A string of by-elections on Thursday demonstrate the potential and the pitfalls of a progressive alliance across the UK. The clearest conclusion is that this is complex. Richmond is miles away from Sleaford, in every sense, and it would be too easy to see Telford and Tonbridge as similar. The most salient feature is simply that local dynamics make or break an alliance: whilst cross-national solidarity is important a PA has to start from the grassroots and take people with them.
Sleaford Labour Party are the latest victims of the Brexit backlash. Labour fell between the cracks in one of the deepest divides in modern memory, coming fourth after UKIP and the Lib Dems. Between the Tories touting full-blown Brexit and the Lib Dems, on a high after Richmond Park, and pushing the same remain pitch, Labour was left bobbing in between – and finally sinking. At a time of political tumult, there should be a case for cooperation, or at least communication. But in arranging my trip to Sleaford a fortnight ago, I was brought up short by a Labour brick wall. My efforts to arrange a chat to discuss the campaign on the ground (not to persuade them not to stand) were not well-received. In contrast, the Lib Dems and Greens took time out of their campaign schedule to meet me, discuss the progress of their campaigns, the future possibilities for an alliance in Lincolnshire and gave their backing and their thoughts on our progressive alliance strategy. Whilst it was too late for a local alliance in Lincolnshire, there was interest, ideas and, importantly, a curiosity about cooperation amongst the Lib Dems and Greens, which could develop into an alliance the next time round.
While Labour were in a tailspin in Sleaford, their colleagues in Kent were also bearing grim witness to another Tory hold. But in the southeastern market town of Tonbridge in Kent, their loss was at least shared. In the latest local progressive alliance, the local Greens and the Lib Dems chose not to stand against the Labour councillor – Fred Long – to encourage voters to back his campaign. This campaign, in a Conservative heartland, was born both of common sense and common ground. Frani Hoskins, vice-chair of the Tonbridge and Malling Lib Dems, whilst admitting the decision had been hard, made the pragmatic case: “you have to ask: how much do you want to split the anti-Conservative vote?” Her counterpart, Howard Porter, chair of the local Green party, also recognised that Labour offered the “best chance to challenge the one-party state in Tonbridge”. But this was not simply electoral expedience, according to the Labour candidate Fred Long – “it makes sense for this by-election: we have many policies in common” – and he pledged to “fight for the parties’ common policies’ if elected.
This was a homegrown PA, but it was also firmly backed by colleagues around the country. The Richmond and Twickenham Greens, fresh from their victory in beating Goldsmith, cheered Tonbridge’s decision, sending “the voters and supporters of the Green, Lib Dem and Labour voters in the Trench ward the very best this Thursday”. This “trans-local” cooperation, from one local party to another, shows how local parties can support one another, with resources, advice and morale.
Although the progressive alliance was not yet organised enough to break through Tory hold in Tonbridge, the approach of the local parties represents a replicable model for a local alliance.The efforts of local parties to recognise and fight for their common causes is commendable. But it is also electorally sensible. For the 98% of the electorate who are not members of political parties, the willingness of local candidates to focus on the policy, and the practice, rather than slating opponents, is welcome in a world which demands both principle and policy. A progressive alliance also offers the option of pooling wisdom, ideas and energy and pouring it into building a progressive programme which is fit for 2016.
Indeed, on the same day of two major losses, there was hope to found in Telford, Shropshire, for both Labour and a Progressive Alliance. The election of Labour candidate Raj Mehta to the District Council was important in two respects. Firstly, it proved decisive, giving Labour overall control of the Council in a Tory seat. It was also the first time Labour has won this seat, with a 20+% swing, albeit with a low turnout. Secondly, the Greens and Liberal Democrats again chose not to stand. Currently, it remains unclear whether this was a shy Progressive Alliance, with the two parties clearing the way for Labour, or whether there are other reasons for their decision to sit this one out. However, whether it was an intentional alliance or not, the outcome shows that local victories can help to shift the balance in favour of progressive politics.
Sleaford proved that a progressive alliance might face hostility and suspicion from some local parties, but also be encouraged by others. Compass will continue to invite all parties to the discussion, to build trust and open channels of communication between local activists. And it is clear that in many places, this collaboration is already happening.Tonbridge demonstrates once again the willingness of local parties to push past doubts and differences to reach a solid consensus on both pragmatic and policy grounds. Finally, Telford shows the concrete gains that are possible when parties come together, and when voters can see that their vote a progressive candidate can yield an overall council win. Indeed, if these different by-elections point to one thing, it is the wisdom of local leaders, and of voters. When there’s an opportunity to unseat a Tory and deliver for democracy, equality and sustainability, like in Richmond, voters know what to do. And Telford proves what we already knew: that the progressive alliance, if it is to achieve its aims, must be locally-driven, bottom-up, ambitious and consensual.
Congratulations to Telford, well played to Tonbridge – and to Sleaford we say simply: join us?