When the Conservative Party is strong and the Labour Party is weak, leading ornaments of the British left often turn their minds to the creation of a broader, multi-party progressive alliance that could be mobilised to remove the Conservatives from office. The 1930s, the 1980s, and to a lesser extent the 1950s, all bore witness to such efforts. It has been evident since the 2015 general election that we are once again likely to face a lengthy period of Conservative government opposed by an unpopular Labour alternative. While it is certainly possible that the challenge of delivering Britain’s exit from the European Union might bring down Theresa May’s government, there is no reason to think that the Labour Party would benefit from a subsequent general election. So we find ourselves returning to the tactical and strategic dilemmas that were familiar to the left in the past.
Could a broader progressive alliance among Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and perhaps even Scottish nationalists be constructed to oppose the Conservatives? This special issue of Political Quarterly, edited by Patrick Diamond, Michael Kenny and Roger Liddle, brings together some penetrating reflections on how such ‘progressivism’ should be understood and operationalised as a political project today. Of the many valuable points that emerge from this collection, one theme that deserves initial emphasis is that there are in fact several different possible forms that a progressive alliance could take.
First, a progressive alliance could cohere at an ideological level, in a set of shared political ideals and goals that reach across party boundaries and provide a framework for cross-party co-operation in their pursuit. This is in one sense the easiest form of progressive alliance to contemplate because it is chiefly intellectual rather than practical in character, and because there is already plenty of common ideological ground between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and even the SNP. A shared social democratic vision of a more egalitarian, pluralist and ecologically sustainable society already exists and should be further developed (1). But in another sense, if such a vision is to have a political cutting edge, then it must also make more divisive choices between alternative policy options. Scottish independence is one obvious place where it will prove difficult to knit the SNP into such an alliance. Britain’s future trading relations with the EU, and in particular freedom of movement of labour, looks likely to be another significant tension within any emergent progressive bloc. Even at an ideological level, substantial differences of opinion will need to be navigated and reconciled.
A second form of progressive alliance can emerge from the grassroots behaviour of the voters themselves. Tactical voting against the Conservatives – unendorsed by national party leaderships – was an under-rated aspect of the electoral decline of the Conservatives after 1992. Similarly, the availability of a progressive non-Labour Party was critical in siphoning off voters from the Conservatives who for cultural and social reasons would have been reluctant to cast their ballots for Labour. The strength of the Liberal Democrats, especially in the South-West and in affluent urban constituencies, played an important role in weakening the Conservatives’ parliamentary representation. As we saw in 2015, the unwinding of this tactical voting helped the Conservatives to an overall majority – and the rest is history. This tacit progressive alliance appeared to function relatively well without any formal organisation or national political leadership. Indeed, the formalisation of this tactical voting through explicit advice from national parties might actually repel some voters who would otherwise be happy to support non-Conservative parties. Would all of the Liberal Democrat voters in the South-West still have voted Liberal Democrat in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 if by doing so they were participating in vote trading with the Labour Party? At any rate, as the Richmond Park by-election showed, the issue of Europe has now created the space for the Liberal Democrats to make some electoral headway as the pro-European opposition to the Conservative Party. The tougher problem is in fact probably going to be the squeeze that Europe will now place on the Labour vote: whichever way Labour jumps on Europe, it will alienate some voters who would otherwise have supported it.
Third, a progressive alliance could be embodied in a coalition government, put into place after a general election in which political parties faced each other in a normal electoral competition. As the 2010-15 coalition government demonstrated, British political culture is uncomfortable with such arrangements, though they are commonplace in other political systems. Clearly, though, if a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government could be made to work, then a Labour-Liberal Democrat government would also be possible, although the Liberal Democrats will doubtless now be more cautious about presenting such a deal as anything but a transactional business arrangement. However, it seems unlikely that the parliamentary arithmetic will make such a government feasible, in part because of the continuing strength of the SNP. The SNP, fortified like the Liberal Democrats by the Europe referendum, will likely be the third party in the House of Commons for some time to come. The prospect of forming a government with their support will thus loom over any post-election coalition deal. The 2015 election campaign showed that the opportunistic sectionalism of the Conservative Party and its press allies will know no bounds when confronted by this possibility. But it is undeniable that the question of how to knit together a coalition between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP is a daunting one and any government that emerged along those lines would be likely to be quite fragile (which is not to say that it wouldn’t be worth a try in certain circumstances in order to remove the Conservatives from power).
The fourth variant of a progressive alliance is the one that is most widely discussed, if only loosely and with little sense of the difficulties it entails. This is the idea that there should be explicit electoral pacts between the non-Conservative parties, perhaps with other parties standing aside for the best placed non-Conservative party in each constituency. This is very unlikely to ever happen in a systematic way, although in ad hoc individual cases it might prove to be a workable tool. Labour tribalism usually receives the blame for the failure of electoral pacts to take root and there is little doubt that a significant section of Labour opinion remains hostile to working with other parties. But even if we bracket Labour’s political culture for a moment, there is an important practical question to consider: would electoral pacts actually work as a tool for displacing the Conservatives? Isn’t there a danger – especially in the current political climate – that voters might perceive it as an attempt to rig the electoral marketplace by political elites (especially once the issue is framed in the media by noisy headlines in the right-wing press)? If tactical anti-Conservative voting was possible and effective between 1997 and 2010 (and in the Richmond Park by-election, albeit with the Greens officially standing aside), then perhaps electoral pacts might actually detract from more effective decentralised and organic efforts along these lines.
There is also a fifth possibility. All of these versions of a progressive alliance presume that Conservatives lie beyond the pale of such an arrangement. That is surely a correct assumption in normal political times. But the current fluidity of British politics renders much orthodox political thinking suspect. As James Stafford and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite have argued, in the fraught months and years ahead it is only by forging some common ground with dissident Conservatives (and indeed the DUP) that Labour and the other progressive parties can hope to influence Britain’s exit from the EU in a positive and internationalist direction (2). A future dominated by nationalist protectionism will offer little space for the liberal and social democratic agenda that has usually been seen as the focus of a progressive alliance. For that reason, the priority has to be forming an alliance that might stave off the most dangerously nativist outcomes of Britain’s exit from the EU. The question is whether those who excoriate political tribalism in others are themselves willing to work with old opponents in pursuit of shared strategic objectives, even if that new-found ally turns out to be George Osborne rather than Caroline Lucas.
(1) For a useful discussion of these ideological affinities, see L. Nandy, C. Lucas and C. Bowers (eds.), The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics, London, Biteback, 2016.
(2) J. Stafford and F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘After 2016’, Renewal, vol. 24, no. 4, 2017, pp. 5-14.