Being on the Left means aspiring to a society built on cooperation, solidarity, and the common good. Yet when it campaigns for this society, the Left movement can be strangely reluctant to practice what it preaches. Different groups of Left activists often hold each other in mutual suspicion, even contempt. They distort and exaggerate Left-on-Left disputes until they look identical to Left-versus-Right ones, blurring differences of degree into differences of kind. Claims and counter-claims of hypocrisy, impurity, betrayal are rife as factions jostle for supremacy. If any part of the Left wants cooperation, it seems to want it solely on its own terms.
This tension between the Left’s harmonious vision and the fractious reality it displays is deeply dangerous. Above all, it is electorally off-putting. To voters, infighting within and between parties in the same corner of the political spectrum is nothing short of confusing. Senior politicians constantly at each other’s throats look unserious and immature—not at all like promising leaders. Activists bickering over strategy look directionless and indecisive—a recipe for stagnation, not progress. We saw the results in the December 2019 election. The Right, united around a single clear message, won a large majority. The Left, riven by divisions over all manner of policy and personnel disputes, was reduced to picking up the pieces in opposition.
If we take a step back from party labels and look at the bigger ideological picture, the grotesqueness of this situation becomes clear. Instead of treating parties and their voters as discrete entities, we should see them as parts of two blocs: a ‘Left bloc’ and an opposing ‘Right bloc’. In the general election, the parties situated on the centre-Right to the Right of the spectrum—Conservatives, Brexit Party, DUP, UUP, UKIP—received 46.8 per cent of the total votes cast. But the parties on the centre-Left to Left—Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance—took 52.4 per cent altogether. Despite having the edge among the population as a whole, by failing to consolidate its strength—especially in the face of the chronic distortions of first-past-the-post—the Left condemned itself to bitter defeat.
2019 was hardly the first time the Left’s divisions allowed it to snatch electoral defeat from the jaws of demographic victory in this way. In 2017, the equivalent ‘Left bloc/Right bloc’ balance was 53.7 per cent to 45 per cent; in 2015, 48.6 per cent to 50.4 per cent; and in 2010, 56.3 per cent to 42 per cent. Three out of four general elections that the Left could easily have won, and one it would only narrowly have lost, had it tried harder to cooperate. It is also clear that these blocs have not actually changed much in size over the last decade—only a net c.8 per cent of voters have swung from one to the other over time. This implies that individual parties are really more competing for voters within these blocs than (much) beyond them. Only occasional seismic events and party realignments may cause larger shifts between blocs, but otherwise not much movement takes place.
To make matters worse, the Left is forced to operate in a political system specifically designed to suppress cooperation. The entire structure of electoral campaigning is set up to be fundamentally competitive; ‘winner-takes-all’ necessarily comes at the cost of ‘loser-takes-nothing’ for everyone else. It imposes boundaries and creates antagonisms: this-side/other-side, friend/enemy, government/opposition. Exclusive party identities coincide with these boundaries: the party is ‘this side’, its members are the onlyfriends, it alone must govern. And if parties are competing for a functionally finite voter pool which is not by itself guaranteed to get them a popular majority, they are incentivised to be as hostile to their ideological neighbours as possible. In short, to achieve the society it wants to see, the Left is pushed into playing by the rules of its direct opposite.
Of course, the Left has never simply taken the rules of any system ‘as is’ lying down. Progressive history is full of cases where people reached the hand of friendship across such boundaries, and resisted attempts to divide and turn them against each other. The ‘popular fronts’ between liberals, socialists, communists, and anarchists that fought the rising tide of fascism in the 1930s. The white lawyers and clerics who helped fight for civil rights in the 1960s. The trade unionists who fought alongside LGBTQ* activists in the 1980s. All found ways to ‘soften the blows’ in Left-on-Left disputes and reserve the hard hitting for the Right. All made sure, as the ever-cagey Katniss Everdeen is constantly reminded by her allies in the Hunger Games, to ‘remember who the real enemy is’. For the Left today, the 2019 election needs to be a similar wake-up call. It must remember that, historically, it is always the Left that has developed the tools to help the powerless unite against oppression and exploitation. Though it seems to have forgotten this, working together is in the Left’s DNA.
All of this points in one direction: the Left urgently has to embrace cooperation in electoral politics. This is, of course, anathema in many Left circles, and especially to the members of many Left parties. For them, cooperation reeks of moderation, compromise, even elision. They worry it will force them to become ideologically average and mediocre, losing their most unique and iconoclastic social positions and lowering their horizons of expectation. They fear a partial surrender to their would-be cooperation partners, sacrificing their most ambitious aims or the most impactful means of achieving them in exchange for an unsatisfying second-best consensus. And they are concerned that cooperation will cost them their ideological character, eroding their discrete Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat, etc. identities and eradicating the boundaries between them and other Left groups and parties.
But cooperation does not mean that the Left has to limit itself in its ideas or practices. Rather, cooperating Left parties can help each other overcome the constraints the political system imposes on them, supporting principles and enabling strategies they could not hope to pursue just by themselves. Having a radical transformative vision for society is compatible with having a clear sense of the incremental steps required to realise it. Cooperation can be based on detailed, innovative, even unique ideas. It can be designed specifically to mobilise means of transforming society that stem from intensely visceral judgments about its flaws, including drastic, ambitious challenges to the status quo.
Not everything has to be at stake in cooperation either. The point is for Left parties work together to achieve part of their vision for society—a part they all fully share. They can join forces on specific concerns, or help each other realise certain values, without touching on any of the others. They do not even have to settle any other differences they might have, as long as they tactically suspend them to achieve their defined joint aims. Cooperation commits Left parties to a general direction that still leaves room for divergence: an agreed set of key priorities that are compatible with several options further down the line. They can draw satisfaction from the fact that some progress is made—progress that gets them closer to realising the rest of their aims as well.
Cooperation also does not have to lead to any deeper or more lasting unification. In fact, it depends almost by definition on different Left parties engaging supportively with one another despite still remaining separate. Finding contingent areas where they are prepared to bridge and overcome their differences does not deny that there will still be ideological contestation between parties. Instead, cooperation recognises that society is now so complex that it is only on specific, narrowly-defined policy issues that ideological perspectives will overlap. Its aim is not to coopt parties into a new ideological hegemony. It merely offers a counterpoint to needless competition, identifying the places where hostility, enmity, and destructive one-upmanship can be avoided.
In other words, cooperation does not have to make the Left mediocre or mainstream; it does not force it to surrender or jettison its plans for society; and it does not try to deprive it of its pluralistic ideological character. In this light, it is up to each of the parties in the UK’s ‘Left bloc’ to work out for itself how better to cooperate with its ideological neighbours. On what they most urgently need to cooperate. With whom they stand the best chance of doing so. And above all what form cooperation should take. Europe offers a glimmer of promising inspiration—Portugal’s geringonça Left-coalition government, Poland’s Lewica political alliance, Italy’s ‘Sardines movement’. It is high time the British Left learned from their example.
Marius S. Ostrowski is Examination Fellow in Politics at All Souls College, University of Oxford, and author of Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance. His work lies in political theory and the history of ideas, focusing on the rise of social democracy and ideologies of European unity in the early 20th century. He is a member of the Fabian Society, Momentum, and the Labour Party.