Progressive Alliance: wide or narrow?

Victor Anderson

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The idea of “Progressive Alliance” has really taken off now, especially with the defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election. As with most good ideas it is accumulating a sort of fuzzy vagueness, and so this seems like a good time to return to the question of what “Progressive Alliance” actually means. There are now two very different versions: I’m calling them “wide” and “narrow”.

The wide version, which I support, is that a Progressive Alliance is about everyone who wants to get rid of the Tory Government – which is in practice increasingly a Tory/UKIP coalition – co-operating to try to achieve this at the next general election. The only realistic alternative government is one led by Labour, maybe a minority government dependent on arrangements with other parties.

This might be brought about through an explicit agreement at national level between the different political parties involved – Labour, Greens, LibDems, SNP, Plaid Cymru. That would be impressive but it is also highly unlikely, as it would effectively prevent the different parties from putting their separate arguments forward at the election.

Much more likely is a series of local deals in specific constituencies, which might not even involve supporting particular candidates, just being more selective about where to put effort and resources. That might be reinforced through an anti-Tory tactical voting campaign in the run-up to the election and an understanding between SNP and Labour about what to do if there is a hung parliament. It would also be a very helpful addition if Labour amended its rules to enable local parties to choose not to stand a candidate in a particular election (something that appears to have been ruled out of order in Richmond).

The parties involved would still run their own national campaigns, and so calling this an “Alliance” is perhaps an overstatement, but it would be the most effective way to co-operate to get the Tories out of government.

But this is not enough for the advocates of a “narrow” Progressive Alliance. Here the emphasis is on the word “progressive”. Are the LibDems really progressive, when only recently they went along with Cameron’s public spending cuts? Are Blairites really progressive when these days they don’t seem to have much in the way of policy ideas to offer? Do we really want to include the SNP? And shouldn’t an Alliance be based on a clear policy programme for government, maybe including basic income?

All of these lines of thinking worry me. They tend to undermine the aim of removing the Tories from government and having an alternative to replace them. Each one of them virtually guarantees that such a narrowed-down “Alliance” would end up failing to win a parliamentary majority. They are a series of recipes for continued Opposition.

Why do I put such a high priority on defeating the Tories? Lots of reasons but here I will just mention how this question relates to the three other political projects that might be thought to have a higher priority. The need to stand up against Trump is important. So is the need to promote effective policies against climate change. And so too the case for trying to reverse or soften Brexit. However all three of these potentially competing strategic priorities would be harder to achieve with the Conservatives in power, all three easier with a Labour-led government, or even just with an Opposition stronger than the one we have now.

There is still no word from Jeremy Corbyn of support for Progressive Alliance. Labour seems to be soldiering on alone, as it did in the Richmond Park by-election, sadly looking like it is marching towards another defeat.

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