With his decision to stand down 317 Brexit Party candidates – one in every seat that voted Conservative at the last election – Nigel Farage has clarified the choice facing British voters on December 12th.
On one side of this proxy vote on the biggest crisis Britain has faced in generations will be the hard Brexiteers, represented by the Tories. On the other, an opposition dominated by three parties – Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) – that lean towards remaining in the EU or, at least in the case of Labour, favours another public vote that would give people the option of reversing the 2016 referendum result.
Farage's unilateral decision – a party that purports to cherish democracy appears not to practice it in its internal affairs – to contest only those seats held by Labour and other opposition parties will help Boris Johnson's Conservatives, particularly in southern England and Scotland, where a split Leave vote could have created openings for the Liberals Democrats and the SNP, respectively. It also gives the Conservatives a firewall against a large Labour surge in Tory-held seats.
But whether Farage’s decision will decisively influence the outcome of the election is much less clear. A more far-reaching move – one Farage has so far resisted but not ruled out – would be for the Brexit Party to withdraw from Labour-held constituencies in the midlands and the north of England. That would turbo-charge Johnson’s push to seize Labour-held seats in areas that voted Leave in 2016 – the most obvious route back to power for the Tories.
Farage’s tactical retreat, designed ultimately to ensure a hard Brexit occurs at the end of January, highlights the failure of progressives to join forces in a way that would improve the chances of a Remain majority – or at least a majority for a second referendum – in the House of Commons.
Averting a hard Brexit – and, ideally, securing a second referendum – should be the priority for any serious progressive party
The LibDem, Green and Plaid Cymru deal not to compete in 60 constituencies is a step in the right direction. There are also a number of isolated examples of tactical cooperation, such as the Greens' decision to step aside in the Chingford constituency to help the Labour candidate's attempt to unseat the Tory Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith. But without the involvement of Labour, which resolutely refuses to step aside anywhere, any attempt to form a pro-EU front is doomed.
Labour's intransigence on voting pacts is partly a function of the voting system itself, which is designed to favour the largest parties and squeezes the smaller ones. Jeremy Corbyn therefore has a strong incentive to go it alone.
But averting a hard Brexit – and, ideally, securing a second referendum – should be the priority for any serious progressive party. In this crisis, Labour has one last opportunity to rise to the moment.