A Progressive Alliance: The Radical Case

Jeremy Gilbert

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Our Past and Present Reality

Although the Labour Party has existed for over a century, only once have we actually come from opposition to win a convincing parliamentary majority. No, it was not in 1945, when Labour had been part of the wartime coalition government for 5 years already. The only time we have won a convincing mandate from opposition was in 1997.

In order to secure that victory, we had to win over the press and many powerful corporate allies, by promising to implement a programme which would never challenge their interests. And so once in government, we did just that. We let the inequality gap grow and the  industrial regions rust, because anything else would have been too  expensive, and would have challenged the agenda of the City. And now we can all see where that has led: Brexit, and a 16% poll lead for the Tories.

Let’s be clear what that means today. We have lost Scotland. The Tories are dominant and UKIP or a successor organization pins us back in a swathe of seats. The boundary review is going to deprive Labour of another 40 seats. There is simply no hope of a parliamentary majority  for Labour under these circumstances.

Those of us advocating a Progressive Alliance strategy for Labour, which is the argument in the new publication for Compass that I’ve authored (link),  are responding to this stark reality. The initial proposition of the Progressive Alliance strategy is simple. There are literally dozens of Tory-held parliamentary seats wherein the combined vote for Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat and Plaid is significantly larger than the Conservative vote. There are many key target seats for Labour where the Lib Dem / Green / Plaid vote is significantly higher than the Tory majority. There are also many constituencies where Labour has no hope of ever taking the seat. In many of those, the Labour vote is higher than the Tory majority over one of those other parties.

Under these circumstances, it makes sense to try to work towards local agreements which would see Labour and other parties of the left and centre stand down in each other’s favour. This would only be  in situations where those standing down have no hope of winning. It would only be in places where local party members supported the idea. For further reading you can download the publication The Progressive Alliance: Why Labour needs it here

What Have the Liberal Democrats Ever Done For Us?

The most common objection to this proposal is that it would mean co-operating with the liberal democrats, who are  ‘are not progressive’ or are ‘no different from the Tories’. These kind of claims simply miss the point. The issue is not whether the Liberal Democrats are cool enough for us to be best friends with. The question is only whether we can work with them to beat the Tories.

The Liberal Democrats are what they are. They are not conservatives or socialists but centrist liberals, mild social democrats and social-liberals. The Liberal party and the Liberal Democrats formed coalitions with the Tories in the 1930s and the 2010s, but they also supported minority Labour governments in the 1920s and the 1970s.  Indeed, the Labour Party only came into existence as an effective force in British electoral politics as a result of the anti-conservative alliance and pact of 1906, which saw Labour and Liberal candidates stand down in each other’s favour in key seats. So what we are proposing is nothing new, but in the fact the most normal way for Labour to achieve progressive goals.

The Politics of Class

An objection which one often hears to the idea of a Progressive Alliance is that doing deals with Liberals or even Greens amounts to  ‘crossing class lines’. Even in strict Marxian terms, this is daft. The Labour Party is hardly a pure workers party, but includes significant elements which are closely tied to key sections of capital (finance, defence, energy etc).

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats and Greens do not represent or have the backing of any significant section of the capitalist class, having their main social base among well-paid professionals and the more socially liberal and egalitarian sections of the commercial middle classes. And in strictly Marxian terms, it must be clear that the  British working class is currently too weak, disorganised and demoralised to have any hope of mobilising autonomously against its enemies for the foreseeable future. Without some form of coalition with the more progressive sections of the middle classes at least, then there is no hope of defending what remains of the social democratic settlement or challenging the right’s desire to turn Britain into the world’s biggest offshore tax haven.

Supporters of the Progressive Alliance idea want Labour to retain a clear identity as the party of organised labour and the public sector. But we are realistic about the fact that in the Britain of 2017, a party with a strong radical identity has no hope of winning an election without co-operating with other potentially sympathetic parties.

Our aim is not to drag Labour to the right, but to allow it to lead a progressive coalition from the left. In fact this has almost always  been the only way that Labour has been able to operate as a successful, reforming electoral force. The sooner we remember that fact, the better.

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and
Political Theory at the University of East London
and a member of the Compass Management Committee.

The Progressive Alliance: Why Labour needs it can be downloaded here

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  1. Posted by Daniel

    Great stuff. I mean, not that I needed convincing. Question is, how are you going to convince Corbyn and McDonnell, or the shadow cabinet around them? I think More United and the Green Party have done the best work so far on a progressive alliance, worth watching the Green Party conference at end of March where there will be many motions debated about a progressive alliance

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  2. Posted by Liz Murison

    I left a comment recently – around the time of the Copeland byelection – that I had read an article stating that the Greens could not join in an alliance with Labour because of differences of opinions on nuclear energy. How could this have been resolved at the time and in the future?

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  3. Posted by simon hebditch

    Jeremy Gilbert’s contribution to the debate is clear and concise. I hail from the radical wing (yes, there is one!) of the Lib Dems and I believe that there is no chance of any of us defeating the current hegemony of the Tories without a tactical alliance of Labour, Lib Dems, the Greens, Plaid and the SNP. That tactical combination is of vital importance between now and 2020 but there is also a clear set of principles concerning the way in which politics should be conducted in the future. If one of our clear aims is the achievement of electoral reform then the future will be all about either minority governments or creating coalitions. We had better get used to it!

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  4. Posted by Andy Young

    “We would prefer voters to elect Scottish Labour MPs and will assist Scottish Labour in putting forward a distinctive programme, but if they elect SNP MPs instead then we will work with them on any areas of policy with which we agree, and we acknowledge that there are many areas of agreement. It’s not rocket science.”

    Maybe not rocket science, but still tricky. From the standpoint of the SNP, what would they get out of such a progressive alliance?

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  5. Posted by Edmund Kelly

    I agree with Mr.Gilbert’s call for a progressive Alliance. It is becoming increasingly clear that Labour cannot win an election given the loss of Scotland and the 40 odd seats due to boundary changes.
    As politics develops in the coming years it does seem likely that the two party system is on the way out and that a more democratic, issue based voting or alliances to defeat the monopoliser government will bring about the change that we all desire. I hope that the old divisions of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation can be overcome so that we can reclaim our name as a liberal people. Thanks for all the work you have been doing.

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  6. Posted by Leo Aylen

    This is a cogent and well-argued book. But if we are seriously thinking about helping the Progressive Alliance come into active existence, we must face a central, critical, challenge. We must urge Labour Party members to welcome an alliance with the Liberals, and the Liberals to welcome an alliance with Labour.
    It’s easy to envisage an alliance between Labour, the Greens, and the SNP. Labour has no hope of winning seats in Scotland. The Greens have their loyal members, but are kept out of Parliament because of our ridiculous, outmoded, and grossly unfair, electoral system. It will be easy for Labour to avoid standing in constituencies where there is a chance of a Green victory.
    This, however, is the real challenge Labour must face: will you help the Liberals win seats, particularly in the South West, where they might take them from the Tories, and where Labour has no chance at all.
    Let us remember the by-election in Richmond Park. Labour insisted Christian Wolmar would stand, even though he had no chance of winning. The votes cast for him might so easily have let the Tory in.
    The ancillary challenge, if the Liberals are to join an alliance, is to refuse to regard Hard Brexit as a done deal, and to remember the 48%, the Remainers. Guy Verhofstadt, for example, ex-Premier of Flanders, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said there might be a chance for British citizens to retain part of their EU citizenship as a matter of individual choice. There are other options to be explored. At the moment Labour has given way to Mrs May over Hard Brexit. But Brexit negotiations have not yet started. The Liberals will have the most to say about the issues involved. The Liberals, after all, have mentioned the possibility of a second referendum when the terms of Brexit are known.
    There is much to discuss.

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  7. Posted by Simon Gourlay

    I don’t agree with Jeremy Gilbert’s political views because I am just not that far left. But that is immaterial and I do wholeheartedly endorse his support for the Progressive Alliance and his KEY CLAIM that if we do not achieve a breakthrough with the Progressive Alliance we face the disastrous prospect of another umpteen years of TORY RULE.
    The same applies if we do not simultaneously commit to change our iniquitous first past the post electoral system to a PR system. Then at last we would no longer be subjected to extreme policies by a government only voted in by 26% of the electorate.
    That Corbyn could insist that Wolmar stood at Richmond (and is also against PR) and that Farron has declared himself against the ideas put forward by Progressive Alliance shows what a long way there is to go. But numbers might help and that requires someone like Jeremy Gilbert to come up with some figure showing what might be the result if PA was adopted where it could be the key determinant on which party could be elected where, contrasted with what would happen if nothing is done and we find ourselves involved in a general election with current polling figures.

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  8. Posted by Peter Kenyon

    The thrust of this argument about the Liberal democrats chooses to ignore their nature locally. In our constituency, and so I have heard in many others, they are really Tories in sheep’s clothing, and will say anything to get elected, even contradicting themselves in different parts of the constituency. The Parliamentary Liberal Democrat party appears to be a different matter, but do they stand a realistic chance of coming from their minuscule number of MPs to be back as a significant force? They would really need to me to become a more explicitly anti-Tory party consistently for me to sign up to electoral pacts with them. I do not wholly accept either the notion that Labour has no chance in some areas like the South West. Labour has held seats here before and could again if it embraced a long term strategy of building up from a local councillor base, rather than the current over concentration on marginal seats whose location changes with every election.

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  9. Posted by John Rowe

    Hurrah for some common sense! This kind of alliance is now the only way I will see an end to Tory domination and ruination of this country in my life-time. Bring it on!!

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  10. Posted by john champneys

    largely agree.
    it is dwarfed in comparison with Brexit/united kingdom
    here we should combine along the following lines
    The reason why the Scots should not be granted a referendum on independence is that they have had it already!
    If this referendum is to be treated as advisory, then they could have another one, but it should be no more powerful than the first,i.e.also advisory.
    To ensure that we all stay together it should now be enacted that the UK cannot be broken up without a substantial majority in each assembly voting in favour
    the same should apply to leaving the EU
    This would save the Scots the trouble of asking for another referendum if it were enacted that, when the full proposed terms of a UK brexit are known,they cannot be agreed without a substantial majority in each assembly voting in favour.

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  11. Posted by Martin Childs

    This is certainly the best written and comprehensive work in favour of a Progressive Alliance and for a Labour commitment to proportional representation that I have yet to read. So I find it difficult to criticise, but there is more to be said.
    One party which I think will become of increasing importance and which was omitted is the Women’s Equality Party. They too stood down in Richmond, they too support proportional representation and, importantly, they have grown from nowhere in such a short time to have a membership comparable to that of UKIP, the Lib Dems or the Greens. By the next election I think they will very much be of a size and influence to be a serious factor to be taken into account when looking at parties to a progressive alliance.
    Next steps for Labour are not addressed. I think now it is mainly a job for Labour party members, who back an alliance, to make sure that their Constituency Labour Parties back a motion for proportional representation so that it is high up their conference agenda and therefore has to be debated. Following that they then need to make sure that PR is prominent in the next party election manifesto. Jeremy Corbyn wants to give back power to party conference, so a motion passed on PR could not be ignored. And won’t be, especially as he is on record as being sympathetic to voting reform. And when selecting candidates, they should all be asked on their position on voting reform and a progressive alliance.
    Maybe a bit of a cheek for me to make these suggestions as I am a Green party member. However, I feel that, although more work on a possible alliance still needs to be done by other parties, for traction to happen the real decider will be for Labour to come on board and take the lead. Does anyone know if a motion for PR is in the planning stage yet to start this all off?

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  12. Posted by Tim Baynes

    Is there an argument for Primary elections in marginal seats in order to choose between Labour, Lib Dem, or Green candiates?

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  13. Posted by Martin Childs

    Labour haven’t yet committed themselves to proportional representation. Without first getting that commitment from Labour, other parties are unlikely to co-operate with them in any alliance strategy, including primaries.
    Once PR is in place as Labour party policy, there may be circumstances where a primary with other parties would be appropriate but generally it raises a problem. Labour has by far the largest membership and therefore, even in Tory seats with large majorities, it would be their candidate who would tend to be chosen, via a primary, even though the Lib Dems would have usually been in second place in previous elections and would therefore have the best chance of winning.
    In the few constituencies where an electoral pact might be agreed it is usually known which party is best placed to defeat the Tory incumbent and therefore the different local parties should be able to reach agreement on the candidate to jointly put forward.
    Different arrangements might be favoured in different areas so primaries should be an option but I don’t think that they are necessary, or normally a good idea.

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  14. Posted by Simon Banks

    Jeremy’s emphasis on LOCAL agreements is crucial. Liberals who went through the enforced parcelling out of seats between us and the SDP would not want to repeat the experience with people who could perfectly well be political opponents as soon as the election was over. If there isn’t local appetite for a deal, it won’t work. I think we’re a long way from enough common ground for shared primaries, though if all the local parties in a constituency were for it, why not? We need only be talking about a fairly small number of seats, the Harlows and Torquays. The comment that Lib Dems just say what gets them elected: I’ve heard that so often, though we could just as well say it about Labour over immigration or Brexit, or what can get chucked at LD councillors who’ve taken Labour seats. I think part of the problem is that Liberals coalesce around, define themselves by, issues that don’t easily fit on a left-right measure – liberty, diversity, empowered communities, devolution, green issues, equality of power rather than wealth. Of course, equality of power needs relative equality of wealth and vice versa – and that’s why co-operation could be fruitful. From Compass online discussions you could get a pretty good idea of why many Labour activists couldn’t possibly be LDs, but probably very little idea of why hardly any LD left-leaning activists would consider joining the Labour Party. Co-operation depends on us understanding one another a bit better.

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  15. Posted by Joe Tarrant

    I’m a paid-up LibDem. Why wouldn’t I join Labour? Labour has never seemed open enough. They were against PR during the referendum on PR. They’re not left wing enough: Tony Blair moved Labour to the right of LDs. They seem to prefer supporting existing jobs in nuclear power stations than new jobs in sustainable energy. They stick to safe old ideas than new ones. Lots of reasons, but far fewer than the reasons why I’d never vote Tory. So, I’d be open to working with Labour but they would have to start committing to equality, green issues, local democracy.

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