There’s been a lot of talk recently about how what is needed to defeat the Tories is a “progressive alliance”, between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP, and presumably the Monster Raving Loony Party and anyone else who isn’t a Tory or Kipper.
Now, in some senses, this is trivially true. While predicting the political situation at the next election is a fool’s errand (literally no-one would have predicted in 2010 that at the end of 2015 the Lib Dems would be a rump of eight MPs, the SNP would be Britain’s third biggest party, and Labour would be led by Jeremy Corbyn) it’s true that if polls remain as they are, the chances of Labour getting an overall majority next time are slim.
It’s also true that a big part of the reason for the Tory majority is because of “tactical unwind”. With the distrust between the Labour and Lib Dem parties last time, Labour voters stopped voting tactically for Lib Dems in Lib Dem/Tory marginals — this happened enough that it’s responsible in itself for at least a dozen Tory gains in formerly Lib Dem seats.
So a progressive alliance sounds, at first thought, like a nice idea. But the problem is that too many of the people talking about it are talking about a formal alliance, with a joint programme of government.
This is, simply, an absurdity. Unfortunately, a binary idea of “goodies” and “baddies” is baked into our electoral system, and as a result there’s a tendency for people to see everything in those terms. Fundamentally, the Lib/Labbery that says “why don’t all the goodies work together?” is the same as the claims that the Lib Dems were “really Tories” for much of the last few years. All the so-called “progressive” parties have different aims, and different proposed methods of achieving those aims.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour wants to reopen the coal mines — the Greens want to move to a zero-carbon economy. The Lib Dems want a federal UK with more devolution but also tighter integration with Europe — the SNP want an independent Scotland, while Corbyn wants less connection with Europe.
And so on.
The problem is that political parties are already coalitions of different interests. As Iain Donaldson (a former local councilor and current chair of my local party) put it in a comment on Lib Dem Voice recently:
The Labour Party is an authoritarian coalition of greens, socialists,
conservatives and liberals (though the latter have had no real impact
on the party in 70 years); the Liberal Democrats are a liberal
coalition of liberals, chartists, communists, social democrats, greens
and libertines, and the Conservatives are an authoritarian coalition of
national liberals, conservatives and isolationists.
To try to bring several of these large coalitions together under one banner is bound to be a problem. Many of the small groupings within those coalitions already feel underrepresented — to ask them to water down their goals even further is to ask many of them to give up on electoral politics altogether.
But on the other hand, it is true that the average Lib Dem, Green, Labour, and SNP voter are all closer to each other than they are to the average UKIP or Tory voter. And that the interests of all those parties *would* be better served by defeating the Tories.
The solution, I believe, is not a formal alliance, but local non-aggression pacts. It would be ridiculous, for example, to say that a Lib Dem supporter in Manchester Withington should vote Labour to keep out the Tories — the Tories are a very distant third there, and the battle there is between probably the most left-wing former Lib Dem MP and a right-of-centre Labour politician.
There is a huge geographical component to the problems with our politics, which is very rarely acknowledged, and that is that the Labour party in the post-industrial north is a totally different party to the Labour of the south (and especially the south-east). In the urban north, where the Conservatives haven’t been a political force for generations, Labour are the small-c conservative party, not the “progressive” party, and it makes no sense for non-Labour progressives not to continue to fight them. Can anyone see Simon Danczuk as part of a progressive *anything*?
And of course, in Scotland, in the vast majority of seats it doesn’t matter who wins if your only goal is “get the Tories out”, because the Tories aren’t going to win there *anyway*.
So any non-aggression pact should be limited, and small-scale. It should cover, basically, “middle England” — those parts of the country where there are plenty of Labour/Tory or Lib Dem/Tory marginals, and where tactical unwind ended up losing both Labour and the Lib Dems seats to the Tories in 2015. There, it makes sense for those parties not to campaign too hard — and it might also make sense for them to not campaign too hard in Brighton, where the Greens have their only Parliamentary representation, in return for the Greens not campaigning in those marginals too.
But this should be very limited cooperation. It shouldn’t go so far as not standing candidates, or be on any formal basis. There should just be, as there was in 1997 (when both Labour and the Lib Dems made their greatest gains in history to that point) a nod-and-wink acknowledgement that we all know who the most important enemy is.
But what we shouldn’t do is go back to the behind-the-scenes planning of 1997 — the Blair/Ashdown “project”. Their aim was merger of the two major non-Tory parties, to heal what they saw as a damaging split. This is a nonsense.
Rather, we should be looking at ensuring that, if anything, a larger number of parties get representation, and a larger number of views get heard, rather than encouraging two blocs of goodies and baddies. For this reason, I think the single biggest thing those Labour supporters who want a progressive alliance can do to make one happen is to push for their party to support STV, so if there *is* any kind of nod-and-wink electoral agreement, it will be the last time we ever have to do this.
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