UK heads for biggest election in 50 years

Head-to-head: The vote is a major test of how Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer (above) are performing.

Does English politics need a new progressive alliance? As Labour prepares for the worst in tomorrow’s elections, some think the Left will never recover unless it learns to pull together.

It has been dubbed Super Thursday. More elections will take place tomorrow than on any day since 1973, the year today’s local councils were created.

Over 5,000 council seats and 145 councils are up for grabs, as well as 13 mayors and 39 police and crime commissioners. When they head to the polling booths, some people will fill in as many as four ballot papers.

Additionally, Scotland and Wales will both vote for their national parliaments. The vote in Scotland could determine whether or not the country becomes independent in the next few years. In Wales, 16 and 17-year-olds will vote for the first time.

But the contest everyone is talking about is also the smallest of tomorrow’s elections: the parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool. In the last few weeks, journalists have poured into this north-eastern coastal town, and the prime minister and the Labour leader have each made three visits there.

The reason why Hartlepool is so important is that it is one of the last Labour fortresses in the so-called Red Wall: the slew of seats that were once solidly Labour-voting, but switched to the Tories in 2019 to gift Boris Johnson the biggest Conservative majority since 1987.

Experts think Labour has to hold seats like Hartlepool if it is ever going to return to government. But some recent polls suggest that the party is on course to lose it tomorrow.

If Labour cannot win elections, that is a problem for British democracy.

Experts all agree that it is important to have a strong opposition that can hold the government to account. That is why some argue that if Labour cannot win alone, it needs to ally with other liberal and left-wing parties to present a united front against the Conservatives.

English politics is unusually unbalanced. There are three major left-leaning parties – Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – meaning that the left-wing vote is split. In contrast, the Conservatives are the only significant right-wing party in most elections, so they take almost all the right-wing votes.

Moreover, left-wing voters are generally concentrated in cities, while right-wing voters are more evenly spread across the country. So while Labour racks up big wins in places like London and Manchester, there are not enough seats in these places to win a majority in the House of Commons.

But if Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens agreed not to stand candidates against each other, they could pool all of their votes against Tory candidates. Between them, they could get enough seats to form a coalition government.

Others, however, think that it is too early to write off a Labour election victory. Instead of allying with other parties, they argue, the party should reinvent itself to become more like the Democratic Party in the USA.

That would mean focusing less on northern post-industrial towns like Hartlepool, and more on winning over young people and ethnic minorities living in cities and suburbs.

Does English politics need a new progressive alliance?

Passive-progressive

Yes, say some. Labour can no longer win a majority by itself, because the people who used to vote for it have divided into two opposing camps: older, Brexit-supporting, socially conservative manual workers, and younger, Remain-voting, liberal service workers. Labour cannot appeal to either one of these camps without alienating the other. It can only win by allying with other left-leaning parties.

Not at all, say others. Left-wing voters should be able to choose between different left-wing parties: it would be undemocratic to force a Green supporter to vote Labour because there are no other left-leaning candidates in their constituency. It would also be counterproductive because that voter is likely to see the election as a stitch-up and simply refuse to vote at all.

You Decide

  1. For the first time ever, 16-year-olds will be able to vote in the elections in Wales. Should they be able to vote everywhere else in the UK as well?
  2. Should Labour still see itself as the party of the working class, or should it try to appeal to other groups in society?

Activities

  1. In small groups, design a logo for a progressive alliance.
  2. You are the leader of the Labour Party. Write a short speech either calling on other left-wing parties to form a progressive alliance, or explaining why you will not endorse one.

Some People Say...

“The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.”

GK Chesterton (1874 – 1936), English writer.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that local elections are unpredictable things. They will be treated as a test of the government’s popularity, even though most local elections are fought on local issues. The Conservatives are expected to finish the night well ahead of the Labour opposition, but they will likely lose between 500 and 700 seats, because their vote will be lower than it was when these councillors were last elected in 2016 and 2017.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over how successful coalitions of different parties can be in power. Across most of Europe, it is normal for governments to be made up of figures from multiple parties, which means that no single viewpoint dominates and governments have to compromise on important issues. But the consequence of a coalition is usually a steep decline in the popularity of junior parties, whose supporters become disillusioned with them for voting through policies that they do not like.

Word Watch

Super Thursday
A term borrowed from the USA, where “Super Tuesday” is the name given to the single day on which the most states vote in primary elections for the presidency.
Hartlepool
A coastal town in County Durham. Like much of the north-east, the area voted strongly for Brexit in 2016.
Red Wall
The name given during the 2019 election to a group of parliamentary seats in the North and the Midlands that had voted Labour for decades, but became increasingly alienated from the party and ultimately switched to the Conservatives.
Liberal
A political ideology that emphasises political, social and economic freedom from state interference. Although there is a separate Liberal Party, Labour has always had an influential liberal wing.
Left-wing
A range of political ideologies that generally emphasise economic equality and greater state intervention in the economy.
Liberal Democrats
The third party in UK-wide politics. Ideologically it sits between Labour and the Conservatives. It grew out of the Liberal Party, which until the 1920s was one of the dominant forces in British politics.
House of Commons
The main decision-making body in the UK. It has 650 members, elected by constituencies.
Coalition
A government made up of several parties. Coalitions are common across Europe, but in the UK they are quite rare, because the voting system usually returns single-party governments.
Democratic Party
Like Labour, the Democrats were traditionally a party with strong links to blue-collar workers and trade unions. However, in recent elections – including its victory in 2020 – it has won its decisive votes from more affluent voters in suburbs.

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