Given the extent to which the same words can be interpreted to mean entirely different things, the success with which humans communicate is often amazing. Take the word ‘can’, for instance. This week, the question was asked as to whether Labour ‘can’ win the next UK general election. It produced different answers from different people, but it seems to me that they’re actually based on rather different interpretations of the question.
On the one hand, those who argue that, ‘of course Labour can win’, are responding to a very literal definition of the word ‘can’. And based on that literal definition, I agree with them. Given the right conditions, the right campaign, at least a display of unity, and enough Brexit chaos in Tory ranks, it is certainly a possibility that Labour 'can' win a majority in 2020.
But I don’t think that was quite the question that the Fabian Society was asking in its report. I think that they were looking less at an outcome based on getting a whole series of hypothetical ducks in a row, and more at the probability of getting from where things are now to a particular outcome in 3 years’ time. And, for what it’s worth, I tend to support their conclusion that the probability is close to zero.
However, that clear difference in interpretation and understanding of the question is one of the reasons why the party will do nothing to avert the result being foreseen by the Fabian Society’s report. As long as a sufficient number of them believe that they can win, their ‘strategy’ (and I use the term loosely here) will be to carry on regardless. It isn’t the only reason for their rejection of electoral alliances, though.
It’s easy to see the potential advantages, to any party, of an electoral alliance where opponents stand aside and give that party a clear run (although I personally remain highly sceptical of the extent to which supporters of one party can be depended upon to vote for another party just because the leadership tells them to do so). What’s rather less clear is the advantage to the party standing aside under any such deal.
I don’t think that the maths work terribly well either. There are some seats in which the Lib Dems might be the front-runner in any challenge to the Tories, but there are no seats, anywhere in the UK, where it would make sense for Labour to stand aside for the Green Party for instance. And In Wales, there are no Tory-held seats where Plaid is the front-runner amongst the opposition. So the sort of deal being discussed is one in which Labour would actually only need to stand aside in a few Tory seats where the Lib Dems are the challengers, whereas the Green Party, Plaid, and the Lib Dems would be expected to stand aside in large numbers of seats in favour of Labour.
Not surprisingly for a report emanating from within the Labour Party, such a scenario is overwhelmingly favourable to Labour – improving their chances of taking seats from the Tories at the expense of standing aside in a few seats where they wouldn’t expect to win anyway. And still they line up to reject it.
And that brings me back to the point here. What is being floated is an electoral alliance which owes more to a negative view of the Tories than a positive vision for a different future. Labour’s only currency is that they aren’t the Tories; many of their policies aren’t actually that different. A Labour government would still renew Trident, to select just one example, even if it were elected with the support of anti-Trident parties – they know that they’d be able to rely on their true friends in the Tory party to get that through Parliament. As a voter, I couldn’t vote for such an alliance purely to replace one party with another – I need a better reason.There is one reason – and only one reason – that I can think of which would lead me to support a cross-party electoral alliance for one single election, and that is electoral reform. Ending the way in which one party (currently the Tories) can exercise absolute power on the basis of minority support is a prize worth paying a price for in the short term. I don’t think it’s going to happen, though. As long as the two main parties continue to believe that they ‘can’ (back to that word again) win an outright majority under the present system, they will not support change. Absolute power is their whole rationale. And that, ultimately, is the significance of their rejection of the report from the Fabians.