Since the last general election – and even more so since the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the United States – there has been talk of a need for a “Progressive Alliance” between Labour, Lib Dems and Greens, in an effort to beat the Tories.
Much of this talk has come from Green Party members, with Caroline Lucas being a prominent voice in favour, but there are those in Labour and the Lib Dems for whom this would seem to be a beguiling idea. Indeed, former leader Lord Ashdown has long hankered for a realignment of the left.
Personally I’m a sceptic; for all sorts of reasons.
First, just how do you define “progressive”? To me it’s one of those political phrases that gets thrown around a lot, but means so many things to so many different people it has lost any real meaning. There are, for example, many in Labour who are perfectly happy with its authoritarian tendencies (evident in its internal organisation as well as in many of the policies it pursued in office) who would describe themselves as progressive, whereas I would not.
Many of these same people would be vehemently against any form of alliance with the Liberal Democrats: either because we are their natural political enemy in their locality or because we committed the “sin” of entering a coalition with the Tories in 2010. There are those in the Green Party who feel this way too, despite such a pluralist approach to politics being a natural result of the PR electoral systems both our parties support.
Tribalism exists across all political parties and is fostered in the First Past the Post environment. For me, though, true progressive politics has to be pluralist in its approach: something that many on the left, with its many factions, find difficult.
So much for pragmatism, what about the pragmatics of any alliance? What, say, do we concede to the Green Party for their help in Richmond Park? Do we stand down in the successor seat to Brighton Pavilion? What about Bristol West, which is often mentioned in these terms despite the fact it has not been Tory since 1997 (having been held by Labour from then until 2005, then Lib Dem and, since last year, by Labour again.)
Given the scarcity of seats that the Green Party has a realistic chance of winning, and that their top two targets (Bristol West and Norwich South) are both held by Labour, after a spell as Lib Dem seats, you rapidly move away from the idea of a “Progressive Alliance” and towards pre-election pacts with seats, and presumed results, being horse-traded in the backrooms of Westminster.
Once such an alliance or pact has been made between parties, there is no guarantee that the voters will follow. Indeed, many voters may be turned off by the “alliance” candidate, or they may turn away and vote in precisely the opposite way from that intended. They may well resent the removal of choice, whatever the intention of the parties involved.
So, where does this leave us? Well, I’m not completely shut off to the idea of some form of an alliance, but for me it would have to have a very specific aim. Seeking a mandate to stop Brexit could have been one, but that ship appears to have sailed as far as Labour are concerned. The next big prize for an alliance would, to my mind, be electoral reform. A unified ticket of a short, time-limited parliament specifically to remove FPTP (and the Lords) and replace with PR (and an elected second chamber).
Sadly, I can’t see this happening either which leaves two remaining possibilities (other than the status quo). One is a more informal arrangement of parties running “soft” campaigns so as not to cannibalise the progressive vote. The other is the approach of More United, where a member-led third party effectively endorses a candidate who subscribes to its values and seeks to rally support for them.
I understand there are moves to launch a progressive alliance body in the new year, but I fear that they are on a hiding to nothing. In the meantime, we Liberal Democrats have a distinctive message to tell on the key issue facing our nation today. In the absence of a broader movement for a more open, tolerant and united Britain, and for a continued role for the EU and its institutions, then we must keep flying the flag for what we regard as progressive politics.
* Andrew Brown is a Liberal Democrat member in Bristol. He blogs here