So after a lot of talking about “progressive alliances”, we see at least what Paddy Ashdown’s idea of one is, and… it’s pretty dispiriting.
Now, before I get into what I dislike, I want to stress that I am a strong advocate of the idea of some form of anti-Tory, pro-EU, pro-electoral-reform alliance. Not an electoral pact or, God forbid, a merger, but just an agreement not to step too heavily on each other’s toes when campaigning, and to concentrate on the real enemy.
Both Labour and the Lib Dems did extremely well by working together in 1997 and, to a lesser extent, 2001 — still campaigning against each other in seats where the Tories weren’t in contention, but making sure that both concentrated their efforts in different seats, using FPTP to their mutual advantage. There was also a certain amount of convergence on policy priorities — at least until Blair dumped the agreed package of constitutional reforms (Blair betraying people? I’m shocked! Shocked!). Incidentally, if he’d followed through with those reforms, none of the current political mess would be happening. Oh well…
And in theory, something like this More United campaign could be an efficient way of doing the same thing — providing funding, publicity, and most of all signalling for voters, letting them know who is on whose side. The problem is… well, the whole thing’s a problem.
The people involved include some with fairly objectionable opinions, and some of them people who have actively harassed friends of mine. So I think some of them, at least, are very far from being any kind of “progressive” I would recognise as such.
And there’s another problem here. Look at that list of people. This is meant to be a “grassroots” organisation for “ordinary voters”. Yet just look at them. Professional bloggers, Lords, media historians, “social tech entrepreneurs”. People who have their own columns in the Guardian.
These aren’t ordinary voters. They’re people who have never even *met* an ordinary voter, except the one behind the counter serving them their overpriced lattes.
More to the point, with a couple of small exceptions they’re not people who have any experience of actual activism, whether the protest-march sort or the door-knocking sort. They’re the kind of people who think being a campaigner means writing an op-ed for the New Statesman. I’m frankly shocked not to see Will Straw and Ryan Coetzee on their About page (and I’d bet that at least one of them gets a job with these people inside six months).
Just looking at that list of people involved, you can guess without looking any further that this is a group of “moderate progressives” for whom the word “moderate” is more important than “progressive”. They’re the people who’ve been in power for the last twenty years, who support Blair/Cameron/Clegg/Milliband-style “centrism”.
They’re not the people you need leading a progressive movement. What’s needed are people with experience of ground-level politics — councillors, the kind of activists who have day jobs that aren’t with think tanks, and people who have ever worked in fields that aren’t called something like “social tech”.
These people being the figureheads of a movement says that movement is one that exists to keep power as firmly as possible in Islington dinner parties.
Then there’s the “united” rhetoric and Union Flag logo, which seem designed to exclude the SNP, Scottish Greens, and Plaid from the supposed progressive alliance. Without them, right now, an anti-Tory alliance can’t work. Certainly, the SNP *need* to be involved in any attempts to build a “progressive” future.
Then there’s their example policies. Most are the kind of vague platitudes most of us could agree with. But then there’s the massive red flag of online voting. Suggesting online voting is the single most obvious indicator of clueless idiots who haven’t thought for even five minutes about the problems they’re trying to solve, but who are certain their first thoughts must be right because they’re important people. Anyone suggesting it is instantly saying “my opinions are worthless, pay me no further heed”.
There’s also the question of how it works in seats where multiple parties have candidates that would support their principles. I could easily see, for example, a Tory/Lib Dem marginal where the local Labour candidate signed up, and local Labour entryists ensured that funding went to the Labour candidate, leading to a Tory win. If you think that wouldn’t happen, you’ve had no experience of dealing with ground-level left-wing activists — as of course these people haven’t.
And finally there’s the rhetoric around “fighting extremism”, which seems to be “you’re all as bad as each other” nonsense. Currently the most extreme voices on the left with any kind of support are people like Corbyn, who whatever his faults is a democrat, fairly socially liberal, and with economic views that were firmly within the mainstream of British opinion within my own lifetime. The extreme voices on the right at the moment with a similar profile are people like Britain First. There’s no equivalence there. Arguing against “the extremes on both left and right”, no matter how moderate one side and how extreme the other, always, always privileges the more extreme side’s viewpoint.
If one side says “kill every child under the age of three” and the other side says “give everyone a chocolate bar”, the appropriate response isn’t to say “now you’re both being ridiculous! Killing children is wrong, and chocolate is bad for your health. Let’s compromise, and have *no* chocolate, and only kill children under the age of two. That will make *everyone* happy!”
Extremism, itself, isn’t a vice — that’s one of the few things on which I agree with Barry Goldwater. We don’t actually live in the world posited by Aristotle, in which virtue is finding the precise balance between two vices. Arguing that “both sides are as bad as each other” is a very good way to reinforce the anti-politics, anti-possibility-of-rational-solutions, burn-everything-down populist narrative that’s taking hold throughout the Western world at the moment.
Let’s just hope that when this is the inevitable embarrassing failure it already clearly will be, that it doesn’t sour people on the idea of cooperation between parties. Because that is something we *do* need…
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