Is a Progressive Alliance the only way for the left to win?

By Thomas Judge

IN BRITISH politics – as with most western nations – the broader political left is split while the right is united. This problem has caused many from across the spectrum of left-wing parties to champion a ‘progressive alliance’ at the next general election. 

The idea, in essence, is that each of the UK’s 650 constituencies will only be contested by a single left-wing candidate, ensuring consolidation of the vote and a more substantial likelihood of beating the Conservatives. Lesser versions see candidates only stand down in critical marginals, stopping the vote splitting leading to a majority of Conservative MPs while still allowing some competition amongst the left.  

For example, in Cornwall – a county which at the start of the millennia had no Conservative MPs but now has all Conservative MPs – Labour could give up St. Ives where the Liberal Democrats are in second place. The Liberal Democrats, in return, could give up Truro and Falmouth where Labour are most likely to take the seat.

The argument goes that with a clean shot, both seats would be won by said parties. It would also allow both parties to focus resources and activists on the seat they are most likely to win. If the Parties repeated this across the country, the broad left would be better placed to win a majority of seats and form a government. While it seems this would not have stopped the Conservatives from still winning in 2019, it could have made a big difference in 2017.  

However, the idea has never been widely enacted. The three main parties in England, Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats, have different priorities and different things to gain or lose in such a situation. Aside from simply beating the Conservatives, what are the aims of such an alliance? 

The Green Party of England and Wales are the party most likely to be used in the same sentence as ‘wasting your vote’ and consequentially face a constant squeeze on their vote by pragmatic voters. There isn’t much the Green Party could gain from a  progressive alliance.

They only came second in two seats, both of which have incumbent Labour MPs, and there are only a handful of seats where they got a significant share of the vote to be considered a credible candidate to take the seat. However, this hasn’t stopped them from being vote splitters in the past.  

There is no more infamous example of this than from the 2019 election results for the constituency of Stroud. Stroud had a Labour MP, and the Green Party got just under five thousand votes in the constituency, one of their best performances nationally.

Unfortunately, the Conservative gained the seat with a majority of just 3,840. While Liberal Democrat voters are more contentious – as they move in either direction, Labour or Conservatives – Green votes naturally move to Labour; therefore, many see this as one of the more bitter losses due to vote splitting.  

Co-leader of the Green Party, Sian Berry, spoke to Owen Jones about this result and the idea of a progressive alliance. When asked about the idea that the party should stand down in the seat in the future, she said: “Stroud would be really hard for us to give up because it’s our spiritual home… we’d exchange a lot of other things for Stroud” due to historical links with the place, despite being a distant third in 2019.

She said a “cast-iron guarantee where PR [Proportional Representation] was brought in” would be needed for Greens to stand down en masse, but anything else would have to be looked at more closely. It seems likely that any progressive alliance will be a means to change the electoral system to stop vote-splitting permanently. 

Despite losing seats, the Liberal Democrats did well in 2019, capturing more votes but not in enough specific places. If any party were to be a winner from a progressive alliance, it would be them. Although Labour would remain the best placed in a large number of winnable seats, the Lib Dems would be most likely to increase their representation the most relative to where they are now.

The working of this would also be mostly an easy feat. While they were rivals in both Labour and Conservative seats in the past, this is no longer the case. In most places where the party is strong, Labour are in a distant third. However, it is also highly arguable that if Labour stood down completely in such seats, those votes wouldn’t transfer to the Lib Dems, but voters would simply not turn up.

An example of where this, arguably, worked for the Liberal Democrats is the recent by-election in Chesham and Amersham. The Lib Dems pulled off a surprise victory in the middle of the Conservative heartlands, and while they clearly won over a substantial amount of Tory voters, the lack of Labour presence in this election, essentially just running a paper candidate, may have made the win possible. Similarly the Greens failed to run a candidate in the Batley and Spen by-election, potentially meaning Labour were just able to keep the seat.  

A significant obstacle to a progressive alliance is, of course, Labour’s unwillingness to participate in such an idea. In 2017 and 2019, there were minor pacts between the Greens, Liberal Democrats, and Plaid Cymru (agreements across 60 seats), although the difference this made is hard to see. However, even if Labour had stood down a handful of seats and saw some more reciprocation from other parties, the outcome of 2017 could have been very different. The Labour Party rule book states they must contest every seat in England, Wales and Scotland, so a majority of members would be needed to change the rules and allow discussions to take place with other parties.  

This phenomenon has led to some within The Labour Party now championing the idea. One of the most vocal MPs calling for this is Clive Lewis, who has spoken about the idea many times, saying to the website Left Foot Forward: “For me, it’s about how do we get out of our party-political silos and start to forge a consensus politics which is able to take on big finance, big capital the crisis of democracy and the climate and ecological crisis.”

While seen to be on the left of the Labour party, the MP has been the most vocal about working with others to solve big problems and establish and left wing government.  

He champions a progressive alliance primarily to reform the electoral system, also being a driving force in the party trying to get them to adopt as policy, something the minor parties (on all sides of the political divide) have advocated changing for some time now. He expanded on the idea with the sole Green MP Caroline Lucas and prominent Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran – on the need for an electoral pact to beat the Tories and change the system. 

The piece argues that under the current electoral system, the Conservative party has a majority inbuilt and the only way to break that is by first, Labour committing to back Proportional Representation, and then “through electoral cooperation that could take a number of forms, from simply standing back to tactical campaigning and voting.” Implicitly the idea would be that an alliance would win one election by the current system; the following coalition government would implement Proportional Representation. Then, the parties would go their separate ways knowing they wouldn’t be doing more damage to each other in the electoral arena.  

The argument for proportional representation has also gained traction inside Labour, with polling of Labour members suggesting a large majority support the notion.      

However, it might not be as simple as it seems. A key counterargument is that if you reduce voter choice, the electorate might react by bolting and not turning up to vote, voting for a right-wing party out of spite because they don’t like the idea of being played, or voting for even smaller parties on the ballot. There are those on the left who could not stomach voting for the Liberal Democrats, for example.  

Scotland and Wales also complicate things. Labour remains opposed to separatist movements, so co-operating with them in a general election seems unlikely. But vote splitting in parts of Scotland made a massive difference in 2017. Suppose the left had consolidated the vote in more seats in Scotland alone. In that case, a coalition of opposition parties may have been able to come together, or at least a second election much sooner would have occurred. Just over a hundred votes won Stirling for the Conservatives over the Scottish National Party, and Labour got ten thousand. 

Of course, another tricky point is who gets to contend in specific seats, giving up Wimbledon, for example. In 2017 Labour was closing in on gaining the seat from the Conservative, and the Liberal Democrats were a distant third. That has now flipped completely. By all means, this seat has a firm anti-Tory vote; that vote just isn’t settled enough to oust the incumbent Tory. Although Labour simply being at a table to discuss these things might improve the odds of an election pact coming off, consultation amongst local party activists being key.  

There is, of course, also the question of what a progressive alliance would stand for. If the idea is simply to form a broad coalition to make major constitutional changes – electoral reform, an elected upper chamber etc. – perhaps it could work. But apart from that, the Parties have some very disparate ideas on how to tackle big problems such as running the economy, tackling climate change, and reform institutions such as the police. The Liberal Democrats have taken part in a very right-wing government, so where is the common ground with an even moderately left Labour party?

If this idea is ever to become a reality, the place to watch is the internal wranglings of the Labour Party. However, as it stands, they seem unlikely to adopt any radical ideas, with those at the top perhaps preferring to be one of the two parties in a two-party system (even if always the losing one) rather than a force for improving representational democracy.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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