On “Remain Alliances”

Yes, despite what you may have thought, I do still have a blog. It’s just been a weird few months, and it’s taken literally all my writing time to produce the 5000 words a week of finished content (which comes from six or seven thousand words a week of rough draft…) for my podcast. But I’m trying to pay more attention to my writing other than just the podcasts, so you can expect more here over the next few months.

This blog post is actually one that Andrew Ducker requested I write, after I did a bit of a rant about this on Twitter. It’s something I’ve thought for quite a while, and as with most of that kind of thing, it’s informed by conversations with others — I think particularly Richard Gadsden and Nick Barlow, but probably a dozen others as well.

There is a common take going round the Professional Remainer contingent on Twitter — the people who sell mugs insulting demographics perceived to have voted Brexit, or who spent most of the first half of the year talking up the electoral prospects of The Independent Group Change UK The Independent Group For Change (name accurate as of 23:42, 20/7/19, no warranty made as to the future accuracy of that name), that if there were to be a general election in the next few months — which I think is unlikely, but which most of them see as a racing certainty — the parties that support remaining in the EU would have to make a nationwide electoral pact in order to have any kind of electoral success at all.

Now, on the face of it, that seems reasonable — even though both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are polling as high as they ever have in the existence of their parties, those poll results have never translated into many seats, because of the horribly unfair First Past The Post system used in UK elections. If there was only one Remain Party standing in each constituency, it might be that their votes would combine, and thus they’d win more seats.

There are some seats where it absolutely makes sense for one or other Remain party to stand down. For example in the currently ongoing byelection in Brecon and Radnorshire, that’s a seat that was held by the Lib Dems up to 2015, and neither the Greens nor Plaid Cymru have held their deposit there since 1974, when Plaid got 5.2% of the vote. Those parties have no chance of ever winning in that seat, and by standing down and endorsing the Lib Dems they are increasing the chances of a party that shares at least some of their aims winning the seat. In that area as well, there’s a local history of the parties already working together — the one Green councillor on Powys Council caucuses with the Lib Dems, and from what I can tell from the outside seems to work with them harmoniously.

And just in case anyone thinks I’m just saying that because it’s the Lib Dems who will gain here, I think it also makes sense that the party (as it did in 2017) should stand aside for Caroline Lucas of the Greens in Brighton, as one example. Lucas is far preferable to any other plausible alternative there, the Lib Dems have no chance at winning it, and we would just be splitting the pro-environment, socially-liberal, left-of-centre, pro-Remain, pro-electoral-reform vote there for no good reason.

But that’s not to say that the Lib Dems and the Greens are interchangeable — the two parties are distinct for a reason, and have different policies in a wide range of areas, and so on. But there are clearly areas of overlap.

But that overlap only goes so far, and more importantly, the two parties appeal to two different sets of voters. The Liberal Democrats appeal to radical left-liberals like me, but also to people who specifically define themselves as centrists. We’re definitely a party of the left, but we also have voters who would prefer the Conservatives to Labour. The Greens, on the other hand, appeal pretty much solely to leftists, and particularly to those who would otherwise vote Labour.

This slight difference in voter profiles makes a bigger difference than one would think as to when it makes sense for parties to stand down, and this is why standing down should be done on a seat by seat basis, and often not at all.

For the purposes of this post, imagine you’re the typical supporter of a Remain Alliance, in principle. Now I’m going to only really talk about England here, because I don’t know enough about Wales to know how Plaid Cymru fits in, and because in Scotland as well as the left-right economic axis and the liberal-authoritarian axis (which maps on to Remain-Leave pretty much exactly) there’s also the unionist-nationalist axis, and that complicates things again — those complications mean the arguments here apply, but even more so.

But you’re a typical English Remain supporter, and you consider remaining in the EU your most important issue. You don’t really have a strong preference between the Lib Dems and the Greens — you’d be happy with either. You *do* have a strong preference for either Lib Dem or Green over Labour, because Labour are a Quitling party, but you *also* have a strong preference for Labour over the Tories or Brexit Party, because Labour’s non-Brexit policies are closer to those you support, even if they’re wrong on the single biggest issue. That probably sums up the preferences of most Remain voters fairly well.

You want to know whether one party should step down to give another a shot? Well, it depends on the seat.

If you’re in a seat where it’s between Labour and the Greens, or the Tories and the Lib Dems, should the other Remain party stand down? Almost certainly. In a Labour/Green marginal the Lib Dem vote would transfer solidly to the Greens, and in a Tory/Lib Dem marginal the Green vote would go to the Lib Dems.

A Labour/Lib Dem marginal? There’s less case for it. Unfortunately there you have three parties fishing in the same pond, but the chances are that the Greens are taking more votes from Labour than the Lib Dems. The best option there is for the Greens to put up a paper candidate but not campaign. That way they’ll take votes from Labour voters who want to vote for a Remain party but can’t bring themselves to vote Lib Dem, but not really cut in to the Lib Dem vote in any significant numbers.

A seat like Manchester Gorton, where I live? A massively safe Labour seat, where neither Lib Dem nor Green did especially well last time, but where both have a convincing (at least to their members) claim that they could do better? Obviously, from my own point of view I would like the Green to step down and let my friend who’s standing next time have less competition, but from the point of view of the Greens there’s not much in it for them. Both parties would want to work that constituency and try to get themselves into a stronger position, so they could build on that for further campaigns.

The same would of course go for any Tory safe seats where neither the Lib Dems or Greens were the obvious contenders.

Then what about a Labour/Tory marginal, where the Greens and Lib Dems aren’t in contention? Surely in that situation both parties should stand down to let Labour win, especially if the Labour candidate is a Remain supporter?

No. In that situation the Greens should stand down, but the Lib Dems should put up a paper candidate and not campaign. Then, there is a Lib Dem on the ballot paper for disaffected Tories to vote for, but Labour, by campaigning when the Lib Dems didn’t, would make sure that all the anti-Tory Lib Dem vote still went to Labour (since the anti-Labour Lib Dem vote would by definition not go to Labour, how much the Tories can squeeze that vote is irrelevant to the decision).

So, right there, without much thought about it, we can see that a “Remain Alliance” is only going to work in one kind of seat (other than those with a Remain MP already) — those where the Lib Dem or Green is second, and where the Quitling party in the lead is one whose vote won’t go to the lower-placed party.

And that’s just looking at the elections from the perspective of normal psephology. You then have to add in the fact that the Lib Dems have seen a massive surge in support, and the Greens a smaller one. Then there’s the fact that some pollsters are showing Labour at their lowest polling in history while others are showing them comfortably ahead, due to different polling methods (I’m pretty sure I know which pollsters I trust, but they may not be right).

And then, again, there are the nationalists in Scotland and Wales.

And the unpredictable effect of the Brexit Party.

The next election, assuming it takes place in anything like the current political situation, will therefore be completely impossible to predict. It’s a chaotic system with results that will be completely non-linear.

That means that the only possible thing to do is to not try to be too clever, because that is likely to have counterproductive effects. Don’t try to have a national Remain Alliance, because it’s as likely to lose seats as to gain them. Instead, leave the question of alliances to local parties, who have a better idea of the conditions in their local areas than the national leaderships do.

And most importantly, remember when talking about this stuff — the Greens, the Lib Dems, Change Their Name UK, the SNP and Plaid are all different parties, with different policies and different goals. Those of us who purport to value pluralism should remember that, and perhaps act accordingly.

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6 Responses to On “Remain Alliances”

  1. andrewducker says:

    Thanks! That made a lot of sense!

    (And I shall try to wield my power for good. But I’m not promising anything.)

  2. David Brain says:

    I can’t disagree with that – but it is almost certainly doomed to failure simply because for “national” politicians to cede anything to “local” politicians would essentially require an admission that there really is no such thing as “England” (or “Scotland” or “Wales” come to that) and that what is true for one constituency may not be true for another, even one that is ostensibly right next door. (And, of course, the whole nationalism/patriotism issue muddies the water badly.)
    I do think that the 1997 Labour government came the closest we have so far ever managed to an administration that understood that, but even they were unable to force the issue beyond some (admittedly more than surface) first steps – and it feels as though we have been going backwards ever since.
    Still, if the next election breaks FPTP *and* produces a hung parliament (not a certainty at the moment) then things might suddenly begin to happen. I’m not holding my breath.

    • For the Lib Dems, at least, we already *do* cede things to the local parties. The national party can decide how much money to spend campaigning in an individual seat, but the local party is the only one that gets to decide who their candidate is, and if they’ll step aside for another party. That decision is always made at the local level, by a few hundred activists, not by the national party. To enter into a full-blown electoral pact would require the agreement of Conference that local parties could be overridden.

      (Reading between the lines of some news stories — and I stress that this is based on *no insider information whatsoever* — I would guess that at least one MP defection from another party has been scuppered because the local Lib Dem party has flat out refused to take that defector…)

      I believe that the Greens take a similar local-party-based attitude. but I have no idea about the SNP or Plaid, and obviously Change Their Name UK is entirely centralised in the hands of their five MPs.To the very limited extent Labour might factor into such calculations, they too are run from the centre.

  3. Seth Bayens says:

    I wonder if you would consider writing a blog that explains your preference totaling Dems to us outsiders (I’m American) … I find I always agree with your social and economic viewpoints, yet at least my left leaning ritual Twitter friends all seem to view the LibDems kind of like they view a Joe Biden -centrists that may as well just be conservative. It’s also often referred to as the Traitor Party. I suspect that you have a more coherent ideology than most, and UKpolitics is really confusing to me…

    • OK, here’s the thing.
      There are several parties in the UK, but the ones you have to consider are:
      1) The Conservative Party. Right-wing, ranging from moderate centrists to outright fascists, presenting as centre-right. Currently led by an egocentric fascist with bad hair. Think the Republicans, basically.

      2) The Labour Party. Moderately left of centre, but a big tent party ranging from a handful of outright fascists on its far right, through moderate centrists (the bulk of the party), to a handful of Trotskyists on its far left. Generally think the Democrats. Currently led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is basically a Bernie Sanders type to a first approximation. Generally present themselves as left-wing, but usually actually mildly right-of-centre on an absolute scale. Mostly interested in economic issues, with a voter base that is split between liberal leftists and the people who in the US would be Reagan Democrats.

      3) The Liberal Democrats. Another moderately left of centre big tent party, but smaller than the other two. A weird unstable coalition of people who are basically anarcho-syndicalists, some who would be very happy in the US Green Party, a small fringe group of libertarians, and a bunch of bland moderate centrist white men in suits who are exactly as bland and moderate and centrist and suit-wearing as any bland moderate centrist white man in a suit can be. Not usually particularly focussed on economic issues, but very focussed on social stuff and wonkish constitutional issues — pro drug legalisation, pro sex workers’ rights, pro voting reform, that sort of thing.

      Now, for most of the last hundred years or so, the Lib Dems (and the Liberals before them) were mostly controlled by the anarcho-syndicalist types, but for historical reasons presented themselves as centrist, while the Labour party were mostly controlled by centrist beige white men but presented themselves as left-wing. But in 2007, for the first time, a coalition of the centrist white suit-men and the libertarians took power within the Lib Dems.

      This wouldn’t have mattered so much in normal circumstances, as the party membership still makes the policy, but then came the 2010 election.

      At the time, all three parties were running on the white-man-in-suit, we-must-make-painful-austerity-choices ticket. No party won the 2010 election, and the only viable government was a coalition of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Unfortunately, with our leader at the time being one of those white centrist men, and with him picking MPs from the libertarian fringe of the party as his closest advisors, this meant that even when the Lib Dem membership were screaming bloody murder about it, the party seemed entirely too happy to go along with the Conservatives, for too little in the way of concessions.

      This allowed the Labour Party — which had gone into the 2010 election on a programme that was fingerprint-identical to what the coalition government actually did — to paint the Lib Dems as sellouts who were all secretly Tories (the nickname for Conservatives).

      As a result, the Lib Dems dropped, in the 2015 election, from 57 MPs to eight. We’re now back up to thirteen. Almost all the white men in suits and libertarian types cleared off and took jobs with think-tanks and similar, and left the anarcho-syndicalist types plus a bunch of the moderates. The Lib Dem membership and Parliamentary Party are both *radically* different from the ones from the 2010-15 government, and no-one who was in a leadership position then still has any control of the party. But the stain still remains (while the stain on Labour for, for example, starting the illegal war in Iraq, or cutting two hospital beds in psychiatric wards every single day for the thirteen years they were in power, is attached solely to their then-leader Tony Blair.)

      Now shortly after the 2015 election, the Labour Party elected its most left-wing leader in at least thirty-two years, and possibly in forever, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is widely despised by his MPs, almost all of whom *are* Biden-type centrists, but was hugely popular with Labour’s membership because he is, despite many flaws, a principled radical socialist.

      The problem with Corbyn is that, while he is generally closer to me on the major political issues than any other Labour leader of my lifetime has been, he has *also* always, throughout his entire career, been opposed to the EU, and sadly EU membership, thanks to the 2016 referendum, is literally the only political issue at the moment. The Lib Dems have been too wishy-washy on the subject for my personal taste, but we have always made clear that remaining in the EU was our preference.

      This has resulted in the Lib Dems once again gaining a lot of support, as we are currently the only large party in England and Wales properly opposing Brexit. But a lot of those supporters are moderates, because of the party’s moderate messaging, despite its radical policies.

      So:
      Labour — radical leader, moderate policies, wrong on the biggest issue, supporters mostly leftish.
      Lib Dems — moderate leader, radical policies, right on the biggest issue, supporters mostly moderates, but membership mostly radical.

      Supporters of both parties see the other as a great betrayer that is determined to see the country destroyed for its own short-term partisan gain. The supporters of both parties would *also* probably rather see the other get in than see the Tories win again.

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