The following is an excerpt from my book “Apocalypse Delayed: Why the Left is Still in Trouble”. If this is anyway interesting to you, you can find the book here.
After the exit poll came out at 10 p.m. on 8 June 2017, the BBC interviewed several pundits on what it all meant. Zoe Williams of The Guardian was the first that night to bring up the idea of the ‘progressive alliance’, saying that a supposed informal pact between the ‘progressive’ parties – Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Green, Plaid Cymru – had led directly to the Tories failing to get a majority. It was a concept that had done the rounds of the left-wing press throughout the entire campaign, as if it was a real, organised thing, when this is highly questionable.
The progressive alliance was a loose (very loose) pact that supposedly existed between the main “progressive” parties at the 2017 general election. Who those parties were depended on where you fit within the left (and how much you disliked the Lib Dems and/or the Scottish Nationalists), but it definitely contains at the very least Labour and the Greens. Within a first past the post voting system, it is very difficult for smaller parties to win seats, and often a vote for them can be seen to have “taken” a vote from another progressive party, one that could have been victorious in said seat, leading to an “unprogressive” result (code for: the Tories win instead). An example of the progressive alliance in action was the Lib Dems not running a candidate in Brighton Pavilion in order to give Caroline Lucas a clear run.
Another two examples of the progressive alliance in action were Labour activists working hard to remove Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam and Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland in Leeds North West, in both cases successfully. The SNP and Labour also fought each other viciously across Scotland, Labour getting a better result this time from a repeat of the 2015 battle they had fought against the Nats. The Labour vote went up massively in the south-west of England in the 2017 contest; one of the first things you would definitely have done if you were trying to get a majority going for a progressive alliance would have been to have Labour step aside completely in that part of the country in order to give the Lib Dems, who have the data, members and activists there to actually win seats, a free run. All of this goes directly against the entire grain of the ‘progressive alliance’ narrative. Unless the Lib Dems, having gone into government with the Conservatives from 2010 until 2015, aren’t part of this fabled alliance, of course (a perfectly plausible claim), in which case the faux alliance in question looks to have come nowhere remotely close to winning power. On the morning of 9 June, Emily Thornberry said to media outlets that if the smaller parties wanted to back a Labour Queen’s Speech then they were welcome to – but there would be no discussions, no deal. A greater rebuke to the concept of a progressive alliance you will not find than that.
The real problem with the whole concept of a progressive alliance comes down to this: if there is so little difference between the parties involved in this loose alliance, why not all unite into one party and be done with it? It is much, much easier to prevent a Tory majority by consolidating the progressive vote under one banner, particularly in a first past the post voting system. The obvious answer is that not all of these parties actually are the same – not even close – and that the concept of a ‘progressive majority’ is a false one not just in terms of its actuality on the ground but even as a theoretical concept. This isn’t just because of the supposed small-‘c’ conservatism of the British electorate, either: it is not clear what defines this progressivism that supposedly holds sway with all of these voters. Is it about Brexit? Labour advocated a hard Brexit in its manifesto, stating that Britain would leave the single market and freedom of movement would end if they formed a government, so that seems a stretch. Was it just about wanting to end austerity? This is much closer to being a uniting factor between all of the parties in question; however, this isn’t as simple as just advocating more public spending, and all of the ‘progressive’ entities had very different ideas on this matter. This is particularly true given a few of them are strictly regional parties, and thus were often arguing for funding for projects that would drain money away from the centre, places Labour where might want to commit spending.. The Liberal Democrats were one of the architects of the current austerity era we still live in, having been part of the Lib–Con government which started it – again, you’re left with the problem of whether to keep the Lib Dems in or leave them out of this virtuous circle. Was it just that all of them weren’t either the Tories or UKIP? Sadly, this is the factor probably closest to being the real element of supposed consensus. So again, why not all just vote Labour as a way of preventing a Tory government then, rather than messing about with an informal pact that wasn’t even really an informal pact?
The main narrative of the 2017 general election, beyond Theresa May’s innate woodenness and the gamble that backfired spectacularly, was the better-than-expected Labour result, with that party ending up with 40 per cent of the national vote. That number does not speak of some sort of alliance between parties; in fact, it shows that most left-leaning people throughout the country voted for the Labour Party. The best way to demonstrate this is to remove Labour from the picture and see what’s left of your so-called progressive alliance: the Lib Dems took five seats off the Tories, while the SNP lost thirteen to Ruth Davidson’s party . No one else took any seats from the Conservatives apart from Labour. By my count, that means the progressive alliance sans Corbyn’s army lost a net of eight seats to the Tories. That, if I may be so bold, is a fairly poor showing.
Corbyn was right to shut down any talk of a progressive alliance between parties from the very outset of the election campaign. It never works, and it didn’t work again in 2017. Besides the fact that Labour have now within their means the ability to hoover up every left-leaning vote in the country as there aren’t many left out there to gather and with Corbynmania presumably still riding high, taking their revenge on the Scottish Nationalists along the way, they have shown time and time again that they cannot work with other parties at Westminster. The inability to get the Lib Dems to seriously consider a coalition with them in 2010 is a case in point ; the total incapability of the shadow Cabinet to even pretend to reach out to other non-Tory parties after the hung parliament in 2017 is another. Labour will try to wipe out the rest of the ‘progressive alliance’ as much as it can and furthermore, they would be foolish not to do so.
Mick taylor says
I have always opposed agreements with Labour, who only have one objective. They wish to wipe out the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens and will do anything to do so. They would rather have the Tories in power than share power with anyone else. Lib Dems will almost always be the losers of any so-called progressive alliance. Why those who advocate this political suicide for the Lib Dems can’t see this I fail to understand.
Jennie Rigg says
What Mick said
Laurence Cox says
The Left’s problem is Labour’s leadership, which has gone back to the tribalism of the 1970s. Actually a ‘progressive alliance’ worked in 1997 when Blair and Ashdown were Party leaders because neither of them were tribal politicians; Blair’s chief problem was the tribalists in his own party (like Prescott).
You only have to look at the 1997 results for the Liberal Democrats: 46 seats on 16.8% of the vote, compared with 20 seats on 17.8% in 1992 to know that this was not a result that would come about by all parties fighting every seat to win.
Citizen X says
Interesting line, but aren’t you conflating leaders, activists and voters? Seems to me that millions of people voted tactically in 2017, mostly for Labour, to help defend against a large Conservative majority and to try to soften Brexit. This was co-ordinated by the Compass led campaign, Progressive Alliance. That’s not an idea, its a strategy of sorts, which may have deprived May of her majority. The consequences are destabilising, but it has weakened her party. So how is that not an effective anti-Tory voting alliance?
Paul W says
Nick, I think your final paragraph holds the key as to why the ‘Progressive Alliance’ is a red herring (pun intended).
In many European countries the political parties normally divide into two broad blocs: a labour, social democratic and socialist (of different degrees of leftism) bloc and a ‘bourgeois’ bloc of assorted conservatives, nationalists, christian democrats, centrist agrarians, liberals and greens (the last two or three each of several possible varieties). Nothing new in that one might say.
But in Britain we don’t express our politics in quite this way, that is, socialist v. bourgeois. Instead, it is simply Labour v. Tory. The handy label ‘Tory’ often seems to be employed – particularly within Labour party circles here – in the same sense that the fancy continental term ‘bourgeois’ is used there: i.e., where the term ‘Tory’ covers not only the Conservatives, but almost everyone else who is not Labour and socialist as well. Presumably that is why some Labour party supporters refer disparagingly to their non-Conservative party opponents as Yellow Tories, Tartan Tories or even Red Tories. Take your pick.
There are various underlying perspectives to this way of thinking: e.g. a class angle – the socialist workers v. the capitalist (neo-liberal?) bosses or, perhaps, a moral one – enlightened or benevolent people v. misguided or selfish, wicked people (hence the ubiqitous ‘evil Tories’ tag). But the upshot for the Labour party is an exclusive, tribal and defensive political stance: If you are not with us, you are against us (and your motives are questionable as well).
While the Labour party’s ‘Them and Us’ outlook is bolstered by the binary operation of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, Labour’s exclusive mentality and defensive, tribal character helps to explain its puzzling reluctance or inability to reach out to the other ‘non-Tory’ parties – that is, those parties that are objectively close to it on the political spectrum – even when it might appear to be in Labour’s best interest to do so (as in 2010 or, maybe, 2017).
So Nick, in LabourWorld there are no nice, progressive ‘non-Tory’ parties to work with – only ‘Our People’ (who are all decent, noble and good) and ‘Evil Tories’ (who come in various colours and in varying depths of culpable wrong-headedness, selfishness or just plain wickedness). If it were not so unpleasant – serious even, at the present juncture – this exclusive, almost sectarian, socialist Labour mindset would be risible, if not actually harmful to the body politic.