UK election map 2015: Wikimedia
In recent days, the idea of Labour forming an electoral pact with the Green Party has come under renewed scrutiny, thanks to Caroline Lucas MP calling for one in the pages of The Independent. Such a pact has been occasionally discussed since the election, which saw the best Green result in a general election, but one thing often missing from the discussions is a sense of what such a pact would look like in practice. Which seats would be targeted? How many Green candidates would have to stand down? And what are the winnable seats where the Green Party should be pressing for a free run?
In establishing this, it is possible to draw on Labour’s own history, something I had occasion to read about recently in a very good book by Martin Pugh called “Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party”. As he relates, one often-forgotten aspect of the long march to Labour’s role as a party of government was the pre-WW1 electoral pact that the Labour Party formed with the then-dominant Liberal Party. This pact enabled Labour to elect 29 MPs in 1906 on just 4.8 per cent of the vote, and 42 MPs in December 1910 with just 7.1 per cent. It also enabled the Liberals to win a landslide in 1906 (with 397 MPs to the Tories’ 156, the Irish Nationalists’ 82 and Labour’s 29) and to become the largest party in Parliament both of the elections in 1910, despite only having a small lead over the Tories in 1906 and despite the Tories having a 3-point lead in 1910.
So given that the pact was successful then, could one be successful now?
In 1906, the reason for an electoral pact was painfully clear: the Liberals had been out of power for 11 years, and hadn’t won a majority since 1880. The context of the Lib-Lab pact seems familiar: opposed by a Conservative Party which was strong in working class constituencies, facing an entrenched Nationalist presence in Parliament and threatened by a party to its left, it’s not hard to see why a Liberal Party desperate to return to power agreed to a pact. Today, the context is similar: Labour is struggling to make headway outside its urban and northern constituencies, leaving the Tories to dominate everywhere else (thanks to the collapse of the Liberal Democrats). The SNP’s dominance of Scotland has moved the battleground purely to England, much as the Irish nationalist vote dominated Irish elections. And in England, the Green Party is nipping at the heels of the Labour Party, with Green voters outweighing Tory majorities in 10 constituencies, threatening Labour majorities in many more and likely to expand ever more as voters see the party as a more viable option.
This, then, would likely be the motivation for a pact: as for the Liberals, it would not be a selfless progressive alliance but a pact borne out of self-interest and increasing desperation to remove the Tories from power. For the Greens, it would simply be motivated by a desire to increase their representation and to cement themselves as a legitimate option in the eyes of the electorate.
What would Labour get out of it?
If both parties were to accept the idea of a pact, there would have to be something for both sides. The benefits to Labour are obvious: firstly, they could deprive the Tories of their majority without a significant switch in votes, as a Green endorsement of Labour in just a handful of constituencies (Derby North, Croydon Central, Bury North, Morley & Outwood, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, Brighton Kemptown, Weaver Vale, Telford, Bedford and Gower) could help deliver 10 extra Labour MPs. In addition, in a further 19 seats, a pact would see the Conservative majority reduced to 0-5 per cent – a figure easily moveable by a strong local campaign and a slight swing in Labour’s favour. If all 29 seats were captured by Labour, it would be capable of forming a minority government with the support of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists, as well as the Greens. A pact would also help secure some currently precarious Labour majorities, such as the 46 seats (excluding Bristol West and Ynys Mon) won by Labour by a margin of 10 per cent or less. In total Labour would probably be looking for the Greens to stand aside in 70-80 constituencies.
So in short, a pact would help Labour by putting it in a position to form the government once more.
What would the Greens get out of it?
This is probably the more complicated question. Opponents of an electoral pact within the Green Party often claim that the Green identity would be subsumed within Labour’s; an argument that is not without merit as Pugh claims that the pact of the 1900s did impede Labour’s electoral progress. But the chance of increasing Green representation would probably sway the debate in favour of a pact, were it to become a serious issue.
There are three seats that instantly leap to mind as likely targets for a Green-Labour pact: Brighton Pavilion, the Isle of Wight and Somerton & Frome. In all these seats, the Green Party outpolled Labour, and the latter two are only strongly Conservative because of a divided opposition. A joint Labour-Green candidacy in the latter two seats would pull in 26.2 per cent* (to the Tories’ 40.7 per cent) and 25.1 per cent of the vote (to the Tories’ 37.8 per cent) respectively, likely more if they were given special attention by the national party. While Bristol West is currently the No. 2 Green target seat, and would likely remain so, there is little chance of Labour deselecting an incumbent MP (the same goes for Norwich South) and it would remain a Labour-Green marginal. Under a pact, potential for Green expansion would need to look beyond Labour safe seats and instead at Conservative constituencies where there is a potential to unite the ‘left’ vote behind a single candidate.
I would make the estimation that there are 4 Tory-held constituencies where the Greens could achieve headway and possibly victory under a pact: the Isle of Wight, Bath, Truro and Falmouth and Colchester. In all of these, the Tory vote was below 44 per cent in 2015 and the joint Green-Labour vote was over 20 per cent.
Indeed, in total, there are 121 safe Conservative seats where a joint Labour-Green candidate could achieve over 20 per cent of the vote. While the specifics of a deal would fall far short of this figure, a good chunk of these seats would provide solid Green results that would more than make up for standing aside in a handful of marginals. I would suspect that Labour would only stand aside where the Greens were already strong (i.e. with a saved deposit), and where Labour was relatively weak. I would therefore expect that, in the event of a pact, Labour would give the Greens a free run in 53 safe Tory seats: specifically, the 53 constituencies where the Greens saved their deposit and Labour won below 20 per cent of the vote.
So, in short, the Greens wouldn’t get a definite gain out of a pact, unless Labour was persuaded to allow a free run in a constituency where Labour was closer to the Conservatives (such as Filton and Bradley Stoke, where a joint candidacy would achieve 31.2 per cent to the Tories’ 46.7 per cent). But they would get a much stronger shot at toppling Tory MPs than they have now, as well as securing Brighton Pavilion against a Labour challenge, cementing themselves as a legitimate (and safe) choice in the eyes of left-wing voters and enabling themselves to put down strong roots in more constituencies around the country.
In the end, I doubt that a pact will happen. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader might help things along, but the Green Party would have to convince the Labour leadership that it was of significant advantage to Labour to form a pact: simply talking about progressive alliances is unlikely to sway the party over to standing down in any constituency. At the same time, there is hostility within Green ranks to the idea of a pact with Labour, which may scuttle any proposal before it even starts.
But I’m not the best at prediction. Back before the election (like most) I predicted a hung parliament. When Corbyn announced his campaign, I thought he might narrowly beat Liz Kendall and come third. So maybe, like the Liberals of old, Labour will see the 10th anniversary of its last government approaching in 2020 and turn to an electoral pact. The behaviour of the Greens, and whether they show themselves to be a significant threat to Labour’s chances of returning to government, will also be important in determining if a pact materialises.
But it is also important to start talking practically and seriously about what a pact might involve: who would stand aside for whom, where it would happen, and what areas the Green Party should be focusing on. Because without a solid strategy to make a pact happen, it is likely to fade away as quickly as it appeared.
*Throughout, I have added together the votes of the two parties to reach a combined figure. Reality is, of course, more complex than that.
I thought I’d add to the end of this article a list of the constituencies I was talking about above. They’re separated broadly into the categories I mentioned, and then into sub-categories.
Seats where the Greens would likely stand aside for Labour (76)
Seats where the Green vote outweighs the Conservative majority over Labour (10)
Plymouth Sutton and Devonport
Morley and Outwood
Seats where the Tory majority would be cut to 0-5 per cent (19)
Plymouth Moor View
Bristol North West
Labour-held seats where the Labour majority is currently 0-10 per cent (46)
Chester, City of
Ealing Central and Acton
Brentford and Isleworth
Barrow and Furness
Wolverhampton South West
Hampstead and Kilburn
Lancaster and Fleetwood
Derbyshire North East
Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East
Bermondsey and Old Southwark
Coventry North West
Alyn & Deeside
Seats where Labour would likely stand aside for the Greens (54)
Green-held seats (1)
Conservative-held seats where the Greens beat Labour (2)
Isle of Wight
Somerton and Frome
Other Conservative-held seats where the Greens saved their deposit but Labour is weak (51)
Truro and Falmouth
Bury St Edmunds
Hereford and South Herefordshire
Devon West and Torridge
Arundel and South Downs
Tiverton and Honiton
New Forest West
Wiltshire South West
Skipton and Ripon
Chesham and Amersham
Surrey South West
Cornwall South East
Folkestone and Hythe
Hertfordshire North East
Penrith and The Border
Worthing East and Shoreham
Cambridgeshire South East
Bexhill and Battle