Progressive alliances and the missing Lib Dems

Richard Douglas

23 June 2017

The 2017 general election produced an unexpected swing to Labour.  Beginning the campaign 17 percentage points behind the Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn led a comeback which saw Labour finish on 40 per cent – easily Labour’s best result, in terms of share of the popular vote, since 2001.  And yet Labour still lost, and in terms of seats – where it matters – on a scale comparable to 2010.  To win a majority at the next election Labour will need to change the minds of numbers of people who have just voted Tory.  The risk is that an explicit targeting of such voters may disrupt the very emotional connection which Labour has just managed to forge with its base.

But is there a need to take such a risk, with all its worn out trappings of Third Way triangulation?  No, suggest proponents of the Progressive Alliance – the idea that, through tactical voting and electoral pacts, parties of the left can come together and win a majority.  At the recent election Compass hastily organised a series of barnstorming campaign events for those they identified as the local Progressive Alliance candidate, while the Greens stood aside in a number of seats.  Clive Lewis and Caroline Lucas have claimed that if this strategy had been carried out fully, Jeremy Corbyn would now be prime minister with a majority of 100.

There is certainly much to commend in cross-party communication and tactical voting.  But the Lewis & Lucas thesis – essentially, “One More Heave for the Progressive Alliance” – contains a good deal of wishful thinking.  The version of the Progressive Alliance in common currency, that promoted by Compass, needs more thought.

Compass’s Progressive Alliance

While billed as an anti-Conservative alliance, Compass’s Progressive Alliance is primarily an anti-Labour alliance from the left – anti-New Labour certainly, but anti-Old Labour as well, for that matter: anti-attempts to appeal beyond a liberal-left base, whether towards politically centrist or socially conservative voters.  Jeremy Gilbert, setting out Compass’s case for Labour’s participation in a Progressive Alliance, is explicit about this: Labour must only be a party for those “who aspire to a genuine transformation of the unequal and oppressive social relations which define our society”; and it “cannot be this and also be the party of Middle England, and also the party of working class social conservatism, and all of the other things which various pundits would like Labour to be.”  Even if this were the path back to government, Gilbert is clear it must be rejected anyway: New Labour was “disastrous for the party and the country.”

This Progressive Alliance, in other words, is all about gluing together the liberal-left vote – in practice aggregating Labour voters with those anti-Tories who would not otherwise, for whatever reasons, vote Labour.  But while further organisation of tactical voting in this respect may be useful at the margins, Corbyn’s general election campaign already did much of this job itself – hence reports of Labour’s “gobbling up the Green vote like Pac-Man”.

In fact, there is a danger that intensifying a Progressive Alliance strategy in the Compass model – for example, through introducing formal electoral pacts with smaller parties in a rainbow coalition – could backfire.  We would do well here to remember David Marquand’s The Progressive Dilemma, which argues that Labour has always under-performed as a party of government since taking over that role from the Liberals.  For Marquand, Labour’s traditional class-based identity has often alienated some who might otherwise have voted for it, but didn’t feel welcome within its embrace.

This might seem an odd reference to make, since Compass’s case for the Progressive Alliance shares Marquand’s analysis, as well as his admiration for the “the progressive coalition headed by Asquith and Lloyd George”.  In another way it is thoroughly appropriate.  The dilemma in Marquand’s title referred to progressive intellectuals: should they throw their lot in with Labour or not?  Compass exemplify precisely this ambivalence, often tipping over into outright antipathy to what they see as Labour’s unreflective tribalism – all the more unforgiveable, they argue, given the declining tribalism of the electorate.

But in this Compass exhibit a certain lack of self-knowledge.  While they have found a solution to their own progressive dilemma, and decided to throw their support behind Labour, they have sought to do so only on their  terms.  In practice this means rebadging Labour as the Progressive Alliance, in exactly the same livery as the “Greens, Liberal Democrats, SNP, SDLP, the Women’s Equality party”, not forgetting Plaid and National Health Action.  In doing this, the architects of the Progressive Alliance are running the risk that the pluralist (including nationalist) tail will be seen as wagging the Labour dog.  But this is no accident: it’s Compass’s stated ambition, in the sense of transforming Labour in its own image (as Gilbert’s pamphlet and remarks by Neal Lawson make clear).

The very terms of the Progressive Alliance are designed to remake all the parties subsumed within it in Compass’s image.  The very act of adopting them all signifies that one is above tribalism, that one is too pluralistic, ethical, and open (which is also to say, too individualistic) to belong to a tribe.  But the collection of such people who make up Compass are, of course, themselves a tribe.  This is certainly a different tribalism to the historic labourism and socialism which Marquand saw as putting off swathes of potential Labour voters in the twentieth century.  Yet Compass’s brand of metropolitan left-libertarianism is likely to put off just as many southern Tory switchers – and, what is more, exacerbate the alienation of traditional Labour working class voters.  In any case, there are surely limits to how far a Labour party appearing exclusively in this image can make further electoral inroads.

The role of the Liberal Democrats

The biggest flaw in the prevailing design of the Progressive Alliance is that its focus remains on aggregating the anti-Tory vote to Labour’s left, when Corbyn has already done much to deliver this.  What is now required is to detach Tory votes on Labour’s right.  Corbyn’s showing in 2017 is not dissimilar to Blair’s in 2001, when Labour won 413 seats; but the reason it has not translated into a similar landslide in 2017 is that the Tory vote increased, too, to 42.4 per cent (matching their performance in 1983).  In 2001 the Tory vote had subsided to just 32 per cent.  A key difference is the Liberal Democrats, who in 2001 attained an 18 per cent share of the vote.  For Labour to win a majority at the next election, then, it looks likely it will require help from the Lib Dems to split the Tory vote. 

Would this be helped by a different kind of Progressive Alliance, one specifically focused on a pact or partnership between Labour and the Liberal Democrats – the very thing Marquand and others were interested in in the 1990s?  Such a move would be fraught with difficulty.  Those who have viewed the combined support for Labour and the Lib Dems as evidence of a progressive majority have always overestimated the extent to which these were interchangeable, progressive votes.  Liberal Democrats tend to be more right-wing than such progressives like to believe – as witnessed recently by the extent of their second preference support for Tory mayoral candidates in London and the West Midlands.  What is more, this has been crucial to Lib Dem successes.  As Geoffrey Wheatcroft has written recently, since 1918 British politics has been marked less by a progressive majority than an anti-socialist one.  Any electoral arrangement with Labour, especially led by Corbyn, would risk activating this anti-socialist sentiment.

Perhaps it would be unnecessary anyway, as the conditions appear ripe for a rise in Liberal Democrat fortunes.  A new leader, the passage of time since the Coalition, and the muddying of political identities over Brexit, should make it easier for them to regain a wider appeal.  Furthermore, one would anticipate the existence of a sizeable pool of voters in Tory-held seats who would never identify with a Corbyn-led Labour Party, but who are ready now to desert the Tories given the recent hammering of their credibility as a safe pair of hands. All the same, it may be important for Labour to do more to reassure voters losing faith in the Conservatives’ abilities – not just to pick up votes itself, but also to make sure it is not deterring Tories from switching to the Lib Dems, for fear of letting Labour in. 

Richard Douglas is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London.