Since Brexit happened, a lot of energy that was focused on halting our exit from the European Union has gone into a new project which can be defined as the “progressive alliance”. The idea is that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens (and in some iterations, the SNP) make a pact for each party to stand down in an array of seats at the next general election, paving the way for whomever got the best result there in 2019. This would then eliminate the problem of “progressive” votes cancelling each other out and the Tories being able to come through the middle in seats where the non-Tory vote is split between two or even three parties. Once this progressive alliance gets into government, it would then legislate for a PR voting system, ending two-party politics forever.
The idea is a terrible one that will never work. Here are the three main reasons why.
- It’s been attempted before and failed miserably
To be fair, it has only ever been tried on a limited basis as opposed to any large scale venture, such as something set across the whole of the country involving hundreds of seats. But the returns from this have been historically abysmal. The reason why is easy to understand if you try and look at it objectively.
Say you have a seat in which the Labour party stands aside for the Lib Dems because the latter came second and have a much better chance of beating the Tories. Just for a start, why would Labour people campaign for the Lib Dems? Fine, perhaps a relatively minor issue but this one isn’t: assuming that voters think like Westminster activists, i.e. politics is split between progressives and the evil right-wing, is a huge mistake in the thinking around this. I can imagine lots of people who might have voted Labour if a Labour candidate had run not voting for the Lib Dems but for the Tories instead. Or staying at home. The notion that you can just smush all of the Labour, Lib Dem and Green votes together in any given constituency and if they come to more than the Tory total then that seat would automatically fall to a progressive alliance is wrongheaded. It isn’t how people actually vote in real life.
2. Labour have no interest in this idea. At all. None.
It’s worth pointing out that at the 2019 general election, less than a year and a half ago, Labour sent activists into Finchley and Golders Green knowing they had no chance whatsoever of taking the seat – but realising that they could stop Luciana Berger from winning it. I say this not as some bitter Lib Dem – Labour were smart to have done this. You’re facing electoral oblivion anyhow, so why not stop the Lib Dems as much as you can from being a possible hope for non-Tory politics ahead of you?
I point this out to demonstrate how far from being seriously considered by anyone in the Labour party the idea of a progressive alliance is. It’s one of the very few things that unites all factions within the Labour party, in fact. No way do the right of Labour want to help prop up the Lib Dems anywhere. No way do the left of Labour want to seriously help the Greens build themselves up.
It is deep within the DNA of the Labour party that they are the only force that can save the nation from the Tories. This cannot be unwound. And if Labour don’t want to be involved in a progressive alliance, it has a zero percent chance of working.
3. Even if you could get everyone to the table and did everything as well as could be, it still wouldn’t work out the way the progressive alliance cheerleaders think it would. In fact, it would probably strengthen the Tories
Let’s imagine by some miracle the Labour party decide that their days of being a party capable of winning a majority at Westminster are over and embrace the progressive alliance idea fully. Then let’s say that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens manage to put aside all differences and then agree on which seats each one of them will stand in. You’d still have a massive problem – you’ve handed the Tories a huge campaigning tool.
The Conservatives can tell the country: “Labour clearly cannot win a general election anymore on their own steam – even they know that now. That’s why they have decided to try and circumvent democracy by attempting to stitch up the election between themselves, the Lib Dems and the Green party. Know this – a vote for Labour is a vote for an unstable coalition that has an express purpose – to change the voting system forever to their advantage.”
There’s a difference between someone voting Lib Dem in a Lib-Tory marginal because they don’t mind the Lib Dems and want to vote against the Conservatives and someone doing so with the knowledge that they are in effect voting for a Labour-Lib Dem-Green coalition. It would change the way people vote dramatically. And I think a lot of people would rally around the Tories at that election.
I understand the psychology around the progressive alliance idea. It is a way of avoiding seriously confronting the mistakes that left of centre politics has made over the past decade and a bit and instead pining it all on a structural issue. ‘You see! The problem isn’t that people don’t like us or our ideas! It’s just that the system is rigged against us!’ As hard as it may be, it would be so much better for non-Tory politics to move away from these silly ideas and begin to try and engage with the actual politics of the 21st century.