The case against ‘Progressive’ Alliances
It’s taken a while for me to get around to writing this piece. It could probably have been written at just about any point since the 2015 General Election, but up until now I’ve chosen to hold off. This was mainly down to the expectation that the whole idea of progressive alliances would have blown over quite quickly when it was obvious that there was no realistic long-term prospects of it succeeding.
Unfortunately however we are now 2 years further down the line and the idea is seemingly no closer to being put to bed, despite numerous signs that it is not going to happen. Here, as concisely as possible, are the reasons why I believe there is no realistic prospect of a ‘progressive’ alliance happening.
One of the most telling things about the progressive alliance idea is its failure to take any account of the politics of Scotland. The SNP won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland at the last General Election, 40 of which were won directly from Labour. In order for any progressive alliance to succeed in the current climate the SNP would have to be fully on board with it. That is not going to happen due to the simple reason that neither the SNP nor Labour have anything to gain by it.
Right now the SNP have one over-riding goal that takes precedence over everything else, even over gaining independence for Scotland. Their over-riding objective is to wipe out Scottish Labour, so that the SNP can take over the dominant position that Labour occupied over the last 60 years. Propping up a weak Labour administration at Westminster would go against every commitment that the SNP made to its own voters. You only need to look at what has happened to Scottish Labour since 2014 to see what happens to a party that goes into partnership with another party that they have spent their whole history opposing.
In ten years the Labour party has gone from being the major partner in a coalition government to being reduced to third place behind the Conservatives. If their slide in support continues at this rate then it’s entirely possible that they could be beaten into fourth place by the Scottish Greens at the next Scottish Parliament elections.
Conversely we also have to ask ourselves what the Labour Party has to gain from reaching an accommodation with the SNP. The only arrangement that can possibly hold any interest for the SNP is if Labour agrees to stand down in every Scottish seat. That would be asking Jeremy Corbyn to throw the entire Scottish party under the bus.
If that were to happen then Scottish Labour would be left with little option to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and strike out on its own. I’m certain that sooner or later a newly independent Scottish Labour Party would eventually have to adopt a pro-independence position.
In Scotland a progressive alliance is a lose-lose situation for all sides.
The Labour party has absolutely no interest in a progressive alliance. Deputy Leader Tom Watson could not have been any clearer when he spoke at the recent Scottish Labour party conference:
“I get frustrated on your behalf when some people – mostly, it must be said, in England – argue that the solution to our current difficulties lies in a “progressive alliance”. I can see how, on the surface, it’s tempting. How it feels like a shortcut to power. Because, the parties that supporters of the progressive alliance would hook us up with – are actually no such thing. And here in Scotland, you know better than anyone that nationalism isn’t a progressive force. The SNP are a party that willingly continues to impose austerity on local councils in Scotland. So trust me, I know what I’m saying, when I say the idea of a progressive alliance is an electoral dead end. The last general election should have made that absolutely obvious to us all.”
John McDonnell has also been scathing about the idea, saying: “I just think the electorate would be concerned if they thought parties were stitching up elections privately. I don’t think that’s the way forward. The way forward is to support and vote for the Labour Party”.
Jeremy Corbyn does not believe in electoral alliances. He has already clearly stated that he aims to unseat Caroline Lucas at the next General Election. For some reason a great many people seem to believe that he is bluffing, or simply talking Labour up, but that sooner or later wiser heads will prevail and he will be talked around to supporting a progressive alliance. How many times does the Labour leadership have to clearly and publically state that they have no interest in an alliance before people start believing them?
The Liberal Democrats
In November the Green Party leadership threw its weight behind supporting the Lib Dem candidate as part of the campaign to unseat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park.
And what was the Green Party’s reward for providing this support? Within hours of the result being declared Tim Farron publicly stated that he would not rule out going back into coalition with the Conservatives.
Doesn’t bode well for building a supposedly anti-Tory progressive alliance does it?
That leads on to the important question: what do we even mean by ‘progressive’?
One of the biggest problems with the ideas that have been put forward for a ‘progressive’ alliance is the failure to provide any clear definition of what its supposed purpose is. At various times it has been presented as a short-term, one-off electoral pact to force through voting reform and introduce proportional representation. At other times it has been presented as nothing short of an all-out coalition to prevent the Tories from returning to power. And that is a huge problem, because those are two very different plans that require very different strategies to succeed.
If the final objective is to force through the introduction of PR then there is no reason why those pursuing the policy shouldn’t be reaching out to Tories with an interest in electoral reform. Excluding UKIP from such a process would be bordering on ridiculous.
If, on the other hand, the main priority is to put together an anti-Tory coalition then serious questions have to be asked about what sort of policy platform would bind such a coalition together.
For me one of the most telling moments in the progressive alliances debate came during a panel discussion at the Autumn 2016 Green Party conference in Birmingham. The panel included Caroline Lucas, Labour MP Lisa Nandy, Liberal Democrat Chris Bowers and Neal Lawson of Compass. All of the panellists were united in the conviction that their various parties had to set aside their ‘tribal differences’ and work together.
Unity prevailed – right up until the moment the inevitable question came from the floor – ‘How would such an alliance actually work in practice?’ At which point it rapidly became clear that not a single one of the panellists could agree on a single aspect of how such a deal would function.
Try translating that into a workable parliamentary coalition consisting of at least four separate parties with their own, often directly opposed, political philosophies and policy platforms.
I understand where the motivation for this idea comes from. It stems from the hopelessness and despair brought about by the shock of an outright win for the Conservatives in 2015, and by the trauma of the EU referendum.
But that desperate urge that says that we must do something, anything, to change that state of affairs is not a good position to making policy from.
The whole idea of progressive alliances is not new. In the immediate aftermath of the Scottish Independence referendum people were desperate to find something positive to cling on to. Within a week or less all the talk was of a ‘Yes Alliance’, where all of the pro-independence parties (SNP, Greens and Scottish Socialists) would come together to fight elections and avoid ‘splitting the pro-independence vote’.
It never happened, due in no small part to some of the reasons I’ve outlined above. What did the SNP have to gain from such a deal? Nothing. It’s now obvious that they were more than capable of going out and securing an almost clean-sweep of Westminster seats without anyone else’s help.
What did the Greens and SSP have to gain? At most the chance to stand in a single seat without having to face an SNP candidate.
Of course in reality the truth is that a ‘Yes Alliance’ would have consisted of nothing more than an ultimatum to the Greens and SSP to stand down in favour of the SNP in every seat in the country. There is no reason to believe why discussions with Labour in England would be any different.
There has already been a considerable backlash against the Scottish Greens for continuing to have the temerity to stand for election. Despite that they have stood firm.
The result? In May last year they trebled their representation in Holyrood, and wound up holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. Ever since the advent of minority government in Scotland in 2007 the Greens have consistently maintained their own autonomy, refusing to go into full coalition with the SNP and using their position to win concessions from the Scottish Government.
And such arrangements yield results. Just a few weeks ago the Scottish Greens managed to pass the largest ever opposition amendment to a Scottish Government budget, safeguarding £160 million worth of local government funding across the country.
So which road should the Green Party of England and Wales take? Should we stick to our principles? Or should we do what John Landsman of Momentum suggests, and simply vote ourselves out of existence in order to become an ecological wing of the Labour Party?
Thank you for this article. I agree. The Progressive Alliance was a necessary idea, when Corbyn was popular with our core voters it gave us something to say to them.
But increasingly its a rod we’ve made for our own backs. It can slow down election campaigning and can make it harder to get good candidates. It’s a waste of energy unless there’s a very strong case for it in a local area. Plus it means when we do run people ask why.
We need to pull back.
I find this article unconvincing and full of despair. Of course, it will be difficult to overcome tribal differences. Yes, it’s clear that the Labour leadership don’t presently have an appetite for a progressive alliance. But there is a good chance that they will come round to the idea when they’ve lost a few more by-elections (assuming Corbyn survives those by-elections).
It’s only anecdotal, but many Labour members and supporters I speak to are tearing their hair out in frustration with Corbyn, McDonell and co. And many non-affiliated people are very open to the idea of a progressive alliance.
David Morgan doesn’t seem to be able to find fault with the theory. All he says is that people will be resistant. Well, we knew that from the start.
And to say that there is no clear idea of the purpose is simply perverse: there are different ideas of how such an alliance would work but the common intention is to get shot of the Tories and introduce PR. Let’s face it: either we make this thing work or we face another 5 years (at least) of Tory destruction. How much of the NHS will be left? Or the care system? Or education? The progressive alliance must be made to work.
Some important points here but taken in purely local contexts there may be some milage in agreements where they may overturn a slender Tory majority. The Scotland issue will not go away but with a Labour Party increasingly looking to adopt Green Party socialist policies there may be an argument for tactical strategies based on the local situation.