Josiah Mortimer interviewed Green party candidate Larry Sanders, brother of Bernie, about his running in the Witney by-election, Jeremy Corbyn, and the possibility of a Green-Labour alliance in the next general election.
On 20 October Theresa May will have her first electoral test since becoming prime minister.
The thing is, it’s the not the most daunting of contests for her. The Witney by-election was set in motion when David Cameron announced his resignation from parliament last month, meaning the Conservatives are defending – if that’s the right word – a 23,000 vote majority over Labour.
The election then doesn’t so much come down to who will win: it comes down to the state of the other parties, and what issues they decide to raise.
Perhaps most interestingly it’s about what the parties on the left do, say, and look like in this new political context Britain somewhat uncomfortably finds itself in, given that the Conservatives have picked someone highly unlikely to cause a story: locally respected councillor and barrister, Robert Courts.
So it caused some excitement on the left when the Greens stirred things up by selecting Oxfordshire-based councillor and health spokesperson Larry Sanders to contest the seat. Yes, that Sanders – the brother of America’s own Bernie (or ‘Bernard’, to Larry).
And he’s picked his issues. For Sanders this election will be a local litmus test on the state of the NHS. But more than that it’s a referendum on Britain’s entire economic model.
In a statement launching his bid he said: “The major political parties are in disarray…The policies of the last 30 years, shifting resources and power from the majority to the richest, culminated in the illegality and greed which crashed the economy in 2008. The Green party has pledged to make Britain a fairer and less divided nation.”
Clearly that’s Labour’s current pitch. Or at least the pitch of the Labour leadership and membership. Which means the Witney by-election puts the spotlight on Labour’s divides – something the Greens are keen to exploit.
A key reason for that is that it highlights a core Green argument of the past year – that Corbyn’s Labour is very rarely local Labour. The politics of Corbyn are seldom represented within council chambers or through Parliamentary candidates. As exemplified by the fact that Labour’s candidate in Witney previously called for Corbyn to resign – something a Green source jumped on, telling me: “While the Green party is campaigning for an end to NHS privatisation and reversal of cuts to public services, Labour has put forward a candidate who has called for his own party leader to be booted out.”
Critiquing the very obvious divisions of Labour while also aiming to unite in a ‘progressive alliance’ is always a fine line to tread, but it’s an idea in vogue within the Greens at the moment, with Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley making it a key leadership pitch this summer. It’s gaining some traction in Labour too, though how it’s to work in practice, and where the Greens go next in taking it forward, is as yet uncertain.
I asked Larry Sanders if there were discussions about an alliance for this by-election, and the answer was in contrast very clear: “No there weren’t. They [the other left parties] all went in immediately, but the progressive alliance idea Caroline has been floating has been about a general election really – about parties standing down in different places. It doesn’t work in a single constituency.”
For Sanders an alliance is not something to be done for the sake of it: “It’s not that the parties align themselves, because there are huge differences between us.” Instead, it’s about “one particular issue, which is proportional representation.” An alliance, then, is a means to an end, a view reflected by Caroline Lucas at the Greens’ September conference, when she said proportional representation (PR) would be a ‘red line’ for any deal with Labour.
“I agree with the idea of trying to get PR in any way we can, because the current system means that 90% of the country don’t have any voice in government, because it’s all about the 10% of swing seats… Beyond that I think the parties should remain quite separate,” Sanders tells me. This is no utopian unity project.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but I don’t get the impression that, aside from necessity, the Greens really do want to get too close to Labour at the moment. I asked Sanders about his views on Corbyn – does he really want to work with him?
“Personally I’d work with anyone who is doing something that I thought was worthwhile, and some of Corbyn’s stuff is worthwhile. He’s been a very good supporter of Caroline’s bill to stop the privatisation of the NHS, but unfortunately only about half a dozen of his Labour MPs supported him in that.
“There are things to work with a lot of people on, and Corbyn has a lot of good ideas. But not all of his ideas are good” – pointing to, amongst other things, Dianne Abbott’s statement that Labour would not increase levels of spending on the NHS, something he calls ‘disastrous’.
Sanders gets to the crux of what is essentially the crisis of social democracy in Britain today: “There’s problems for anybody working with the Labour party — because we don’t really know who the Labour party is.” You can go further. Does the Labour party know who it is?
Perhaps Witney offers a partial testbed for new messages and ideas on the left, and for getting to grips with how Labour and the Greens might relate and talk about each other in post referendum Britain.
But so far little new appears to have come to light. And with the Conservatives likely to end up with an easy win, perhaps it is a microcosm of British politics at the moment — as news emerges of the Tories 17 points ahead of Labour nationally, and both Labour and the Greens battle within themselves about how a progressive alliance would actually work on the ground, and in the context of deep divisions. It’s a quandary for the whole left – and one that will take much longer than this by-election parlour game to untangle.