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Could you build a new party of the left? I spent a month trying and here’s what happened …


The Labour party is finished; it’s time to invent a new party of the left. Jeremy Corbyn might as well be elected leader because Labour has no chance in 2020 – indeed, will not be able to assemble the motley 40% it needs to win an election until it has remade (or, better still, abolished) itself. That was the argument I put in a Comment is Free piece a couple of weeks ago.

An editor took it seriously, and challenged me to come up with just such a party. “If you were to rebuild a leftwing challenger to the Tories from scratch, what would it look like?” he asked. This was no mean task: how to construct a new party of the left that might win an election and, if it did win, actually do something to change the UK.

Peter Mandelson, architect of New Labour, was one of my first ports of call. He surely would know how to construct a new election-winning party, though whether we could call it New Labour was questionable. His response to my request for help was not encouraging: “I am not sure I have the strength or stamina, or willpower, to consider it.” This did not bode well.

Labour realists should embrace Jeremy Corbyn and enjoy their spell in the wilderness
My desire to build a new party was predicated on a belief that Corbyn was never going to sweep Labour back to power. That view, which may reflect the fact that I live in Surbiton where Corbynmania has yet to strike, is not shared by the many Labour activists who are happy to have their party back. “We are seeing the birth of a new grassroots movement here,” political commentator Owen Jones insisted. He reckoned Corbyn could win back Scotland and carry large parts of England, too. “Anything is possible, things can change quickly.”
Jones rejected my notion of a new party, perhaps modelled on the Democrats in the US. “My politics are rooted in the idea of having an organised Labour movement where working people self-organise in their workplace and also organise politically to have a voice in politics. That’s what the Labour party was founded to do – that’s why it’s called the Labour party. This other party you suggest would be rootless and amorphous. We’re already increasingly seeing professionalised, ambitious political advisers; if you get rid of the Labour party altogether, I don’t know what’s left.”

But Owen, the mines have closed, the factories are stilled, the people who would have been unionised labourers 50 years ago are now all self-employed personal trainers. Class politics are dead; Labour’s day is done. “Then, people worked in factories and mines,” he countered. “These days, they’re more likely to work in supermarkets and call centres, but working people still need an organised political voice. We are now seeing the emergence of a genuine grassroots movement, backed up by the unions.”

Even John McTernan, former director of political operations for Tony Blair, refused to accept the game was up for Labour. “The Labour party will always be a central part of progressive politics in Britain,” he said. “Its job is to sort itself out. The party doesn’t need to abolish itself. It just needs to have the right policy positions on the centre-left. The case is much stronger for the rump of the Liberal party to wind itself up and merge with the Labour party.”

Maurice Glasman, former policy guru to Ed Miliband and now a Labour peer, was more pessimistic. “The situation is very bad,” he told me. “My view is that a straightforward leftwing party would end up being like Respect – it would appeal to Guardian readers, Unison and the Muslim Council of Britain. It would poll 15% on a very good day.” He was doubtful about Labour’s rebirth as the Democrats – “The Democrats tend to ignore the poor and don’t recognise the dignity of labour” – but didn’t dismiss it completely. “A lot of us have been here before, and we hope there will be an organised move towards sanity at some stage. But I’m not being dogmatic about it, and if there is no indication that that is happening, then your plan is a possibility.”

Owen Jones

This was almost a green light for my vision of a new left. I signed up hotshot design company Havas Work Club to flesh out what this post-Labour (and post-labour) party would look like. The people at Work Club understood what I was trying to achieve immediately, though it worried me slightly when they suggested we do it for real and solicit donations. “The real test will be whether anyone takes this on and tries it,” said creative partner Andy Sandoz, setting the bar worryingly high.

I wrote them a brief for what this new party should look like: “The left believe that Corbyn can win back power, but I doubt it. The Blairites say Labour needs to move back to the centre to win, but I doubt that, too. What is the centre in an age when the same group of people can love the health service and hate immigration? The labels don’t work anymore. The new party rejects the statism of Labour and the let-capitalism-trample-all-over-us view of the Tories. It’s about – and of course this is a cliche – giving power back to the people. At the moment, government and the financial world are a black box that the public don’t understand and rarely get to peer into. The banks caused the crash of 2007-8, but got off scot-free and have sailed on more or less regardless, with the taxpayer footing the bill. How can the banks be made the servants of the people, rather than their masters?”

There were several pages of this waffle – and I probably confused the issue by saying I was keen to incorporate the “big society” thinking of Steve Hilton and the anti-corporatist views of Ukip’s Douglas Carswell too – but Work Club stuck to it and quickly came up with the name “This is Britain”. “That gave us ‘This is Britain’s policy on …’,” Sandoz told me when we were looking at final artwork a few days later. “We started to write the brand into behaviour. This is Britain democratised the brand.”

This felt like progress, and was certainly better than any of the names I had managed to come up with, all of which sounded fascist – the Future party, the Party of Tomorrow, the Party of Truth. One of my colleagues suggested PodeMoss, but that was too egoistical, even for me. I did wonder whether This is Britain was a bit tourist board, and some creative team worried about using the word “Britain”, which tended to be associated with parties of the right, but Sandoz said words and images could be reclaimed. This debate, though, proved to be academic, because This is Britain was quickly history, replaced by a party name we really liked – “Just”. Within 24 hours we had a logo, and some snazzy posters. It was bright, modern, convincing, classless. I felt Labour would soon be history, too.

Platform posters

“‘Just’ kept the democracy of This is Britain, but flattened it out and said, ‘It’s just politics’ – it took all the pomp out of it,” explained Sandoz. “We liked the fact that it said, ‘Politics is there for the people and of the people; it’s not there to be a brilliant thing in itself.’ Politicians are servants of communities, and maybe they’ve got overblown and maybe politics has got overblown. It’s so structured, it’s horrible. ‘Just’ took all the air out of it, and said: ‘Let’s get back to what’s important’.”

The concept was great, though we were perturbed to find that a campaigning organisation in Seattle was already using the name “Just”. Would it sue us? It might have been worth taking the risk, except that, over the next few days, I had a succession of conversations that convinced me there was an even more surefire way to get the left back into power.

David Owen, co-founder of the SDP in the 80s, was one of the first to open my eyes. He suggested a “progressive alliance” built initially around the defence of the National Health Service. “It’s mad [for the parties of the centre-left] to be competing against each other,” he said. “Get agreement on something like the NHS and then take it to a constitutional convention.” There, a common programme on the health service and constitutional reform could be agreed, with trickier issues such as nuclear disarmament parked for future consideration.

Caroline Lucas

He was very exercised by the case of Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion. It was crazy for Labour to oppose her when her values fitted so well with theirs. Lucas felt the same way. In an email, she told me she rejected the idea of a new party, but backed the idea of pacts. “The first-past-the-post system is designed to keep power in the hands of the few,” she wrote, “and we need to hack that system before we can change it. Until we have the electoral reform we so desperately need, we should be considering the potential of locally agreed progressive pacts for the next general election.”

Another conversation that influenced me was with Paul Arnott, one of the founders of the East Devon Alliance. The EDA was formed only two years ago to take on the Conservative-dominated council, but it already has 10 councillors and the independent candidate it backed in the general election came second to Tory Hugo Swire, polling an astonishing 13,000 votes, well ahead of Ukip, Labour and the Lib Dems. “I just wanted to take young Russell Brand and flush his head down the khazi,” Arnott told me. “It was so frustrating because we were doing precisely what he was advocating, though we were rather more middle-aged and unattractive. We really wanted to provide an alternative, but because unlike him we’re grown-ups we knew the only way to do it is to put yourself up at local elections – do the hard yards first, Russell.”

I warmed to this notion of a disparate band of locals demanding greater transparency and accountability in local government, drawing support from all parts of the political spectrum and taking on the might of the Conservative political machine. “People from different backgrounds could come together because they shared a similar radicalism as far as reforming governance was concerned,” said Arnott. “It’s made some quite rightwing people think very hard about the social economy.” This sounded like fluid, grassroots modern politics, not the class-based trench warfare of old. I mooted a national Citizens’ party to Arnott, the EDA writ large. “If you are prepared to launch the Citizens’ party,” he said, “the East Devon Alliance would be interested in opening talks with you.”

Dan Hind, author of The Return of the Public, firmed up some of this thinking for me. “To create a new party over the dead body of the Labour party would take 40 years,” he said. “An easier way of doing it is to begin with forms of electoral accommodation. There are huge parts of the electoral landscape in Britain where Labour has never really competed. If they were open about that and said, ‘There are other groupings on the left who are better placed to compete in those areas’, it might be able to move towards something like Syriza, which is much more coalitional. The problem with trying to start a new party from scratch would be that the Labour machine would fight tooth and nail because it would mean their extinction. Rather than offer people extinction, you should offer them survival and transformation on new terms.”

Platform 1 for all trains heading left.

So Labour, these are the new terms. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens will hold national talks to agree a common set of values. Shirley Williams, former Labour cabinet minister and now a Lib Dem peer, told me to take it slowly: values first, policy later. Once that is agreed, local parties will – as Lucas suggests – cooperate to decide on a common candidate. To take the example of Brighton, Lucas will get a free run in Brighton Pavilion, while Labour gets a reciprocal free run in neighbouring Brighton Kemptown, which the Conservatives held in May by 690 votes. Labour was second, and would have won with some Greens’ 3,000-plus votes. Strike one for the new progressive alliance.

The other benefit of cooperation between Labour, Liberals, the Greens and any other radical groups that want to join the alliance is that Labour can split into its two increasingly antithetical halves – socialist and social democrat. Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall clearly occupy different political planets, and it’s no longer tenable to pretend this is useful creative tension. It’s an electoral marriage of convenience, and looks increasingly absurd to the public. With the left pooling their resources, that unhappy marriage can be ended without courting electoral disaster: socialists and social democrats become friendly partners rather than quarrelling spouses.

As I envisage it, the progressive alliance will initially be forged between the newly formed Socialist Labour party, the Social Democrats, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Whichever party is strongest in a given constituency gets to stand for the alliance, which Work Club and I decided to brand “Platform”. Sunderland might get a socialist, Swindon a social democrat, Surbiton a Liberal Democrat. It will be organised tactical voting on a scale never before seen, and the Tories will be running scared. Scotland we will treat as sui generis. I had hoped Platform might work there, but for the moment SNP hegemony is complete, and independence seems certain unless a revivified centre-left can build federalism into a new constitutional settlement. Tory rule for the next decade will guarantee the breakup of the UK.

If the left alliance secures a majority, cabinet posts will reflect the number of MPs each party has. The leader/speaker will have been chosen ahead of the election by a vote of all the members of the constituent parties or at a meeting of their combined executive committees. Let’s not get bogged down in details at this stage. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who was part of the SDP’s attempt to break the mould of British politics in the 80s, was sceptical. She said similar schemes had been floated before, and doubted whether, even if it were put into effect, the impact on seats would be decisive. But there is no alternative: without such an initiative, the right will be in power for a generation. Some Labourites might prefer to play a long game – defeat for Corbyn in 2020, the emergence of an emollient Kinnock figure, eventually the coming of a second Blair who can turn the party into winners again. But, as Hind says: “By that time most of us may be building pyramids for the pharaohs, because society is becoming more and more unequal.” A fragmented left los; an electorally unified left could win.

“The beauty of Platform is that you say, ‘This is a reset because all the labels are broken’,” says Work Club’s Sandoz. “What I like about it is that we are embracing the fragmentation rather than trying to fix it or pretending it doesn’t exist. We are saying the fragmentation is working; so why would you try to fix it? Let’s just support it and celebrate it and make it better. That, to me, feels like radical thinking.” The branding is clever: a single bar that echoes a train platform, beneath which is the word “Platform”, and on top of which sits the name of whichever party is contesting that constituency. Each of the constituent parties gets its own colour, with the social democrats taking a non-pejorative pink.

The idea builds on the initiative Neal Lawson has undertaken at campaigning group Compass, which used to be made up exclusively of Labour members but is now open to people from other parties. Lawson is critical of Labour’s “centralised, topdown” structure, which he believes is out of kilter with a digital age in which participation, grassroots organisation and peer-to-peer communication are the key. Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality party, has also sensed that new mood: her party is open to joint candidacies with parties that sign up to its six-point plan to achieve gender equality.

Labour’s refusal to cooperate with like-minded groups on the left looks increasingly anachronistic. Destructive, too, because while Labour may be strong enough to stop a rival centre-left party breaking through, with Scotland gone it is unlikely in the foreseeable future to form a government on its own. The Tories, despite being able to command at best only 40% of the vote, could rule in perpetuity.

We recognise, indeed welcome, the fact that Platform’s life might be short, which seems somehow appropriate for a digital age characterised by fluidity and fragmentation. With a majority in the Commons, a progressive alliance – backed by the SNP and Plaid Cymru – could introduce proportional representation, push through federalism, decentralise power to the English regions and replace the House of Lords with an elected senate. Proportional representation would mean party numbers in the Commons would thenceforth reflect votes cast, and alliances could be formed on a parliament-by-parliament basis. Platform’s work would be done, the British polity would have been made fit for the 21st century, the union would have been saved, and I would expect at least a knighthood. If, that is, knighthoods still exist in the shiny new Britain we intend to create.

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