Co-operation with the Greens – debunking the arguments against

There’s something strange going in within the Liberal Democrats, and it isn’t helping us, or showing us up in a very favourable light.

Last month we had an astonishing success in the Richmond upon Thames borough elections. In 2014 the Conservatives won 39 of the 54 seats; this time we won 39, reducing the Tories to 11 and the Greens picked up four thanks in large part to an arrangement with us. It was an outstanding achievement for Gareth Roberts and his team.

But in the weeks since then, there seems to be a movement afoot trying to pretend that cooperating with the Greens wasn’t such a good idea after all, and that if we’d only stood a full slate of candidates in the four wards where the Greens got councillors elected, we’d have had 43 seats and the Greens none. This is the broad thrust of an article by Theo Butt Philip in ‘Liberator’, of a verbal analysis given by Richard Cole of the ALDC to the South East Region, and of several comments I’ve seen in response to blogs.

I find this line of argumentation both counterproductive and rather sad. For a start it seems to begrudge the Greens four seats, which they will use to keep us honest on environmental lines. If I’m in a room and there are Green or Green-leaning people there, it soon becomes clear there’s far more that unites than divides us, so why should we be mean-spirited when it comes to working with them to our mutual benefit?

Aside from any moral considerations, the argumentation is of poor quality. Who says we would have won the four seats the Greens won if we’d fielded three candidates in those wards? The chances are the Greens would have still fielded their candidate, we’d have split the ‘progressive’ vote, and the Tories might have picked up another member.

I canvassed in two of the split wards in Richmond, and it was clear the LibDem/Green deal was popular on the doorstep. I can’t judge exactly how popular, but a lot of people welcomed the idea of two parties cooperating rather than dissing each other. In one ward both we and the Greens felt a long-serving Conservative councillor was bound to get in by dint of his personal vote, but he was ousted by the cooperating parties – you’d have to make a very strong case that we’d have won all three seats in that ward.

The most egregious part of the argument that we lost more than we gained is the failure to consider the parliamentary element. The LibDem/Green arrangement in Richmond was never solely about the council – it was a deal around two parliamentary constituencies and the council. The Greens stood aside in the Richmond Park by-election in 2016 and the Richmond Park and Twickenham seats in the 2017 general election to enhance our chances of winning, and indeed we won two of those three elections. As payback, we agreed to stand aside one candidate in six wards to help the Greens in the council elections.

It’s still possible to argue Richmond was not good for us, but to do so one would have to compare what we gained in the three parliamentary elections with what we lost to the Greens in the council elections. Failure to do this makes any analysis limited and misleading. Dare I say it would be a bit like someone saying ‘Grammar schools are wonderful, look at their results!’ without considering the overall impact of grammar schools on secondary education – we come down on this argument like a tonne of bricks, yet we condemn the Richmond initiative using painfully selective evidence.

And ultimately, how are we ever going to get fair votes if we don’t work with other parties of broadly similar mindset who are as committed to PR as we are? The Greens have been willing to work with us because they know PR will help them, so why doesn’t the logic work the other way round? Fighting the Greens in a way that lets Conservatives win is daft, yet I fear this tribal thinking will scupper some potential arrangements with the Greens for the May 2019 local elections which, if linked to smart campaigning at the next general election, could enhance the chances of getting PR.

Let’s be clear: there are situations where cross-party cooperation doesn’t make sense, and, even where it does, standing candidates aside isn’t always the best option. It’s a subject on which we Lib Dems need to have a healthy and open-minded discussion. But resorting to such poor-quality arguments is counterproductive, and it also leads to the suspicion that we are not as liberal as we like to think we are and succumb frighteningly easily to the temptation to take refuge in tribalism.

* Chris Bowers was a two-term councillor on Lewes District Council and a co-editor of "The Alternative" which explored the idea of a progressive alliance.

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34 Comments

  • Andy Briggs 24th Jun '18 - 9:28am

    Two things on this:
    1) Of course the argument against co-operation with the Greens begrudges them seats, that’s the whole point. I begrudge any party that isn’t a Lib Dem a seat anywhere, at any level, because I am a Lib Dem, not some sort of all encompassing centre-left progressive.

    2) You ask for the Lib Dems to have a healthy and open minded discussion on co-operation with other parties, but I’d argue that already took place at Spring Conference, during the debate on the “progressive alliance” element of the party strategy; a conversation I’m afraid to say your side lost quite emphatically.

  • Simon mcgrath 24th Jun '18 - 9:29am

    The greens are a party who are rapidly disappearing . Many of their members have left to join corbyn and their vote share has been going down. All that deals like this do is give them credibility .
    You don’t mention thst the first thing they did having got cllrs elected with the aid of our votes was to announce they would be opposing us.

  • Interested to see your comment, Simon. Have they said this in public? Do you have a link?

  • and actually, the Greens are frequently highly iliberal in their policy prescriptions.

  • Sandra Hammett 24th Jun '18 - 10:16am

    Instances of illiberalism and anti-democratic sentiment are becoming far too common in the Lib Dems, we seem intent on damaging our reputation, is this an unconcious move or part of some grand strategy to never be in government again?

  • Martin Pierce 24th Jun '18 - 10:38am

    After 37 years as a member of the Liberal Party and then the Lib Dems, including a Councillor in Richmond, I find myself a bit semi-detached from the party these days and these comments tell me why. One of the axioms of the Liberal Party I joined – and indeed the SDP that started about the same time – was that we’re not party tribalists, that we work with people of all parties and none to get liberal values and policies across. Although I thought the execution of the Coalition was disastrous and there was far too much ‘yah boo’ at Labour from our party within it, it was also one of the attractive ideas behind the concept of the coalition. Indeed if we ever did get PR (in which case deals like this on the ground wouldn’t be needed any more), finding ways to work constructively with other parties would be the order of the day, every day, forever, not begrudging every other party every seat they have because they are not ‘one of us’.

  • Geoffrey Payne 24th Jun '18 - 10:49am

    To coin a phrase I think this is putting the cart before the horse.
    I think it is true that we owe the Greens. For example Tim Farron may have lost his seat had the Green party stood against him. The Greens stood down in a number of places whilst we only stood down in Brighton Pavillion in last year’s general election.
    However from now on our priority must focus on ideas rather than pacts. We need to work out where we agree and disagree and then where we go from there.
    Yesterday’s demonstration was a good start, it was effectively owned by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. And lets be honest Caroline Lucas gave the best speech of all there is no doubt she is a class act as a politician.
    And clearly we agree that global warming is the most important issue we face today, threatening as it does to destroy human life around the world on a vast scale. And this in contrast to the Tories who see it as a minor side issue or even a hoax.
    There is a disagreement on economic policy. We need them to show that no economic growth is compatible with their radical social justice goals and fixing the budget deficit problem we still have, but we in turn need to demonstrate that our preference of “Green Growth” really is green – and that is something we do not debate anything like enough to convince me that it really is.
    So I have some agreement with what Chris is proposing but lets talk about ideas first and see if we have the common ground needed to consider this.

  • I have the strange belief that decisions are best made at the most local level. I was very interested to read the piece by Chris Bowers. Looking at the results in Richmond it appears that something was done right. Perhaps advice from others should focus on the majority of areas where we made no progress at all. It is very useful to read the views of those who actually worked in the camapaign. I am not sure why Grammar Schools come into it though!

  • You need to acknowledge that the Greens were not 100% behind the arrangement for the Richmond Park by-election. Four of the wards in the constituency lie in Kingston Borough, and the Greens in Kingston disagreed with their colleagues on the Richmond side. They actively campaigned for Labour in the by-election.

    The Greens also stood candidates across Kingston in the local elections this year, but there is no evidence that they split the vote, except perhaps in one ward which now has 2 Lib Dems and one Conservative. And we took control of Kingston with an even bigger majority than in Richmond.

  • I agree with the original article.

    I really don’t like the tribalism in the comments so far – I am a centre-left progressive. I’m pro-EU. I’m a liberal. Those are my core values, and I joined the Lib Dems because they’re the party that best represents those views.

    Best being the important word there – they’re not the only party that, to some extent at least, holds those views. I like politicians who stand with me on the key issues I care about, regardless of what colour their rosette is. Sadly politics is becoming more about supporting politicians with the right coloured rosette rather than where they stand on key issues. (I mean this for politics in general, rather than us specifically – Labour / Tories are even worse on that front.)

  • Chris Bertram 24th Jun '18 - 11:35am

    Geoffrey Payne: “we only stood down in Brighton Pavillion in last year’s general election.” Nope, the electors of Skipton and Ripon were also denied the opportunity to vote Lib Dem, with the local party making a decision on fairly flimsy grounds that this would help us regain Harrogate, as the Green vote there would automatically switch to us. That didn’t happen, we were still well adrift and either most of the Green vote stayed at home or voted Labour instead. The Greens are very good at talking the talk when it comes to party cooperation, but very much less good at walking the walk. I say we should try to absorb what remains of their party, whether by formal merger or just by attracting their members to defect to us instead.

  • Sad about Skipton & Ripon. The boundaries were probably different, but of course we almost won Skipton some years ago with the wonderful Claire Brookes and we did hold Ripon.

  • Wise words from Geoff Payne. Labour is of course the most tribal Party and there are a number of areas where the opposition parties are in broad agreement and where, if they would just put forward a coordinated front in the media as well as in Parliament, we could make some progress. I am thinking of Leveson, immediate recognition of Palestine as a state, treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, grammar schools, arms sales to states that are misusing them – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel etc. etc.
    Not that I’m suggesting a broad progressive alliance, but I do think it’s worth looking at our green ideas and considering strategically rather than just tribally whether there is merit in further collaboration with Greens.
    I was a Liberal activist in my youth and became active again in 2010. We seem to be less liberal than we were. Is that a result of merger with the Social Democrats? Have we inherited some Labour tribalism and intolerance? Or are my memories of the past just a little rose-tinted?

  • Chris Bertram 24th Jun '18 - 12:37pm

    John Kelly: “Have we inherited some Labour tribalism and intolerance? Or are my memories of the past just a little rose-tinted?” I think I prefer to see it as not being pushovers. We conceded too much as a coalition party, and when Labour won in 1997 Paddy got us involved in a consultative arrangement with Labour that yielded no obvious benefits – not to us, anyway. We need to be quite firm about standing our ground now, and giving up too much to the Greens should be a no-no. If they share so much ground with us, they can join us.

  • Local parties should decide. I’m reasonably comfortable with the Richmond situation, from everything I’ve heard. But I can fairly confidently predict that none of our LPs in Scotland will be co-operating with the Greens anytime soon. Up here they are basically an adjunct to the SNP, more comfortable campaigning for independence than for the environment.

  • James Hardy 24th Jun '18 - 2:04pm

    I don’t begrudge another party getting the representation they deserve but are denied by our unfair system of helping them helps us too. Sure I’d like it if we could convince the green members and supporters of the rightness of our policies and get them to vote for us entirely, however there are things we disagree with which is why we are separate parties. In areas we agree with other parties we should be willing to work with them

  • From the experience of the county elections up here where we tried to broker a deal only to have them go back on it. We asked ‘ the national party are keen’ to get the answer of ‘ the national party have no say in local green party policy’s ‘ . No faith in their local leaders.

  • Paul Pettinger 24th Jun '18 - 4:16pm

    Organising with the Greens prob made the difference in two seats for us last June and, if we worked better with them, a bigger impact could be achieved next time. In many cases it involves us better using a local Green endorsement, e.g. in lots of seats where they stood down for us in 2017 we failed to properly use their endorsement to make greater inroads into squeezing the third-party vote. I think some of the responses on this thread highlight the author’s concern well – we do seem to have a problem with tribalism that is holding back. I think our politics is broken if Liberals can’t openly work with people who make a speech like Caroline Lucas did at the march for a peoples’ vote yesterday (https://www.facebook.com/LondonGreenParty/videos/1754797384602319/?hc_ref=ARSizFTi-4kandb4_KhF7QAvRdhyGXO6pwK1VhXvupMjjKLd34_eNy0PHXJurF66JMw).

  • If we’d not had a deal with the Greens in Richmond, yes they wouldn’t have won any seats, but we wouldn’t have won 43 instead of 39, we’d have probably won somewhere between 33 and 36 instead of 39.

    Tribalism really isn’t befitting of a party that for some time has been in such a sorry state in the polls nationally.

  • Rob Parsons 24th Jun '18 - 5:24pm

    I’m in tune with the basic premiss that we should look for co-operation where it is possible and where we believe it will benefit us. I don’t think there is one place in the country where there will be complete agreement. The Green Party includes people who hate the LibDems, and we include people who hate the Greens. So there will always be stories along the lines of we made a deal and they didn’t stick to it. We hould trust our local parties to make agreements, in full awareness of the risks, where they believe it to be beneficial.

    I am most persuaded by the evidence of voters warming to us because for once it sounds as if someone is doing grown up politics – if we don’t take the risk and do it, how can we count on anybody else to help us?

  • Daniel Carr 24th Jun '18 - 6:12pm

    I think the real issue is that at some point it’s likely that such arrangements will break down. The LDs will do something that annoys the Green group in Richmond (or some other council elsewhere if co-operation spreads), and we’ll face a situation where we have to fight against the two major parties, AND a Green party that actually holds several seats on the council. Not a good place to be, as it’s not a problem we’ve had to deal with before.

    While that may sounds tribal I should make clear that working with parties post-election is something I’m very much in favour of. The Coalition was great in that respect, and where we can cooperate with the Greens or Labour locally to govern that’s good too. But there’s a big difference between that and helping a party that directly competes with our core voters to get into a prime position in councils we run and do well in!

  • We vote for ideas – there will be Lib Dems we disagree with based on their overall interpretation of the same ideals and members of other parties who share lots of the same ideals with one or two key differences – so if the choice is co-operations and shared ideas getting enacted or competition and Tories or Brexit-labour getting into power then surely former is more favourable? As long as the long game is for more representative system so this sort of behaviour is a short-term fix.

  • Graham Neale 24th Jun '18 - 10:06pm

    The Green Party can’t control its voter base or supporters, and if there is no Green Party candidate, many of their would-be voters are likely to vote Labour.
    That may be fine in the Shires, or the Celtic Fringes, but makes it more difficult for candidates in our urban, Labour-facing) areas.
    The Green Party can help us get elected in the cities by fielding a full slate of left-wing, deregiste candidates.
    For we Lib-Dems, the best way for us to win the ‘green vote’ is by having fully costed, pragmatic policies, like our ‘carbon-free by 2050’ campaign.
    (See Green Liberal Democrats website for more details)
    Green Liberal Democrats have been working hard to champion a sustainable direction post ‘Orange Book’. Caring for the environment has been in our DNA for decades, we don’t need other political parties to win on the Green Agenda.

  • Co-operation on the Progressive side has to be attempted. Compass have made a lot of running and improved outcomes in quite a few seats.
    This proves the public likes the idea. A coalition of centre left in Turkey almost knocked out Erdogan in Turkey, who had been a lot stronger.

  • Peter Martin 26th Jun '18 - 8:12am

    Lib Dems should know the arguments for these kinds of wider coalitions better than anyone. You won’t be ‘losing’ your independence you’ll be ‘pooling’ it. You’ll be better and stronger together. You might even consider ‘freedom of movement’ so that Lib Dems and Greens can attend each others’ meetings and perhaps vote at party conferences.

    Probably it won’t last though. There’ll always be some group somewhere who aren’t happy with the new arrangements. They’ll lobby to have things the way they used to be. They’ll soon be arguing to ‘take back control’.

  • Chris Bramall 26th Jun '18 - 11:38am

    We are a struggling party in a “leave” area, working to rebuild. We had an agreement with the Greens in Dudley Metropolitan Borough, where there are 24 wards, and one councillor was to be elected for each ward. Each of the parties agreed to field twelve candidates not opposed by the other. This meant we were forced to field twelve candidates (as opposed to five in 2016). We increased our vote across the borough by 60%. We increased our vote in our best ward by 30%. (Though once again no candidates elected.) Where’s the down side? But the Greens didn’t do so well out of it, so they may not be so keen next time.

  • This argument is predicated on the basis that somehow the Greens are “better” than the Conservatives or Labour. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Their political philosophy is at it’s core the antithesis of liberalism so should be opposed in that basis alone.

    Making pacts with a rival in decline is also bad politics:

    – it helps s bitter rival just when they’re leaving the game
    – it furthers socialism
    – it taints us by association
    – it drives the centrist voters who vote conservative with little conviction further into their arms when we need to be peeling them away

  • If the Green Party remains true to its name and focuses on showing the rest of us up on the whole gamut of green policies, I have no issue with working with them including standing down candidates because I strongly support these policies. So whether we work with them would depend to me on the clarity on their priorities. We clearly need a Green Party to focus almost exclusively on green issues despite our excellent track record in this area.

  • “To me, the most distressing aspect of the comments is the fact that some people seem to be so happy in their sense of belonging to our party that they view everyone else as the ‘enemy’. ”

    The Greens clearly ARE the enemy.

    Economic Liberals in other parties are our friends however, and we should be building bridges there much as we did during the coalition.

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