Surrey Labour could defy national party over progressive alliance

Jessica Elgot
Local Labour leaders have been canvassing support for a progressive deal with local Greens and Lib Dems. Photograph: Hannah McKay/PA

Surrey Labour party could vote to back a Liberal Democrat candidate next week to try to unseat the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, defying the national party which has said it will not entertain any “progressive alliance”.

The Conservative minister has a majority of more than 28,000 in his South West Surrey constituency but local Labour leaders have been canvassing support for a progressive deal with local Greens and Lib Dems over the past 18 months, with 200 people attending a meeting in Godalming on Thursday night to back the idea.

Ukip came second behind the Conservatives in 2015, but the Lib Dems have historically been the main challengers in the seat, cutting the Tory majority to just 861 in 2001.

Steve Williams, a member of the constituency Labour party’s executive committee, has been coordinating the efforts with Compass, the centre-left thinktank that backs a progressive alliance. He said the local party would vote on a motion to stand down a Labour candidate and swing behind a single progressive candidate. “People attended last night from all different strands of different parties and it was near unanimous,” he said.

The motion proposes that Labour should focus on winnable seats and, where that is not realistic, the party should “stand down in order to increase the possibility of an MP being elected who will be more likely to support a Labour government”.

The motion would commit local members not to participate in selecting a candidate for Labour and focus their campaigning efforts in other seats.

CLP chair, Howard Kaye, the party’s candidate in 2015, has said he would not stand again. Labour’s national executive party has said it would impose candidates on constituencies where MPs or unsuccessful candidates did not wish to stand again, in order to meet tight election deadlines.

Nationally, Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas has called for talks with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, to make a formal deal in some areas against the Conservatives ahead of the election, though both have publicly rejected her entreaties.

The Green party made the decision to stand down in the recent Richmond Park byelection, which the Lib Dems’ Sarah Olney then captured from the former Tory mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith. Greens will still have candidates standing across the country, but co-leader Lucas has called for a cooperative approach “in a handful of places”.

The party is unlikely to step aside in places where it has a prospect of winning, which in the vast majority of seats will be with a sitting Labour MP. On Thursday the Greens launched their campaign in Bristol West, currently held by Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire.

Though the idea has been rejected by their party leadership, several MPs and senior politicians have lobbied their leaders to reconsider, at least at a grassroots level, including former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown and former shadow business secretary Clive Lewis.

Oxford’s Labour party, where Oxford East Labour MP Andrew Smith is standing down, has been tweeting to the Greens asking them to stand aside in the seat:

Ashdown, who co-founded More United, a cross-party coalition of progressive voters who support staying in Europe, wrote in the Independent: “This is not the time for tribalism. I believe we can achieve great successes in the next weeks. But while Lib Dem victories are necessary for a fairer Britain, they are not sufficient.

“It’s time to reach out beyond our tribal barriers and build a wider progressive movement which can oppose and, in time, replace the Tories.”

There is momentum behind the idea of grassroots progressive collaboration from those outside mainstream parties. On Thursday, Gina Miller, the campaigner who took the government to court to allow parliament to vote on the Brexit deal, has launched a crowdfunding page described as “the country’s biggest tactical voting drive”.

The campaign raised £150,000 in its first day, and will be used to “back candidates who pledge to support a full and free vote on the Brexit deal,” Miller said.

However, the idea of a progressive alliance has become an attack line for the Conservatives, who made major gains in the 2015 general election with the claim that Ed Miliband was seeking a deal with the SNP. Corbyn is thought to have definitively ruled out the idea of any formal progressive alliance because of fears the party could face the same problem again unless it was swiftly denied.

“It’s clear Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP are now lining up to disrupt our Brexit negotiations in a coalition of chaos,” the Tory chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, said on Thursday. “This can only mean more uncertainty for Britain, more risk and a future that is less secure.”

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