With figures across the left calling for an electoral pact between “progressive” parties, Antony Tucker says why this isn’t a realistic or worthwhile idea.
Over the last few months, many figures across the left have called for a “progressive alliance” between Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland. Prominent politicians, including Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis, have come forward and called for such a pact, in the name of hauling the Conservatives out of office. However appealing this may seem, the progressive alliance is a myth, one that is neither workable nor the way to electoral success.
Even after the Richmond Park by-election, the progressive alliance is not worth pursuing. The Greens and the Liberal Democrats working together is not surprising: both seek to represent a limited constituency of metropolitan minded, middle class voters, common enough in Richmond Park but utterly out of touch with the rest of the country. The result was a protest against Brexit, Heathrow and Zac Goldsmith’s racist mayoral campaign, which the Greens and Lib Dems as parties of protest were well placed to take advantage, above all in a wealthy London constituency. The Lib Dems in particular have a long tradition of winning by-elections, and then going on to prove disappointing in the general election. This is why the Richmond Park result is unsurprising, and further disproves the supposedly rationale behind a progressive alliance.
Firstly, who would be in this alliance alongside Labour? The Liberal Democrats do not belong in any sort of ‘progressive’ pact: they propped up the Conservatives for five years, betraying everyone who voted for their promises over higher education, taxation, electoral reform and pretty much everything else. And it’s not like Farron’s leadership will change anything: he would happily prop up another Conservative government. For people such as Lewis or Lucas to claim to be against austerity and then seek to ally with a party which is partly responsible for those very same policies is rank hypocrisy.
Equally, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party do not deserve the ‘progressive’ label either. In an age of accelerating separatism, when people all over the world are fighting amongst themselves rather than uniting to solve the real problems of our age – refugee crisis, tax avoidance, climate change to name only three – there is nothing to be gained by splitting ourselves into smaller and smaller blocs. Plaid and the SNP’s dogmatic belief in independence at any cost will bankrupt their countries and the price will be paid by the people, with corporate tax cuts being afforded by public services being cut back even further. This is entirely incompatible with everything Labour believes, rendering any alliance with the nationalist parties a recipe for infighting and mixed messages.
Lastly, why should Labour let the Greens piggyback on our party? Even if every single Green voter had backed Labour in 2015, barely a dozen or so extra seats would have been won. There would therefore be minimal advantage to co-opting them into an electoral alliance, especially if that meant sacrificing seats like Bristol West in return. Having garnered less than four percent of the vote at the last general election, and considering that Labour under Corbyn are currently between ten and fourteen points behind May’s Conservatives, the Greens are a force too marginal and unimportant to be worth allying with.
After all: who would want a ‘progressive alliance’ anyway? Remember how the Conservatives used English fears of the SNP to drive swing voters away from Labour in 2015? Or how David Cameron’s refusal to face Ed Miliband one-on-one gave us the six way “losers debate”, which only served to highlight how divided the opposition were and played directly into the Conservatives’ hands. Time and time again, the British electorate have gone for strong government, and will vote for competence over kindness every time. Faced with a choice between a cruel but singular voice from the Conservatives and a chorus of bickering figures from the left trying to agree to a compromise manifesto, the result will be continued defeat for everything we on the left support.
Labour is not a party of protest, it is a party of government, and it has to aim for a universal appeal, not the separatism of the nationalists or the handful of hummus-obsessed Guardian readers that the Greens and Liberals rely upon. Limited appeal is no way to win thirteen million votes and electoral victory, and the minor parties know this: in reality, all they want is security from Labour’s superior electoral machine, preventing any fight back in Scotland, Wales or the south of England. Parties can and will always enter into local agreements, but imposing some sort of cobbled together compromise from above will impress no one.
The truth is, a progressive alliance between liberals, socialists, unionists and social democrats has been tried in this country before, and it was superbly successful. But this was not some cobbled together marriage of convenience between different parties, but a big tent and diverse Labour party. When a narrow agenda is pursued, such as in the early 1980s, it cannot capture the public imagination or unite the party; but when all factions have a stake in the direction of the movement, every individual can put their strengths (be that business acumen, an egalitarian agenda or an understanding of the challenges posed by mass immigration) to benefit the common effort.
When Labour is successful, as in the sixties, the nineties or the noughties, it is because it is the best of what the left has to offer, mixing ideas from across the left to answer the concerns of the electorate and win government. Labour is full of diverse talent that could revive the fortunes of the left and the country at large: we simply have to create the conditions for a broader range of ideas at the very top, to better represent both the party membership and the needs of the nation. Britain does not need some vague link-up between self-termed progressives, but another Labour government, to reward hard work with decent wages, fight for equality and protect this country from everything that threatens our unity and our way of life. We know what the current failings of the party are; they have nothing to do with a ‘progressive alliance’, nor will they be solved by such a pact.