The Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru announced on Thursday that they won’t be standing candidates against each other in some seats at the general election. The pact is styled as a “remain alliance”, with the stated aim of maximising the number of anti-Brexit MPs in the next parliament.
Under the agreement the Greens will get a free run in 10 seats, the Lib Dems in 43, and Plaid Cymru in 7.
Announcing the pact yesterday, Jo Swinson said: “I am delighted that this arrangement will help elect more pro-Remain MPs in the next Parliament. In the 43 seats agreed today, as well as hundreds more across the country, it is clear that the Liberal Democrats are the strongest party of Remain. A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to stop Brexit, so that we can invest the £50 billion Remain bonuses in our public services and build a brighter future.”
It’s not surprising that the Liberal Democrats are “delighted”. The “pact” essentially consists of the Lib Dems agreeing to allow Caroline Lucas to retain her Brighton constituency and other Greens to contest several other seats which are totally unwinnable by either Greens or Lib Dems, without Lib Dem opposition. In return, the Greens will not have candidates in a great many more seats where the Lib Dems stand a chance of winning.
Some Remainers, though, have not responded to the news with glee. The majority of the 60 seats being targeted are held by Labour MPs – many of them with strong Remain credentials – and these politicians and their supporters worry that the pact will end up splitting the Remain vote in places where the Conservatives are currently in second place.
Bristol West, for example, is held by Thangam Debbonaire, a Remainer who actually rebelled against the Labour whip so she could vote against triggering Article 50. Even the most ardent revoker could hardly object to her presence in Parliament, and one would imagine they would be clamouring to rally around her. And yet, for the purposes of this pact, she is treated as just as much of a rival to the cause as her Brexiteer Tory opponent.
Stroud is another interesting choice: the seat is highly marginal between Labour and the Conservatives, and the Labour MP David Drew is on record as supporting a Final Say referendum. Last time he managed to oust the Conservatives incumbent by just 600 votes. The Greens, who will get a clear run at the seat under the agreement, won just 2.2 per cent in 2017. Of course, Labour will hope that they’ll be able to mop up the 2,000 or so Lib Dem votes and increase their majority – and that’s possible. But there’s also the chance that a chunk of those Lib Dems will move over to the Tories and turn the seat blue. Surely a true Remain Alliance would be unwilling to take that risk?
There a few seats on the list they’ve published where the result is close enough and one of the parties is second and one of the other parties stood last time where this alliance could obviously make a difference. In Cheltenham, for example the Lib Dems are only 2,500 votes behind the Tories. But in the vast majority of the 60 seats, it’s not quite so clear cut.
Given that elections are all about momentum, one can see why Jo Swinson was so keen to strike this deal. The chattering classes were already talking excitedly about a Lib Dem resurgence, and this dramatic sounding pact has only increased that talk.
But if the crusading new Lib Dem leader is serious about “stopping Brexit”, she has made a strategic mistake. Instead of pontificating about the importance of electoral pacts, she should have quietly pulled her candidates out of seats where Labour candidates with serious Remain credentials are under threat from Brexiteer Tories.
Strangely, though, her desire to “put party politics aside” for the good of the country doesn’t seem to stretch quite that far…