Small targets, big goals: Three lessons in alliance-building for Keir Starmer

Today marks three years of Keir Starmer’s leadership of Labour, three of the most turbulent years in UK politics. We’ve been rocked by a pandemic, corruption, wildly oscillating polls and three prime ministers. Amidst all of this, Starmer has sought to convey stability, security and sense among the chaos. And for the first time in years, the political momentum seems to be with Labour, as they prepare themselves for a transfer of power. 

After the last Labour party conference, there was enthusiasm at the prospect of a progressive government. Here was a chance to tackle inequality and climate transition, to deepen democracy, rethink education and housing and reinvest in care, transport and green jobs. It was a seductive array: a zero carbon energy system by 2030, increased tax on higher earners to fund the NHS, the nationalisation of railways, citizenship taught in schools and enhanced extra-curricular education, a community right to buy, a formalised right to grow, a renters’ reform charter and a £60 billion programme to insulate 19 million homes. 

But criticism has swirled around Starmer’s lack of vision, an inability to tie these policies together to form a meaningful story of what Britain under Labour would feel like. This is sorely needed. But just as crucial as the ‘why’ of Labour’s vision is the ‘how’. Sell us the destination and tell us how we’ll get there. Looking at progressive-led administrations around the world points to one answer: for progressives to win power and govern, they need deep, broad and enduring alliances. Alliances that represent a diverse public so that more people feel seen and that they belong in government. Alliances that project confidence, are robust and resilient under pressure. If Starmer is serious about three big aims: winning an election, using his time in government to deliver change and bringing the country together, there are three countries in particular that can show him how it’s done. 


First stop is Germany, which shows how reaching beyond party lines secures unpredicted wins and drives transformation. In 2021, the newly elected traffic-light coalition signalled a shift towards progressivism after a decade and a half of conservative dominance. The coalition was forged through a landmark accord running to 177 pages that exhorted readers to ‘dare more progress’, principally on climate transition and addressing inequality. The glue holding this grouping together – the Greens, the economically conservative FDP and the Social Democrats – was a commitment to get serious on climate and regional renewal, an agenda that became known as ‘The Great Transformation’. 

The challenges of transition – the disruption, the demands and the actual delivery – make the transformation process daunting and electorally dangerous. Yet the coalition government is a symbol of cross-party consensus, giving it the legitimacy and political capital to push ahead. To communicate both the priority and the opportunity of climate transition, coalition partners rely on their ability to speak to different demographics, sending out a joint message in different tongues. On signing the agreement, the benefits of cooperation were recognised by all party leaders. The Chair of the SPD praised each party’s ‘own traditions and perspectives’ whilst the FDP leader claimed confidently that “the biggest winner out of such a governing coalition is ultimately not one single party, but the whole country”. Co-leader of the Greens Robert Habeck remarked wryly that “when you talk late into the night, you get to know each other pretty well”. 

Critics may point out that the proportional voting system and the electoral arithmetic make the Germans’ governing coalition less a match made in heaven and more a marriage of convenience, necessary to forming a government. PR requires alliances, but unless the electoral maths demands it, why would any party volunteer to extend the olive branch to another?

New Zealand

In New Zealand the Green Party had its first stint in power between 2017 and 2020, part of a power-sharing deal with the NZ Labour Party and New Zealand First. During that period this government, led by young and popular leader of the Labour Party Jacinda Ardern, passed a range of successful legislation, much of it championed by the Greens. There was a Zero Carbon Act, including 700 billion to help businesses decarbonise, a Green Transport card to make public transport more affordable, a Climate Commission and a Mental Health Commission that increased protections for domestic abuse sufferers. 

In October 2020, the Labour party won its first outright majority since 1996, the year the country shifted their electoral system to PR. This was no small electoral feat. Straight majorities in PR systems are rare. Yet even without pressure from the numbers, Ardern made overtures to the Greens, putting forward a cooperation agreement that enshrined a level of political freedom for both parties. Whilst Labour could have governed solo, the move was not a surprise. The move to PR had cemented an alliance-building approach to politics. The offer to the Greens bolstered the new government’s majority, built a partnership for the future and reflected the public’s positive appraisal of both Labour and the Greens, with both parties returning more MPs to parliament. 

Ardern’s case for this approach strongly echoed the logic of the German coalition partners: broader representation and a stronger parliamentary bloc with the additional expertise of other parties. Prime Minister Ardern began her first speech after re-election by affirming the breadth of her representative aspiration: “On election night I said I wanted to govern for all New Zealanders and to reach as wide a consensus as possible – this agreement does that”. This statement was more than magnanimous. It was a bid for legitimacy and a move to strengthen the hand of government for bold, at times divisive, legislation. Ardern knew that bringing the Green party close would mean keeping that party’s members and electors on side in challenging times. It also would improve the image of the government as a cross-section of a new generation of New Zealand leaders, with the Green Party offering more representation in terms of gender, race and class. As one Green supporter put it the night of the election, the coalition was full of “young, vibrant and interesting people”.

Both Green co-leaders were offered prestigious ministerial positions, to benefit from the “skills and expertise that exist in the Green party”. Ardern had also noted Green co-leader James Shaw’s negotiating skills when he signed up the National Party to a key policy. As Ardern and her team knew, a second term in office during a pandemic recovery needed political friends to be kept even closer. They were going to need a bigger church.

But perhaps it is her promise of a ‘new politics’ that has most made its mark on public memory. Despite her recent resignation, Ardern will surely be remembered as a leader whose character, confidence and culture marked her out as one of a new generation of political leaders. On the night of her re-election, she appealed once again to that generosity of spirit that had become her hallmark: “I think we’ve shown that as a nation we can listen, we can debate. After all, we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspectives. Elections aren’t always good at bringing people together, but they also don’t need to tear one another apart.” 

This expansiveness was also reflected in the practical detail of the working agreement. Unlike other coalition agreements, where bonds and red lines were clearly demarcated, the 2020 cooperation agreement between Labour and the Greens offered ample scope for disagreement. The Green Party had to back the government over decisions made in their portfolios, but otherwise had independence, setting up a delicate balancing act between convergence and criticism. In this, the Labour Party must be credited with foresightedness. Given how rare outright majorities are in New Zealand, a landslide should not be a reason to throw caution to the wind, but rather to shore up support for future collaboration. As Ardern quipped at the signing ceremony: “What’s unique here is we’re both agreeing we don’t actually have to agree”. 

In New Zealand’s proportional system the Greens brought ten MPs to the majority. In Britain such a coalition would bring in just one single Green MP. Yet there would be real symbolic power if Caroline Lucas took her seat amongst Labour MPs at the cabinet table. It would not only mark a new era of bipartisanship, it would allow Labour to benefit from Lucas’ considerable expertise gained through over 13 years as an MP, especially on questions of climate transition. While this may be a step too far for Labour right now, FPTP should not serve as an excuse to avoid alliance-building. Sometimes it’s as simple as leaving a door open…


The third example comes from one of the most polarised and fractious races in democratic history: the 2020 US presidential election. It was an alliance that surprised many, confounded some and set the scene for the American legislative agenda over the past two years. When Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination, he thanked Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their “energy and passion”, invoking their ‘common goal’ – the defeat of then-President Donald Trump. Sanders had not yet dropped out of the primary race, but Biden’s conciliatory tone struck a new note in what had been a fiery campaign. Biden knew though that the lifelong campaigner and icon of the US Democratic Left would not mistake gracious speeches for real power-sharing. So the two worked to set up six taskforces to forge ‘an agenda for working families’. This alliance generated a 110-page policy document that was “probably the most progressive outline that any president has introduced since FDR”, according to the Vermont senator himself. 

Ever since, Biden’s political proximity to Sanders has been the cause of much analysis and commentary in Washington and beyond. Over the course of a first term presidency that has been more ambitious than many anticipated, the alliance between these two Democratic veterans has been a pillar of the president’s policy platform. 

And what do Biden, the Democrats and the country gain from this? As we’ve already seen, the wins are many: support at a time of turmoil, expertise in policy-making in a crisis and the legitimacy to speak of togetherness against a backdrop of discord. Biden had already grasped the broader benefits of explicit collaboration. Beyond pulling in Bernie’s millions of voters, this detente would help him build the cross-Democratic relationship once in the White House. Chief political adviser to Sanders Faiz Shakir attributes this to Biden’s famed pragmatism, noting that “if he was going to win, he needed those people in his tent”. It may look like sheer expediency, a politician without his own agenda trying to win power. But a different assessment is that Biden was interested just as much in the ‘how’ of political change as the ‘what’. He identified his party’s shift to the left as an opportunity to reconsider his own stance, moving with rather than against the prevailing wind. 

This flexibility put him in a strong position when it came to the need for bolder strategies. In a country still battling to contain a virus and ward off economic collapse and political insurrection, the energy of Biden’s first few months at the helm confounded detractors who had dismissed him as a sloppy centrist. The biggest legislative successes of his first two years demonstrated his capacity to take a grip on multiple crises. The Inflation Reduction Act promised a $400 billion investment in climate transition and energy security, child tax reform lifted a record number of children out of poverty and the most sweeping reforms to national healthcare policy in a decade built on Obama’s legacy. All these moves found support from his ally Sanders, despite the Senator’s exhortations to go further and faster. 

Finally, the strongest evidence that the US, one of the most binary systems of governance in the world, can still offer space for progressive alliances is the cultural attitude Biden has popularised. Alongside his straight-talking pragmatism, Shakir also noted that the President had been “a pleasure to work with”, and Biden has won praise for his warmth, humility and adaptability. His decision to appoint Ron Klain, a well-respected Washington insider whose door was open to left-wing colleagues, converted his warm words about other factions into meaningful access. 

Biden has always looked the part, promising a safe pair of hands. As Nelson Mandela noted, if you want to be a revolutionary, you have to wear a suit. Revolutionary Biden is not, but despite his critics, he has balanced the country’s need to feel reassured with the need to act radically to address mounting challenges. He has built relationships across the party throughout his long career, but it was his willingness to respond to a historic challenge by borrowing from his comrades on the Left that marks a significant cultural shift and has been the key to unlocking his record-breaking wins.

Nevertheless, because of the undue influence accorded to the few by the First Past the Post system, Democrats have had their biggest legislative priorities held hostage by two of their own Senators. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema mounted an effective two-person blockade of the Inflation Reduction Act jeopardising the most fundamental climate legislation ever brought before the House. Progressive governments take note: with unproportional systems, your opponents can wield unproportional power. Only through building robust accords across the party was it possible to land the biggest climate crisis law in history. When friends become enemies, the friendship circle needs to expand. 

In many respects, the current UK Labour leader is much like other social democrats around the globe. He has a reputation as a competent professional, he is a known quantity. But Starmer must learn what some have already understood and proved through their time in power. Reaching beyond your inner circle to unlikely allies makes change both possible and sustainable. Cross-party support ensures your impact lasts. Almost as important, as a sign of unity in a divided country, alliances are a much-needed tonic. In the polling Compass carried out last year, 78% of progressives said they wanted their parties to work together in government.

Above all, what Starmer could learn about how progressives prosper in power is this: alliances are not a sign of weakness, but a show of strength. Dealing with differences and enlisting support across factions in your own party and beyond is one of the top indicators of successful political leadership. It shows the ability to persuade and negotiate rather than just using force through the party machine. When outside power, it gives the public hope that politicians can put country before party and command confidence through cooperation. When in power, alliance-building is a sign of political confidence, building a base big enough to ensure long-term change – the most important kind. Landing real legislative wins might also restore people’s faith in the power of politics, a spark of hope in our hollowed-out democracy. There’s plenty to be won for Labour – but they won’t win it alone. Now is not the time to burn bridges; we need to build them. 

Frances Foley is the Deputy Director of Compass

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