Perhaps the most common mistake in politics, made both by those who are participants and those who report on it, is to forget how little attention the public pays most of the time. Even in the midst of a general election campaign in 2017, 1 in 5 could not name the Prime Minister and less than 1 in 5 could name the governing party’s election slogan. Plenty of people still don’t know what the Liberal Democrat line is on Brexit.
The public know as much about politics as I know about contemporary* music. And almost without fail anyone who says, ‘we should stop banging on about X’, has forgotten how few people yet know X.
Which is why for any talk about Remain alliances an overwhelming question, that should be worried about day after day after day – and through the night too, is ‘how the heck will voters know what we decide to do?’.
Fancy talk about pacts, deals or cross-party cooperation has to be relentlessly beaten up under that cross-examination: how on earth do we expect people to know?
One of the secrets to the success of the pre-1997 cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats was the way it prioritised winning support from the national media for it. There may have been no formal seat deals, but having national media outlets working to a consistent list of seats in which to heavily promote tactical voting amongst their readers was one way of making that jump from cosy discussions into public knowledge.
Any plan for cooperation has to have at its heart a plan for publicity. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve long argued that if anyone wants to do some sort of formal seat arrangements for the Remain cause, the crucial thing is to make sure it’s clear on the ballot paper.
If a voter can see when they go to vote ‘oh, this person is the agreed cross-party Remain candidate here’ then there’s a much bigger chance of the arrangement working. There’s nothing better than having that information right in front of the voter at the moment they vote.
The smart way to do this would be through using the same mechanism as the Co-operative Party uses. Candidates can stand for election as the joint candidate from two parties. So the Co-operative Party picks candidates it backs and they stand as joint Co-operative and Party X candidates. For them, X always equals Labour but it doesn’t have to.
Likewise, a pro-Remain umbrella organisation could endorse candidates who can then stand both under their own party label and as the official Remain party candidate in that seat.
This approach brings several advantages:
- Voters will know what’s happening, right there on the ballot paper.
- It allows different candidates and parties** to preserve their own identity – they’re backing a joint cause without subsuming their identity. That’s a safeguard against the sort of problems that have often bedevilled seat talks in the past.
- This arrangement can work for anything from 1 to 650 seats. It could be narrowly pitched to help out a few gallant rebels and the most obvious cases for cooperation, or scaled up to something larger depending on the circumstances and what the Brexiters get up to.
- It can also flex to cover seats where parties just cannot agree, with either no candidate or even (improbably but as an emergency crisis compromise) more than one candidate being endorsed in a seat. The scheme doesn’t fall apart because the hardest parts could not be agreed on.
- There’s also a messaging point: part of the benefit of cross-party backing isn’t the exact number of votes that different parties won previously, but rather the broader message: here’s a cause that involves people working together, productively and which therefore can win. It makes turning out to vote part of something that is bigger than party politics and something that has therefore triggered an unprecedented piece of cooperation. That is just the right sort of message to help raise turnout and also to persuade people to back a party they might not naturally choose.
Whether or not such a move should be embraced by the Liberal Democrats depends on the circumstances – such as whether we have a general election trigged and dominated by Brexit this year. And if we do, is there a Boris Johnson – Nigel Farage seat pact to try to sow things up for the Brexiters courtesy of the absurdities of first past the post?
But it’s not hard to see the circumstances under which agreements for at least some seats will be desirable. And as that’s a very live possibility, the Liberal Democrats should also be very live to making sure the best possible circumstances for such agreements to succeed are put in place. Especially as there’s a warning from the Lib Dem ballot paper description in the European elections about the risks of running out of time.
Which is why the Lib Dems should welcome Heidi Allen’s moves:
Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, said she had already had a number of meetings with the Electoral Commission about how Unite to Remain would work in practical terms at the next general election.
The plan is for candidates to share a descriptor, which would appear next to the name of their party on the ballot paper. For example, “the Liberal Democrats – Unite to Remain.” They are also discussing having a shared logo. [Business Insider]
Who knows where this will go, but the better the options are prepared for cross-party cooperation amongst Remainers, the better the odds are that we’ll find we have the option we need ready to use later this year.
* Probably the most superfluous word in this piece.
** Along with independents and independent groupings. I use ‘party’ as a shorthand here.