Tribalism, Joint Tickets, and Tory Rule: Does the left need a ‘Progressive Alliance’?

When the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Green party set out plans for a ‘progressive alliance’ during the 2015 election campaign very few people took much notice. The parties hardly compete with other anyway and were unlikely, perhaps with the exception of the SNP, to have much impact on who occupied No.10 come May 8th. In the aftermath of that election, and again after the Brexit vote, there have been resurgent calls for a progressive alliance to end austerity and remove the Tories from government. Many commentators are suggesting that the Brexit vote and the disarray in Labour party may spark the formation a new electoral alliance. If, how, and when such an alliance might come about is unclear, but many supporters see it as the only viable way of the left regaining power.

The most compelling argument for a progressive alliance is that it is the only way to remove the Tories from power. After two calamitous elections for Labour, the Conservatives – despite their slim majority – have a hundred more seats than the opposition. With the SNP dominating Scottish politics and the Labour leadership especially unpopular in the north of England, there is currently little prospect of that gap closing. Victory for a progressive alliance is by no means guaranteed. To polarise British politics, as such an alliance would, may push UKIP voters and some Liberal Democrats into voting Tory, leaving the left no closer to power. Indeed, few Lib Dems would vote to make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. The logistics of any alliance are then crucial.

Under first-past-the-post, the parties involved would have to either put forward a unity candidate, running on an ‘Alliance’ ticket, or withdraw from seats they have little chance of winning. The infamous tribalism of the left is likely to make this difficult and even if an alliance were to overcome these hurdles, it would then face the problem of forming a programme for government. Whether based on the largest party’s manifesto, drawn up by a cross-party panel, or painstakingly negotiated (as per the Coalition Agreement), any such programme could never please everyone. Despite the obvious difficulties an alliance would face when drawing up a programme for government, supporters can perhaps draw hope from the unexpected stability of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition.

The most prominent campaigner for a progressive alliance has been Caroline Lucas. The respected Green MP – her party’s only representative in the Commons – would undoubtedly be part of a progressive Cabinet. In fact, the Greens generally stand to gain significantly from an alliance. One million Green voters currently have just one voice at Westminster; depending on the logistics of such an alliance, they could gain upwards of ten seats and be heard at the top table for the first time. In seats alone, Labour arguably has the least to gain from an alliance – perhaps one reason few Labour MPs have backed the idea. In many southern seats, the Lib Dems are better placed to beat the Tories and if the SNP joined the alliance (surely necessary in order to form a majority) a Scottish Labour fightback would be impossible.

Another reason Labour MPs are reluctant about forming a progressive alliance, with some exceptions such as Clive Lewis, is that they fear it would split the party. If an alliance were to take power, its first act would undoubtedly be to fix our broken electoral system – arguably the only thing holding Labour together. The example of Spain however suggests that a Labour split may not be fatal for the left. Under a proportional electoral system, the Spanish Socialists (akin to New Labour) run against ‘Podemos’, a radical coalition of left-wing parties, but would have formed a government together had they not fallen just short of a majority at the last election. The Spanish example demonstrates the paradox surrounding a progressive alliance. With a fairer electoral system Britain would unquestionably have a left-of-centre government anyway but the system will not change unless the Tories are defeated.

A progressive alliance would be difficult – logistically and philosophically – wouldn’t necessarily win, and may be the end of the Labour party as we know it. It may however, be the only way to end austerity and prevent decades of Conservative rule.

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