Progressive alliances are a dead end approach for the Greens
People are not lego. That’s not an original thought. Yet, to some progressive logic, voters are. So – the argument goes – you can easily put the green and yellow-orangey bricks onto red bricks and make that tower higher than the blue ones.
Yet are they? No.
I’m definitely not the first to question the Progressive Alliance theory – Martin Farley wrote a data based assessment of Greens stepping down for other parties in the 2019 general election, which suggested this approach helped the Tories. Shahrar Ali is the only Green Party leadership candidate to rule it out completely (a stopped clock can be right twice a day). I suppose I’m going to do so differently. I’m going to use historiography, partly to feel clever, partly due to its importance.
A lot of socialists and progressives generally treat history like they treat their favourite band: listening to the greatest hits, mythologising them, and then try and repeat it. ‘Now that’s what I call social progress ‘21!’, so to speak. We forget they were made and done in different times, a different context with different factors, and that how we interpret these ‘proto-Progressive Alliances’ isn’t neutral but part of our perspective, however defined, individual and theoretical that is. By calling them ‘proto-Progressive Alliances’, I have framed them, leading you to perceive them as such already. You could counter that, I want you to. I want you to challenge these constructions.
A problem with the current ‘Progressive Alliance’ is what it’s unified around, even in its current semi-theoretical state. Being ‘anti-Tory’ is many things, but it isn’t well defined. It states what it opposes, clearly, but not much else. If anything, it actually helps the Conservatives. By reinforcing and actually furthering the ‘left/right’ spectrum, we fall into rhetorical traps like ‘coalition of chaos’, in the process alienating some of our electoral base. Contrast this to the 1906 ‘Lib-Lab Pact’ which, openly united behind free trade, managed to result in the first of four ‘not Conservative’ landslide majorities. The contexts again are very different, but the point stands: a ‘Progressive Alliance’ in 1906 overcame the issue of ‘three-cornered contests’ in a society only really familiar with two party politics. 2021, in addition to having (near) universal suffrage, is different. We have a weak main opposition utterly committed to Tory constructions, from the idea of ‘the mainstream, normal voter’ to the ‘red wall’; a press owned almost entirely by Conservative donors, and rather than only two or three parties for voters to choose from, the average is about five per constituency.
‘Progressive Alliances’ and their grandiose appeal, when not using bad electoral maths that infantilises voter intelligence, rely on grand narratives which grandly simplify the electoral landscape. The idea that even the most regressive party on a local level, for local parties pick the candidates usually, is always the Tories is a denial of experience lived by Northern Greens in places like Manchester, where allegations of bullying and intimidation, as well as anti-homeless policies, abound. But that would be inconvenient for the simplistic binary a Progressive Alliance simplistically reinforces.
Nor does 1906 (and onwards), in spite of its success, really provide a stunning model either. The problem with focusing on the Wikipedia page of national election results is that it obscures local dimensions. Electoral alliances in Manchester for example became unsustainable due to the clashing party cultures between Liberal and Labour. Nor is this simply a ‘progressive’ issue. The Unionist alliance of Conservative and Liberal Unionists only succeeded by hollowing out the latter to the extent they were indistinguishable by 1903. Hence why you have a Conservative & Unionist Party today. So either a ‘Progressive Alliance, today tears itself apart, or it means we are absorbed into Labour; the very thing the ecological and social movements of the late 60s and early 70s realised would be the death knell for effective action.
What’s the alternative?
Instead, I propose we combine a positive campaigning spirit and message with pushing the rather terrifying reality of the climate crisis to the fore. If the Conservatives can win elections on an antisocialist appeal to scared potential Liberal voters for the last century, then why not do a more ethical and honest appeal to everyone on the same premise?
What people forget is that one of the most successful Green campaigns (and under FPTP!) of all time, the 1989 European election, was based on appealing to existential fear, rather than hope. Green performance was most strong in what was the Tory rural heartlands. The 1989 party election broadcast saw children talking about the evils of pollution, pesticides, and slime, intercut with black slides with writing, stating how the Greens would address it. Perhaps it’s due to the British electorate being more motivated by fear than anything else. Perhaps it struck home that children were talking rather than those do-gooder politicians.
Perhaps it wouldn’t work as well today. It’d be either parodied on YouTube or GB News would decry how that woke child is being covered in brown slime, and how brown slime is being politicised by those Eco-Marxist zealots. It may not have broken through a media landscape where the spectre of alpacas looms over us more than the IPCC report. I suppose the main takeaway is, fundamentally, it worked: the Tories were so scared of the Green menace that they started talking about the environment. While George Monbiot has rightly stressed the limits of this, and by no means we should green-wash the Conservatives (they do enough of that themselves), it suggests that 1989 was the ‘tip of the iceberg’: that we can scare the big parties into action. So why would we regiment ourselves into a pact with Labour?
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Image credit: Bristol Green Party – Creative Commons