core of principled campaigns against racism and the populist right.