‘We divide, they conquer’:  Why Progressive Alliance is more complicated than it looks.    

Martin Stott

I come from a position of natural sympathy for the ideas set out by Compass over the past few years around ‘progressive alliances’. I was a founder member of Compass, I’ve been an active member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) and was on the steering group of the Oxford area Progressive Alliance in during the 2017 General Election. So Grace Barnett’s and Neal Lawson’s latest pamphlet on the subject of progressive alliances is welcome. Mainly because it is quite a bit more nuanced than some of the previous forays into this territory. There is much in it that I agree with. It is hardly contentious to observe that Labour has a mountain to climb if it is to win the next General Election!

What I like about this document is that it is well researched, and in the main, realistic. It pretty much recognises that Labour is a spent force in Scotland, and that winning a General Election without winning at least 40 seats in Scotland is an extremely big ask. It also recognises in a way that I don’t think that I have detected before in Compass publications, that there isn’t a simple read-across from one progressive party’s support to another – and that this applies to all progressive parties. Their voters second choice may well be the Tories or even UKIP (or its successors) rather than another progressive party. But I want to set out the case why Progressive Alliances aren’t all that they are cracked up to be by their supporters, and why this pamphlet too falls into a certain kind of trap.

I accept a few starting points. First, the SNP are a special case. They dominate Scotland – though the disputes between the ‘Salmond faction’ (more socially conservative) and the ‘Sturgeon faction’ (more socially liberal) have real political traction and could have big implications for nationalist politics in the future. But for now, a progressive alliance in Scotland is meaningless; it’s the SNP’s ‘manor’. Second, for the purposes of this discussion I accept that the Liberal Democrats are a progressive party. Actually my view is that there are a number of progressive members of the party, and that the party has some progressive policies, but neither the party nor its policy positions as a whole are naturally progressive. But they are better than the Tories – except when they go into coalition with them.

What really jumps out at me on reading it, is the focus on Westminster electoral politics. I know that fundamental change comes via a Government at Westminster, but the focus on the swings needed in various seats in order to achieve a progressive outcome is blinkered. It is not wrong, but it is only half the picture. The pamphlet does make reference to various progressive electoral arrangements in Scotland, Wales and in some contexts in English local government (p14) – but these are post hoc constructions, the result of the outcomes of elections, rather than planned and strategized beforehand. So my concerns primarily revolve around the granularity of the local, rather than the broad-brush of the national picture.

Parties can’t deliver ‘their’ vote to another party. It simply isn’t the case that political parties command such tribal loyalty that all their voters will do what they are told. Totting up the votes of progressive parties and then arguing that the result means that this seat would ‘vote progressive’, doesn’t hold water.  Standing in hopeless seats is democratic. The electorate is entitled to a choice in democratic elections. Many will be savvy and tactically vote for a ‘second choice but acceptable’ candidate under first past the post (FPTP). The chart on pp 6-7 show this with Labour votes being squeezed to 6% or less in a range of seats. But those 6% are never going to be swayed by apparently rational argument. Seats and there are many, where either the Lib Dems or are competitive against the Tories with the other party a strong third are quite common in parts of the country. The Lib Dems are very much in this situation in large parts of the South West, the Pennines and suburban London. And the Lib Dems exemplify the issue.  They build a local base through specific campaigns and a base in local government. Other progressive parties do this now too. Take David Cameron’s old seat Witney, apparently true blue. But Witney Town Council is now dominated by Labour and it is making inroads from that base in the district and county councils. Running a credible insurgent campaign for a parliamentary seat is part of that process. That is how the Lib Dems became such a presence in the south west.

Labour was criticised for standing against Lib Dem MP Layla Moran in Oxford West & Abingdon in 2017.But this is a classic case of why standing down is more complex than it looks from the perspective of a spread-sheet of results viewed from Westminster. The seat is more diverse that the name suggests. The fact that UKIP got some 5,000 votes in 2015 speaks to that. UKIP didn’t stand in 2017. Labour’s vote increased in 2017 and Moran’s took the seat from the Tories. How so? Because there were many, many Labour voters who tactically voted for her. At the same time a substantial number of UKIP voters returned to where they had come from – Labour. Can you imagine many UKIP voters voting Lib Dem? Many would vote Tory if there were no Labour candidate. Labour did the Lib Dems a favour by standing but not campaigning in Oxford West & Abingdon. They also protected their base in local government on Oxford City Council. Simply to cede one third of the City to the Lib Dems is a recipe for losing control of the city council and so in the longer term threatening their much safer seat in Oxford East.

So progressive alliances need to be seen through a broader lens than this pamphlet provides. The concept is not wrong in all circumstances, though it is worth reminding ourselves that political parties that aspire to govern for the whole of the country need to a have presence in the whole country. To stand down occasionally (as Labour and the Lib Dems did  in Tatton in 1997) is one thing, to do so more widely and then claim some kind of national mandate is trickier.  Paper candidates, sure. Common platforms on key issues that can lead to a post-election deal and encourage tactical voting in a General Election, absolutely. And campaigning to shift the narrative around what is both possible and desirable, vital. After all Labour party members aren’t daft – 76% of them support PR and over 150 CLP’s and counting have come out supporting it already. It is late, but the tide is turning.

Martin Stott is a Labour party branch Chair in Oxford East and a former City councillor.