Every couple of years a coalition of left-wing pseudo-intellectuals feels emboldened enough to tell the Labour Party – you’re finished as a stand-alone party, it’s time to embrace a ‘progressive alliance.’ In truth, this suggestion of political self-immolation is one of the biggest current dangers to the Labour movement. And that’s saying something.
I have a great deal of respect for the General Secretary of the Fabian Society, Andrew Harrop, and his recently-published analysis of Labour’s current position is a must-read. Nevertheless, his ultimate conclusion that Labour should embrace a “partnership” with other centre-left parties is extremely dangerous and undermines an otherwise excellent report. Meanwhile, the LabourList piece written this week by the Lib Dem-sympathising chair of Compass, Neal Lawson, reaches the same wrong-headed conclusion without the caveat of Harrop’s thoughtful and weighty preclusions.
The case for a ‘progressive alliance’ made by Harrop, Lawson and several Labour MPs can be summed up as follows.
Premise 1: There is a progressive majority in this country.
Is there? More people voted for the Tories and Ukip at the last election than all other parties combined.
The First Past the Post system favours the right because the left vote is split among more parties. The ‘progressive alliance’ should choose one left party for each seat to maximise the left vote.
How about not patronising voters or assuming they fit neatly into the wonkish progressive alliance framework? How do you decide which party challenges the right in each seat – are parties’ popularities fixed? If this strategy were used, how would the makeup of the progressive alliance government then be calculated? How about considering that, when voters want to vote for a progressive alliance, they do – like from 1997 to 2005 when they voted en masse for Labour where we had the best chance of winning, and the Lib Dems where they had the best chance?
Conclusion (based on premise 1 and premise 2): a progressive alliance has the best chance of delivering progressive governance and should be supported for both moral and tactical reasons.
I’ve dealt with this above.
There is a more basic point here, too – and this is that the other parties that would likely be included in the progressive alliance are not really progressive at all. I wrote only recently about how the Lib Dems are false prophets. People do have short memories in politics, but it was little over a year ago that the Lib Dems were propping up a very right-wing, pro-austerity Tory government. So Jeremy Corbyn was right to say, when asked recently whether he would support a progressive alliance, “I don’t see what’s progressive about them.”
The SNP, on the other hand, are so progressive that they’re currently pursuing their own brand of Scottish austerity, while simultaneously destroying educational opportunities for Scotland’s youth. The IFS calculated that Labour’s 2015 manifesto was significantly more left-wing than the SNP’s, and that’s before one considers that the SNP deliberately ramped up fear about an SNP-Labour coalition in 2015 in order to hamper the Labour vote in England. The last thing the SNP would want to do is damage their fake anti-establishment brand by teaming up with Labour in Westminster, which is why Nicola Sturgeon menaced English voters by saying, “We will lock the Tories out of power.” They were Tartan Tories then, and they are Tartan Tories now.
As for the Greens, it’s difficult to see why anyone considers a party whose official policy is to bring economic growth down is in any way progressive. Perhaps strangely, I believe that progressives should support economic growth in order to provide the necessary conditions to spread wealth and outcomes. It’s also worth bearing in mind that had the Greens not stood their purist candidates in Tory-Labour marginals across England in 2015, the votes they took away from Labour would probably have prevented a Tory majority, and the fabled progressive alliance could have mustered in a coalition in Parliament.
I have the good fortune of having friends in all of the major political parties in this country. Of the SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems I know, one thing unifies them – they are obsessed with, and fuelled by, their hatred of the Labour Party. This is because (although this is less true of the Lib Dems), they find it far easier to take votes off Labour than they do off the Tories. Where they are up against Labour, they deliberately and misleadingly cast themselves as more left-wing than us in a cynical ploy to tempt traditional Labour voters their way. In the case of the dear old Lib Dems, this came back to haunt them when they ended up governing well to the right of Labour in coalition with the Tories.
All of this brings us back to the First-Past-The-Post voting system, which is inherently resistant to alliances between political parties. FPTP is the reason we’ve had so few coalitions in this country and why both the Tory and Labour churches are quite so broad. Were the voting system to be changed to a form of proportional representation at any point in the near future (unlikely given how recently and resoundingly the more modest proposal of AV was rejected by the British people), a continental-style progressive alliance might make sense.
In the current climate, however, where Labour needs to aggressively defends its territory and identity in the face of populism and anti-politics rhetoric, Labour thinkers flirting with the wolves in sheep’s clothing lurking in the other so-called ‘progressive’ parties would do well to remember the words of the great hero of Labour’s left, Aneurin Bevan, when the love of his life, Jennie Lee, told him that she was on the verge of leaving Labour to join the Independent Labour Party.
In words Jennie Lee wrote down and published, Bevan told her in a blaze of socialist fervour: “I tell you it is the Labour Party or nothing … and I am by no means convinced that something cannot be made of it!” Jennie Lee remained in the Labour Party thereafter and, a few years later, she founded the Open University, not long after Bevan had founded the National Health Service. Indeed, more good came out of that particular progressive alliance than would ever come out of an alliance with parties that exist to take votes away from Labour.