STEVE WILLIAMS argues that a progressive alliance in his constituency could have unseated Jeremy Hunt
WHEN faced with the threat from fascism, the ultra right and forces which seriously threaten the rights of workers and the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the people (“the 99 per cent”), the response of the left throughout history has been to organise. Organising means working collectively, collaboratively and focusing on what unites the left rather than what divides it. Tribal sectarianism has never brought about effective social or political change.
Whether it was in response to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s or in response to the austerity and rise of fascism in the years following the financial crash of 2007, the response of the left has been to develop the Popular Front, an alliance of left-wing forces — as in Spain or France in the 1930s or in Spain or Greece in recent years, with the rise of groupings like Podemos or Syriza.
Organisations such as Hope Not Hate and the left-wing press such as the Morning Star remind us of the need to be vigilant about the rise of right-wing forces in Britain today. What the left does not always do is remind us of the need for unity to defeat the forces of the right.
Some on the left argue that red-green alliances are appropriate because of the political proximity of the Green Party and the Labour left, while rejecting anything that could be construed as a Liberal Democrats-Labour pact.
While I have considerable sympathy for this view, I personally draw the conclusion that it is because our electoral system is so undemocratic and biased in favour of near perpetual Tory government, despite a progressive majority in the country, we need to cast the net more widely until we change to a more proportionate voting system — where every vote counts.
For an example of a progressive alliance, take a look at the South West Surrey constituency, one of the safest Tory constituencies in the country and the 2017 general election.
I can well recall contesting South West Surrey constituency, as the Labour Party’s parliamentary candidate in the first election for this seat in 1983.
I felt my candidature was there to maximise the Labour vote in the country, but jokingly described South West Surrey as “one of our more long-term marginals!” In reality, Labour has never been close to winning there and traditionally trailed behind the Lib Dems.
In 2015, with many years of close to zero representation of progressive political thought in this corner of England (exemplified by the fact there was not a single Labour, Lib Dem or Green councillor on the local Waverley Borough Council), a compass group was established in the constituency. This group, campaigning locally with some degree of success on local issues, consisted of a range of people on the political left, who recognised their many areas of agreement, despite some policy differences.
By 2017, Jeremy Hunt, the constituency’s member of Parliament, had just completed five years as Health Secretary.
Many in his own constituency, as in constituencies up and down the country were angered by the unrivalled damage to the NHS, through cuts, privatisation and the utter mismanagement of the highly dedicated workforce that took place under his watch.
Progressives in South West Surrey recognised a unique opportunity to hold Hunt to account by uniting behind a single progressive candidate in the way that the opposition parties in Tatton united behind Martin Bell, as an independent candidate against the deeply unpopular Neil Hamilton (later to become leader of Ukip in Wales) in the 1997 general election.
It was clear that Labour, Lib Dem and the Greens could never win in South West Surrey.
But there was another choice. In 2015 a GP and NHS activist Dr Louise Irvine stood against Hunt for the National Health Action Party, and polled remarkably well with very little work, providing a channel for many people’s frustration over what he had done to the National Health Service.
Irvine took Hunt to court when he acted beyond his powers in cutting services at Lewisham Hospital. Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell approached Irvine to help develop Labour’s policy towards the NHS since she commanded widespread support and respect within the constituency as a passionate spokesperson for the NHS and was a formidable opponent for Hunt.
An attempt was made through South West Surrey Compass to secure an agreement in which Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens would stand down to support Irvine as a progressive alliance candidate.
The Green Party agreed to stand aside and its parliamentary candidate, Susan Ryland, graciously withdrew.
The Labour Party in the constituency didn’t want to contest the election in order to support Irvine but was not allowed to take the decision as the Labour Party head office imposed its own choice of candidate.
The deeply divided Lib Dems debated the issue at length but in the end chose to support their own candidate — although making it clear at the last minute that they would stand their candidate down if the Labour Party did.
The result was that there was a progressive alliance in South West Surrey — members of the Labour Party, Lib Dem and Greens supported Irvine and campaigned for her on the ground.
However, in the election result, her significant vote, leading all other nonTory candidates by a substantial margin, was brought down by the residual support for Labour and the Lib Dems simply because they insisted on fielding candidates.
I remain convinced that had Labour and the Liberal Democrats stood down, the additional political impetus created could have resulted in unseating Hunt — and this would have been the shock result of the election.
What made perfect sense to so many Labour Party members and supporters in South West Surrey did not make sense to Labour officials. Indeed constituency Labour parties, under the party rulebook, are forbidden to make the decision not to stand a parliamentary candidate.
As a result of this inflexible attitude, three very active members of the South West Surrey Constituency Labour Party (CLP) — Kate Townsend (the secretary), Robert Park (an activist of some 50 years) and I were expelled from the party for trying to get Labour to stand aside in favour of Irvine.
It is clear that the expulsion of the small number of key members of the South West Surrey CLP — dubbed “the Godalming Three” in the media — was used by officers of the Labour Party to discourage others from following the same path.
This was surely not helpful to Labour. At worst, this draconian action played a key part in preventing Jeremy Corbyn getting into Downing Street in June.