Several of our members and supporters have been in touch to ask whether Compass will take the lead in a ‘progressive alliance’ campaign for the European elections in the UK, taking place on 23 May 2019. The suggestion being that a multi-party alliance could be necessary to help avoid splitting the vote between progressive parties – especially on the issue of Brexit.
Of course, Compass ran the Progressive Alliance in the 2017 general election and encouraged candidates, campaigners and voters of progressive parties to work together, because of our winner-takes-all voting system, to prevent the ‘regressive alliance’ of Tories and UKIP winning in constituencies where the majority of people wanted a progressive party to win, just not agreeing on which one.
In some constituencies, progressive parties – and especially the Green Party – agreed to stand down to maximise the vote for the best-placed progressive candidate; elsewhere voters decided to cast a ‘tactical vote’, voting not for their first-choice candidate, but for the candidate that was most likely to inflict defeat on the Conservatives.
The 2017 Progressive Alliance really caught the mood of the nation and tactical voting was one of the factors that brought about the surge in Labour’s vote share. But it was only a partial victory for us progressives, as the Labour Party’s refusal to engage with the Progressive Alliance meant that a Corbyn-led progressive government remained out of reach, while Labour failed to even recognise the collaborative approach of others – let alone reciprocate.
So, should we reboot the Progressive Alliance for this month’s European elections? Our answer is no – not this time.
First, because such a strategy would in effect turn the European elections into a poor proxy second referendum or poll on the UK’s membership of the EU, brushing aside the stakes involved in democratically electing UK representatives in the European Parliament, who, if elected, have no locus over Brexit decisions. And while it may make sense for candidates opposed to continued EU membership to have little ambition for their time in Brussels, those who want the UK to remain a member would be expected to have longer-term aspirations as MEPs.
This makes it all the more important that they are elected on the substance of their manifestos, and that’s where we can see issues when it comes to building a meaningful alliance. While the pro-Remain parties have some common objectives in domestic politics, such commonality is harder to find in their ambitions for the EU – which is what the elections are meant to be about. When it comes to European politics, a Remain alliance might not be much of a progressive alliance at all.
If it was seen as indispensable to pool the pro-Remain vote where possible – and we go on below to argue against this – it would be up to organisations with an outspoken Remain agenda to intervene here. So far, Compass has sought to take an inclusive approach throughout the Brexit debate, seeking to bridge the divide between people who voted Leave and Remain, for example through our publication on the causes and cures of Brexit and our recent campaign to establish a citizens’ assembly on Brexit.
The second key consideration for us is the voting system, and in contrast to general elections, European elections are run under a proportional system. This system is not without flaws and still disadvantages smaller parties, but overall it allows a much broader range of parties to win representation. Because multiple parties can win seats in each regional constituency, the need for electoral alliances to address the problem of a split (progressive) vote isn’t as clear-cut as it is under first-past-the-post.
The upcoming European elections are a democratic bonus: somewhat unexpectedly we’ve been given a say about our future and our representation in the EU. Our view is that we should embrace this opportunity and, for once, because of PR, boldly vote for what we believe in, this time not giving in to considerations about voting systems, bar charts, and tactics.
Our advice to voters would be: take this opportunity to compare parties’ priorities, then cast your vote for the party with the most compelling policies and candidates. There is no guarantee, but in most regions the prospect of electing an MEP of your first-choice party is realistic. In the current context, the overall vote share of each of the parties will give us the clearest insight into the deeper political fabric of the country; right now electoral alliances would only obscure this.
For the future, Compass is working to develop the idea of alliance-based politics, learning the lessons of 2017, how to overcome Labour’s innate and self-defeating tribalism, and change our democratic system for good.