Labour’s dire polling in the early stages of this election campaign has led to new calls for a ‘progressive alliance’ or tactical voting drive to defeat the Tories on June 8. Significantly, the Labour Party itself has steered clear of any such talk. The Greens and peripheral figures in the Labour movement, like Paul Mason, have spent the days since Theresa May’s shock election announcement encouraging unity amongst Britain’s progressive parties. The Tories, however, have been busy smearing Jeremy Corbyn and Lib Dem leader Tim Farron (quite reasonably in the latter case) in an attempt to press home their early advantage and win a commanding majority. What Caroline Lucas, Gina Miller, and others must recognise is that electoral pacts alone cannot win elections.
The majority of UK constituencies, and almost all those that will define the make-up of the next parliament, are a straight fight between Labour and the Tories. A two-party polity is a reality of the first-past-the-post electoral system, however lamentable. Given this, even an astonishing night for the Lib Dems in six weeks’ time would see them return around 20 MPs – current polling has them in the low teens under uniform national swing. The Greens can only really hold their one seat of Brighton Pavilion whilst most of Scotland’s 59 seats and all of Northern Ireland’s 18 will elect non-Tories*. This means Labour must win in excess of 230 seats to prevent a Conservative Commons majority. Research recently published in the Guardian shows that even ‘perfect’ anti-Tory tactical voting in 2015 would only have taken around 30 seats off the party; that current polling gives them a majority of over 100 demonstrates the scale of the problem.
All this hypothesising assumes however that the electorate would react favourably to a progressive alliance or tactical voting initiative. If we’ve learnt anything from the 2015 election (and I hope to God we have) it’s that the public fears weak government. The Tories’ most successful and sustained attack line two years ago was to present Ed Miliband in the pocket – quite literally in one poster – of Alex Salmond and the SNP. But Conservative scaremongering about a ‘coalition of chaos’ would be far from the greatest concern of a progressive alliance. This is a Brexit election and it’s that issue which most divides the parties that fall under the vague ‘progressive’ banner. The Greens and Lib Dems are intent on stopping Brexit through a second referendum, the SNP demand a special deal for Scotland, whilst Labour is accepting the referendum result but pushing for a close, new relationship with Europe. These differences simply cannot be reconciled.
Making an alliance work is more than a numbers game. There has to be unity of message and a similarly united grassroots infrastructure. Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election scuppered any chance of implementing an alliance ground-game; furthermore, it’s local activists who are often the most tribal and many would simply refuse to knock on doors for another party. The hatred felt towards Lid Dems by Labour activists is palpable following the Con-Lib coalition, especially due to welfare cuts and the broken promise on tuition fees. With no consensus on major issues like welfare, defence, the Union, and of course Brexit, canvassers would have little to say in any case.
To win seats from the Tories, individual parties need to devise inspiring policies which deal with people’s real concerns. There are easy pickings for progressive parties on the NHS, social care, education and housing and each party can make bolder, more exciting policies on their own. Having suffered under first-past-the-post the Lib Dems have developed a strong ground-game and have been reaping the benefits in council by-elections. Meanwhile, Labour’s hugely increased membership can be a huge asset if armed with inspiring policies. Voting tactically can sometimes work, but the Richmond Park by-election shows that formal pacts aren’t necessary; most anti-Tory voters already know who to back. Extra funding from groups like Open Britain and More United should also be welcomed but the parties would do well to keep them at arm’s length to avoid further claims of a ‘coalition of chaos’.
Progressive parties must retain their individual identities so that the Tories are squeezed from every angle. In a two-horse race, only the Tories can win but a Lib Dem revival, and Labour deploying its mammoth membership to hold seats could yet prevent another Conservative majority.
*the DUP do, however, side with the Tories on a number of issues, including Brexit.