We believe the question of how the political parties that contest Brexit work together to defeat it is one of the key issues we face today. Not only as an issue by itself, but how it links in with the need to bring neoliberalism to an end and associated with that to radically tackle climate change, inequality and austerity.

We reprint the article: “An Open Society Alliance must be founded now” which we published on our home page on 21st July 2019 and beneath it we print a response from a highly valued member who has asked to be anonymous.

An Open Society Alliance must be founded now

By Chris Bowers, Iain Brodie Browne and Paul Pettinger

There are moments in politics where you just have to stop and say: the emperor is wearing no clothes. And the latest YouGov poll for The Times showing just half of Labour voters in 2017 will vote Labour at the next general election is one of those moments.

The implications of this are profound. Labour is set to lose a raft of seats simply because its Remain voters are abandoning the party in droves. But where those seats go will depend on whether the Remain vote can coalesce around one Remain candidate. And this might be the Remain parties’ one chance or avoiding a long winter of populist right-wing government that could undo much of the liberal society we take for granted.

The puts the onus on the Remain parties to create an electoral alliance, which could become known as the ‘Remain Alliance’, or perhaps ‘Open Society Alliance’ is better as it’s about more than just remaining in the EU – it’s about creating a modern, compassionate, democratic society in which everyone has a voice. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. If there is to be a General Election this autumn – and the more people talk about it, the more likely it becomes – there will be limited time to piece together this Open Society Alliance. But something that can help create such an alliance would be a short declaration of principles that could cut the need for lengthy policy negotiations.

What would this declaration of principles look like? It would have to be short – the longer it is, the greater risk of natural Remain parties rejecting it because of a technicality which overshadows the overall ethos. It would probably have to be limited to four policy pledges and one parliamentary commitment:

  • A proportional voting system for the next and future Westminster elections (the exact voting system could be prescribed or not, depending on how much of an obstacle doing so or not doing so would be).
  • An immediate programme of efforts to tackle climate change that starts the process of having Britain net zero-carbon on a far more ambitious timetable than the May government has mapped out.
  • An end to Brexit, either through straight revocation of the UK’s Article 50 letter or through a people’s vote that offers the option to Remain.
  • A non-Brexit dividend, in the form of a package of measures to tackle the effects of austerity, including an emergency funding package for councils.
  • Anyone elected on the Remain Alliance platform would be committed to voting for the above four principles, and then voting to call a General Election as soon as all four were through Parliament, in order to have a fresh Parliament under a fair voting system.

It may be that this set of principles may have to be proposed by a non-party-political entity (could be an ad hoc group of private citizens) so it isn’t associated with any one party. If involvement from a political party were not an obstacle, the Social Liberal Forum would be an obvious body to lead the creation of this alliance from the Lib Dem side.

The existence of this alliance platform would have the advantage that all the Remain parties – Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru – could sign up to it, which would make it easier for voters to identify Open Society Alliance candidates.

It would also make it easier for parties to stand aside in areas where two competing Remain parties risk splitting the vote and letting the Conservatives or Brexit Party in. The party standing aside would know that their core beliefs were represented by another party that had committed to the four Open Society Alliance principles, and it would gain by another party standing aside in its favour elsewhere.

The one fly in the ointment would be if two or more parties in a marginal constituency campaigned on the basis of being in the Open Society Alliance. In constituencies where no Remain party could still come close to winning, or one would win anyway, this wouldn’t matter. But, in the current landscape, there may be as many as a quarter of all constituencies where a Remain party could win if Open Society Alliance supporters got behind just one candidate. If such unifying candidates could be identified, they would then use the term ‘Open Society Alliance’ in their campaigning, but this begs the question as to who would decide this? There may not be time to go through all this.

Therefore, an Open Society Alliance declaration cannot on its own bring the Remain parties together. But what it can do is certainly facilitate greater tactical voting in key seats and help emphasise the common purpose between supporters of an Open Society Alliance. In so doing, this will make it easier for parties to come together, to explore ways of stopping the Johnson/Farage ‘regressive alliance’ exploiting the undemocratic nature of our first-past-the-post electoral system, and winning a snap election, and, let’s face it, doing even more damage than just taking our country over the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit.

What’s currently happening in Brecon and Radnorshire, where Plaid Cymru and the Greens have stood down in our favour to support internationalist politics, could, with enough reciprocation, be reproduced across Britain to stop Johnson and Farage in their tracks. A declaration of key principles might also allow certain pro-Remain Labour candidates to say they support the Open Society Alliance (as long as they were willing to vote for the four principles and the short Parliament if they were elected). If they didn’t, they’d have broken their promise, and we know what happens to politicians and political parties who break their promises.

The potential gains are massive. With Labour’s vote crumbling and many Tory Remain supporters anxious about Farage and a no-deal Brexit, an alliance of Remain parties could easily hold a healthy balance of power, which could be enough to see off Brexit and bring in PR.

With the possibility that Boris Johnson could cut and run, figuring an election in mid-October is his best chance of getting a working majority, work on an Open Society Alliance for the next General Election has to start now. This should be a priority for our new party leader, and this process should be supported by drawing up a declaration of principles that all the Remain parties would be asked to sign up to. 

RESPONSE: Getting the Message Right

The proposal for an Open Society Alliance from Bowers, Brodie-Browne & Pettinger is spot on. If it could be done, and done on the scale they suggest, that would be great – and could change the probable outcome of the next general election (increasingly likely this autumn).

The two parties advocating Hard Brexit (Farageists & Borisites) could all too easily together get a Commons majority of seats for less than 40% of the vote – remember that 42-4% gave Thatcher massive majorities in 1979, 83 & 87. The anti-Brexit ones, with their distinctive Green, Liberal and Nationalist core supporters and old rivalries, could as easily get more votes and fewer seats. An anti-Brexit alliance is needed to save the country from the fate plotted for us by Trump’s allies and sycophants.

There are two sorts of problem, psephological-cum-technical and political. Briefly on the first, my view is that we might be better to aim for a smaller scale, more reachable deal – tackling that first might lead to a more comprehensive arrangement. I hope to get some thoughts on that question into shape soon.

The political problem is currently more critical.

A Remain Alliance (as the media are already labelling it) faces at least three powerful, inter-locking charges:-

  1. It is undemocratic not to carry out the 2016 voters’ instruction (the message repeated ad nauseum by both Brexiteers and some lukewarm 2016 Remainers)
  2. It is a losers’ alliance, set on rerunning the battle decided in 2016
  3. It is a cartel of small parties trying to defeat the majority by unfair means

The Alliance must therefore be thought through, structured and labelled so as to meet these charges – and put forward aggressively as a counter-narrative to the one the Westminster Bubble media have so thoroughly absorbed from the Brexiteers.

The word “Remain”, with its echoes of Project Fear and of the Cameron/Osborne leadership and suggestion of the 2016 re-run should be entirely avoided. Open Society Alliance is better than Remain Alliance but it is not sufficiently clear what it’s about; it’s unlikely to stick.

Simple Stop Brexit (or Bollocks to Brexit) worked well enough in May but is still negative – open to the “thwarting of the voters’ instruction” charge. I suggest an Alliance to Stop the Brexit Hijack, to be also known as Renew Democracy.

The addition of Hijack puts a narrative into the slogan. The Leave camp won narrowly in 2016 not just by its explicit lies and by stirring up ugly prejudice, but on the false prospectus of an easy deal. By refusing the deal agreed, the hard Brexiteers have captured first the Tory Party (via a vote of 0.2% of the electorate) and now the Johnson government for a No Deal proposition never put to the electorate – that is the Hijack. The Alliance is not seeking to thwart a decision taken by the voters (which could have been implemented if Mrs May’s party had supported her deal); it is protesting that that decision has been stolen by the Hard Right.

Renew Democracy must be a key positive message of the Alliance. The Right to Vote is the central principle of democracy (especially in this year of the Peterloo bi-centenary) and in the 2016 referendum this was seriously limited. Those wrongly denied the vote exceeded the small margin by which LEAVE won. Yes, 17.4 million did vote LEAVE (as repeated ad nauseum by Brexiteers) but 48 million did not. This was true and relevant before the Hijack, and the illegitimate installation of an unelected prime minister today.

The first point on the list of policy pledges should be the franchise for all future referendums. We should follow the 2014 Scottish model, where 16 & 17 year olds had the vote and everyone on the register (including all permanently resident EU citizens, not just those from 3 of the 27 other EU states) could vote. Such a Full Franchise pledge points to the illegitimacy of the 2016 restricted vote referendum.

In these several ways, such a Stop the Brexit Hijack Alliance would counter the Brexiteers’ claims to the democratic high ground, and also help to justify the inclusion of a proportional voting system in the pledges. Renew Democracy must be a positive reform message.

Looking forward, the Alliance should surely offer a three-way referendum – Revoke, the Agreed Deal, No Deal. Either with preferential voting, or with a two stage vote (as in France, and similar to the two stage [MPs, then members] of the Tory leadership system). Personally, I don’t relish a third referendum, but it sounds undemocratic to revoke without offering one – and the Full Franchise helps justify that. The three-way choice accommodates those (diminishing in numbers but vocal) who do want a soft Brexit (or a Brexit with close, warm relations with the EU).

The Hard Right is already preparing for a third referendum on the populist theme of “Tell Them Again”, and with Dominic Cummings taking up a key role in the Johnson administra-tion, we can expect this to be played the moment any general election or referendum is mentioned. They will endlessly talk of it as a re-run: the need for a further vote should be presented as a necessary consequence of the division amongst Brexiteers since 2016 – hence the Hijack narrative and a three-way choice.

The Renew Democracy platform should be open to individuals currently in the two formerly big parties, the Old Two – as also civil society figures. Political parties have the advantage of the troops on the ground and need to lead the process of arranging the Alliance. But respect for political parties is low and diminishing. As Tatton showed in 1997, personalities can command additional support – and in current local (by-)elections, many Independents or local action/residents group candidates are taking seats off the Old Two. The Alliance could widen and deepen its appeal in the seats where it has an official Green, LD or Nationalist candidate if elsewhere its platform is represented by respected non-party figures. If it is seen to be the real challenge to the Johnson administration, it could gather momentum, producing transfers of votes to best placed candidates far in excess of the numbers switching in seats with a pact.

MS, 24 July 2019


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