One of the key warnings from a number of Labour grandees during the leadership race was that a victory for Jeremy Corbyn would make the party unelectable. Without the capacity to gain and use power, so this line of argument went, a drastic change of direction to the left would be forlorn for Labour. A different path to power has been suggested, however, that of a ‘progressive alliance’ with the United Kingdom’s other left of centre parties. While appealing at first glance, this type of arrangement would be devilishly hard to reach.
Looking at the general election result in May one may conclude that to win in 2020 Labour would need to persuade voters to switch allegiance from the Scottish National party, United Kingdom Independence party and the Conservatives. This was the basis of the number of speeches and articles from New Labour politicians warning against a Corbyn leadership because they saw the possibility of swaying these voters as more remote if the party tacked to the left. But what if Labour only needed to retain its core vote and align with other ‘progressive’ parties?
David Owen has recently written how support for Caroline Lucas’ NHS bill from the Liberal Democrats, Labour, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru could represent the makings of a ‘progressive alliance’. Owen also said this could be a building block for a constitutional convention between the left-of-centre parties and could lead to cooperation over constituencies – so only the best placed to win would stand to maximise the chance of victory – and a powersharing agreement. Prior to the election in May Nicola Sturgeon also called for a progressive alliance with Labour to oppose the austerity of the Tories.
This kind of idea has been floated before. Gordon Brown sought a pact with the Liberal Democrats in the days after the 2010 election and there were long and protracted talks before New Labour’s victory in 1997 about forming a Lab-Lib pact. The size of Labour’s victory led Tony Blair to discard this idea. The formation of the Social Democratic party in 1981 by Roy Jenkins, along with David Owen, was part of a strategy of realignment of the left that echoed the initial cooperation between the Liberal party and newly formed Labour at the beginning of the 20th century.
How conceivable is a ‘progressive alliance’ of the centre-left in the UK? Let’s look at how a centre-left coalition might function in the UK. First, the nationalist parties would have to accept a federal or ‘devo-max’ model of governance in exchange for using power to pursue progressive politics and give up hopes of independence. This is clearly a long shot. The discourse around the SNP, in particular, makes much of the different political consensus in Scotland, that centre-left policies are better represented by Sturgeon’s party. It is worth remembering that the SNP are nationalist first, progressive second so it could well be its current platform is only transient. If Labour swang left in Scotland in order to win back voters nothing would stop SNP moving the other way to demonstrate its difference to the unionist parties.
Second, the electoral system does not favour this kind of coalition. Proportional representation would suit it far better, although the two main parties will be the last to accept this inevitable decline in influence. Failing electoral reform, however, agreements over individual constituencies would be the next step, seeing candidates stand aside and get behind the most likely winner. This would be, again, difficult to manage.
Finally, is there any evidence that there is an underlying consensus in Britain for a progressive alliance? Not really. If you use the albeit imperfect measure of fraction of the vote in the last four nationwide elections (general elections and European elections) an alliance of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru would have defeated the Conservatives in 2015 (48 per cent to 37 per cent), 2014 (43 per cent to 24 per cent), 2010 (54 per cent to 39 per cent) and 2009 (42 per cent to 28 per cent). Once you consider that those on the right could team up and add in Ukip votes to the other side of the column, however, the only election where a progressive alliance could have triumphed over a conservative alliance was 2010, when Nick Clegg threw in his lot with the Tories. The last time this calculation produced a convincing victory for the centre-left was in 2005.
There is plenty Labour could agree on with other centre-left parties, from anti-austerity to support for the European Union to tax credits. It may be the case, however, that for the progressive left to regain power nationally in Britain it will need to do the dirty business of convincing floating voters, and those that have voted for rightwing parties, that they offer a better future.
Robert Ledger is a political writer and researcher
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