Careful With That Progressive Alliance

It has concerned me for some time that as Liberal Democrats we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing pacts and electoral arrangements, and then complain the media is rarely interested in what we stand for, only in whom we will work with in the event of a hung Parliament.

The fantastic Chesham and Amersham by-election result will probably fuel this debate further.

Before discussing arrangements over who should stand down where, should we not consider what is likely to happen politically were such an endeavour to be successfully undertaken? I have a major concern about the Party going down the pacts route.

It is not our ability to give ground and surrender future opportunity that worries me most, we’ve been there before with the Liberal/SDP Alliance, and in more recent times single seat arrangements with the Greens, although they were hardly convincing examples of pacts delivering the expected success. The problem will be the Labour Party.

The Labour Party talks about pluralism from time to time but rarely, and certainly never at the national level, do they agree to anything substantial being put into practice.  Can anyone put their finger on Liberal legislation that emerged from the Special Cabinet Committee set up after the 1997 election to ‘involve’ the Party in Tony Blair’s ‘Big tent’? Me neither, and I was there.

The Labour Party has to be persuaded to put its programme for Government on hold for one election in order to participate in an administration with one agreed policy, which is to change the electoral system to one that is proportional. That is the policy most of those advocating for a progressive alliance are calling for, and if Labour cannot, and won’t agree to just that, then what is the point. Further, to then waste valuable campaign time negotiating a deal with just the Greens, an illiberal competitor party that mostly wants to tell people how to live their lives rather than enable them to make their own decisions about how they wish to live, strikes me as electoral surrender.

The problem with pre-election pacts, rather than informal arrangements such as the pre 1997 one between Labour and ourselves where we stand but don’t work in different seats, is that you cannot be sure where, or even if, a voter’s likely second choices will be used the way the pact hoped. There is a danger that in some seats such a narrowing of voter choice will entrench the support of the candidate whom it was hoped would be unseated.

Arrangements, where each party aims its firepower away from the other in seats it has the least chance of defeating the Conservative Candidate were proven in 1997 to be a better way, but is that enough, don’t we want more than just swapping a Tory Cabinet for a Labour one?

First Past the Post is the problem that can only be resolved by winning enough seats under its system. Not necessarily a majority, but a big enough wedge of MPs to force another or others to accept a Queen’s Speech with an electoral reform bill, probably followed by another election.

But before that the ground for such a change and possibly other reforms to how we govern ourselves needs to be prepared.

The Scottish Parliament was a consequence of the Scottish Constitutional Convention that brought together all parts of civic society to look at ways forward for self-government. The Conservatives refused to take part, so that’s a bonus if they refused to take part in a UK Constitutional Convention tasked with looking at all aspects of our unwritten constitution.

It isn’t inevitable that the Convention would conclude in recommending a federal UK, a written constitution, a bill of rights, PR for all local and national elections, devolution to the regions, districts and towns, and tighter rules on elections and party finance, but just one of those would be a great step forward for liberal values.

The idea of a so-called progressive alliance of illiberal, authoritarian parties and ourselves is unlikely to produce the electoral benefits claimed for it, and without them there are no policy wins for Liberals.

It is back to the hard slog of winning hearts and minds street by street, ward by ward, constituency by constituency, online, on the doorstep, and through the letter-box, campaigning for what once were our flagship aims of freeing people from poverty, ignorance and conformity, alongside an all-party call for a UK Constitutional Convention.

Such a call would not only demonstrate our pluralist values wanting to work with other parties and civic society to work out better ways to resolve conflicts and involve people in decision making, but also give our spokespeople a popular policy to talk about in their rare media invitations.

* Adrian Sanders is a Focus deliver in Paignton, Devon, and was the MP for Torbay from 1997 to 2015.

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31 Comments

  • It could well be a useful exercise for today’s Lib Dem Party to give a bit of thought to how other parties (as well as the many former Lib Dem members who left in their droves) see today’s modern Lib Dem Party after the events of 2010-15.

    Illiberalism is not just confined to other parties.

  • John Marriott 20th Jun '21 - 8:25am

    The only way I gain see the Tories beaten in a General Election under FPTP is for the opposition parties to have some kind of ‘understanding’. After all, there are just not enough kitchen sinks to throw around then. Look at two recent Lib Dem by election successes, namely Richmond Park and Brecon and Radnor and see what happened at subsequent General Elections.

    For this ‘understanding’ to happen, what is required from ALL non Tory parties to defeat the big ‘C’ of Conservatism is to adopt the rather difficult ‘C’ of COMPROMISE.

  • Sections of the LDs, along with, incongruously, the far left in Labour, keep talking about this progressive alliance, and it is only ever talked about as a mechanism to “get the Tories out”. It is never talked of as a mechanism for achieving some positive policy, it is not even talked about as a way of getting the UK back in the EU, only as a way to remove the Tories from power.

    It therefore suffers two flaws:

    1) It can easily be painted as an undemocratic fix. Various parties which supposedly believe in different things, who cannot get the Tories out when fighting openly, secretly put together a pact which only has a negative aim. The voter is denied choice and is supposed to vote for second-best because the parties tell him he must.

    2) It does not address the question of “Why get the Tories out?”. If one thinks Johnson a better PM than Sir Keir or Sir Ed, and thinks the Tories have better policies than the “progressive alternative”, what’s in it for one? The advocates of this alliance don’t actually say Sir Keir would make a better PM and that progressive policies are better. It’s just assumed everyone hates the Tories, as if it were still 1996.

  • Brad Barrows 20th Jun '21 - 9:12am

    If opinion polls ever suggest that a hung parliament is a possibility, the Liberal Democrats will be asked – repeatedly until a definitive answer is given – whether it would do a deal with the Conservatives or Labour. After the 2010-15 disaster, I would suggest that the only sensible answer should be to state that the Liberal Democrats will refuse to join any coalition or confidence and supply arrangement unless PR is part of the deal. If this leads to a minority government or fresh election, so be it.

  • Andrew Smith 20th Jun '21 - 9:24am

    Calls for a Progressive Alliance to get the Tories out by Labour/Lib Dems/Green stand down to give one of them a free run is doomed to failure.
    1 There’s a failure to differentiate between the members and voters of each of the respective parties.
    2 Each elector has a vote. It belongs to them. It is not for a party, even one they’re loyal to, to barter away
    3 Labour Party rules prevent this by insisting that Labour always field a candidate
    4 Is it really expected that pro EU Green and Lib Dem members to vote for a Brexit supporting Labour candidate who in all probability doesn’t support PR
    5 As pointed out above it is a negative message
    6 Tactical voting patterns in a by-election are different from a GE
    7 Plays into the hands of the Tory press that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour. This message is very effective in Tory/Lib Dem areas esp at a GE when an astonishingly large number of people think national opinion polls reflect the state of play in their constituency.
    In the last GE the first couple of weeks any media coverage for us was dominated by talk of where we would stand down. Dreadful optics for the public. Utterly demotivating for members.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Jun '21 - 9:25am

    @WHS
    “It can easily be painted as an undemocratic fix. Various parties which supposedly believe in different things, who cannot get the Tories out when fighting openly, secretly put together a pact which only has a negative aim.”
    Might depend on how it is done. The very positive aims of 1. trying to ensure everyone’s vote counts (or at least maximising the chance of everyone’s vote counting) towards electing their representatives and 2. doing away with safe seats – suppose it was promoted on that basis?

  • If what you specifically want is the Tories out, then Chesham and Amersham provides the exact blueprint for that – appeal to Conservative voters who can’t stand the current party, who think Johnson isn’t serious enough to be PM, knock a whole bunch of their former safe seats out from under them.

    This is not at all compatible with a “Progressive Alliance” – you need to set yourselves as a centre-right alternative to the Conservatives, not a member of some centre-left coalition with Labour.

    Labour under Starmer are also trying to set themselves up as a centrist alternative to the Conservatives, but don’t have the credibility to do it and are just losing votes from their left to the Greens as a result. The Lib Dems – as a result of the 2010-2015 coalition – both have the credibility to be viewed as an alternative for Conservative voters, and can’t really lose votes to your left as a result because you already lost all of those earlier.

  • This article is both confused & confusing.
    There is No possibility of any Electoral pact with Labour (unless Labour back Electoral Reform ) & I dont see anyone actually suggesting it.
    What is possible with Labour is an unspoken Non-Agression Pact where we each agree to direct National resources away from the others Target Seats. Neither Party can control local activists of course & there is a group of Constituencies that both Parties are targetting but that group is very small now.

    The Greens, outwith Scotland are a very different case. I spent 14 Years as a member of The Greens & up to now, 17 in The libdems & I dont recognise this description of The Greens as Authoritarian. In fact if you look at policies & priorities our Parties are very close – we talk the same language. We could work together & we should.

    On what we do in any “Hung” Parliament – we should be upfront in saying that we would allow a Minority Labour Government to take power & after that we would judge each piece of Legislation on its own merits.
    No Coalition without a clear committment to Electoral Reform by Labour as a whole, that would mean Labour Backbenchers too. My fear is that we could pay the inevitable price for Coalition in return for promises that The Labour Leadership could not keep.

  • John Marriott 20th Jun '21 - 10:45am

    Could we possibly drop the adjective “progressive” for starters? “Alliance” would do for me. I agree with Brad Barrows’ sentiments. It HAS to be a commitment to PR or nothing. Back in the days of the run up to GE ‘97, Paddy Ashdown thought he had Blair on his side regarding voting reform. However, when the latter got that massive FPTP induced majority, he managed to offer just a review under Roy Jenkins and then kicked the results into the long grass. Incidentally, that ‘grass’ contains a few juicy items, such as the 2004 Tomlinson report. Might it be a time to venture forth, retrieve them both and use them as a ‘starter for ten’?

    Unlike Mr Barrows, I do NOT consider the years 2010 to 2015 to be an unmitigated disaster. Granted, they didn’t turn out well for the Lib Dems; but I would willingly, as a citizen of the U.K. and a European and not as a liberal or a member of any other minority, have them back, worts and all, instead of the five years that followed them! You see, as I have written many times before, whichever form of PR you adopt will almost certainly deliver hung parliaments and coalitions. All I have ever wanted is to have a Parliament that represents broadly the political preferences of those who choose to cast their votes no matter where they live. I would add conditions, such as the ‘5% rule’ as applies in the German Parliament, and I would certainly keep the Fixed Term Parliament Act, as it has proved over the past few years to be fairly porous in any case! Put simply, any party that gets, say, 5% of the votes should be entitled to 5% of the seats.

    To all those Lib Dems, who sincere,YB seem to believe that PR would deliver them a kind of liberal dominated paradise, because, in their words; “We are a liberal country”, I would say; “Think again”

  • @ John Marriott “Back in the days of the run up to GE ‘97, Paddy Ashdown thought he had Blair on his side regarding voting reform. However, when the latter got that massive FPTP induced majority, he managed to offer just a review under Roy Jenkins and then kicked the results into the long grass”.

    Not quite, John. We got a version of PR for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments as well as in Northern Ireland, and we have PR in local elections in Scotland.

    Indeed it could be argued that because of this the Scottish Government has more moral authority than the ‘parcel of rogues’ down in deepest Westminster.

  • John Marriott 20th Jun '21 - 12:20pm

    @David Raw
    You are right, of course. What I was referring to was the 2000 (?) review for the U.K. Parliamentary elections, which, if my memory serves me right, recommended something like AV Plus. It would have been a good launchpad for REAL PR, possibly of the STV variety (after all, says the wag, if the Irish can figure it out – only joking) and I don’t mean ‘Scottish Television’!😀 Mind you, as you say, perhaps the Scots DO have something to thank Woy for!

  • Peter Martin 20th Jun '21 - 12:28pm

    “The problem will be the Labour Party.”

    I don’t see why it should be. There is no problem in persuading most Labour voters to switch to the Lib Dems in seats where the Lib Dems present the main challenge to the Tories. We’ve just seen that, yet again, in C&A.

    The problem is in the other direction. Can Labour rely on Lib Dems to switch to Labour in seats where Labour is the main challenger to the Tories?

    I don’t think so. If, for example, the Lib Dems stood down at Batley and Spen, or even made it clear they weren’t too bothered about the Lib Dem vote share it would make stuff all difference to the outcome. A third might switch to Labour, a third would switch to the Tories and the rest would either abstain or vote for one of the minor parties.

    Unless someone in the Lib Dems can come up with an answer to the real problem, which seems to me highly unlikely, the Lib Dems have nothing to offer the Labour Party by way of any sort of alliance. Either formal or informal.

    So just accept what is on offer from Labour supporters when you can. Be thankful of that and try not to repeat the mistake of 2019 when you directed too much of your fire on to the Labour Party. If it had any effect at all, it can only be to have increased the Tory majority.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jun '21 - 12:44pm

    “The idea of a so-called progressive alliance of illiberal, authoritarian parties and ourselves is unlikely to produce the electoral benefits claimed for it, and without them there are no policy wins for Liberals.”

    Hang on a minute, just what policy wins, besides PR, are you looking to achieve?

    The assumption being made here is that the Lib Dems are less authoritarian than potential coalition partners.

    This is not true according to Political Compass.

    The Lib Dems might be less so inclined that the Tories, UKIP, Brexit and the DUP, but they are more authoritarian than all the rest. This includes Labour.

    https://www.politicalcompass.org/uk2019

  • Can we start with a limited understanding with Greens and possibly Labour at a local level. We lost many seats in Cornwall marginally because of Green Labour and MK standing.We could encourage local party’s to approach others before next years locals,especially London. Then we can look at the data before committing further.

  • Laurence Cox 20th Jun '21 - 2:34pm

    @David Raw
    There is fundamental problem with the AMS system used in the Scottish Parliament (and Welsh Senedd), which is that it is open to being gamed by parties. As we saw in this year’s Scottish Parliamentary election almost all of the SNP’s seats came from the constuency vote while all of the Scottish Greens’ seats came from the list vote. Had the two parties formally agreed to advise their voters to vote SNP in the constituencies and Green on the list (as many seemed to do even without prompting) they could have achieved a super-majority on a minority of both the constituency and list votes. This is a strong argument for backing STV for parliamentary as well as local elections.

  • Adrian Sanders, your article reminds me of the old joke about the military parade where Mrs. Sanders’s boy “is the only one in step”….

    You’ll have no truck with the Labour party, the Greens are an illiberal party so that only leaves the ‘soft’ Tories…

    As for PR being the panacea for our problems; as David Raw points out Scotland has PR and the LibDem MSPs could hold a full meeting in a phone box…You still need policies!

  • Andrew Toye 20th Jun '21 - 8:45pm

    The problem with demanding PR (or anything else) in any “deal” is that the other side will demand something else in return. In 2010, it was seen by voters that we were selling out on tuition fees (our best publicised policy offer) in exchange for the referendum on AV (I don’t know the exact terms of the deal, but that’s how it came across). No wonder we lost both the referendum and most of our seats. Working out something in advance and being honest with voters would be a better strategy. That means convincing the other side that PR is actually a good idea.

  • I do despair of Lib Dems who claim Labour “aren’t progressive”. It was Labour governments who legalised divorce, abortion and same sex relations, abolished capital punishment, introduced the equal pay and race relations acts, the human rights act, civil partnerships, the NI peace process, the increase in foreign aid, devolution and created the NHS. All with the support of Liberals.

    Yes they have their authoritarian elements but what party doesn’t (the Lib Dem’s once had an MP who praised the regime in Cuba).

  • John Shoesmith 21st Jun '21 - 11:26am

    It’s a error to make Proportional Representation the aim of an Alliance. It isn’t what the British people want. They rejected it strongly at the referendum because they think it gives weak government.
    Under our current democratic rules an Alliance is our only route to power. It needs to deliver what most people in this country want – good relations with our neighbours, excellent education, environmental protection, science and industry, opportunity for our young people, effective public services. If we can do that then maybe we will convince people that political parties can work together to provide good government.

  • We have to do someting to prevent the Tories winning a big majority of seats on a minority of votes, but electoral pacts on a wide scale will not do that.
    In Bristol West (a Lib Dem seat 2005-15) Liberal Democrats stood down in 2019, but it was clear that many Lib Dem voters and activists preferred to vote for the sitting Labour MP, rather than the Green Party challenger. If there are to be any electoral pacts they should be done locally and in special cases, as with Tatton in 1997, Wyre Forest in 2001, or Brighton Pavillion in 2019.

    I prefer the approach that was used successfully in 1997 and 2001 where there was a tacit understanding between Lib Dems and Labour that in some seats the campaigns would be ‘paper.’ In most cases the target strategy of both parties would have led to the same conclusion anyway, and at least there is a candidate to vote for in nearly every seat.

    In 2019 Labour campaigned in seats like Finchley where they knew they were third to prevent Lib Dem gains, and lost other marginals in London and the SE to the Tories. Equally Lib Dems threw resources at London seats that were long shots and failed to support Carshalton. Neither party can afford such silly self indulgence next time.

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Jun '21 - 12:42pm

    @John Shoesmith
    “It’s a error to make Proportional Representation the aim of an Alliance. It isn’t what the British people want. They rejected it strongly at the referendum because they think it gives weak government.”
    How would you fix our broken democracy?

  • Mick Taylor 21st Jun '21 - 2:43pm

    Marco, sorry mate. Abortion and divorce were bills put forward by Liberal MP David Steel. Abolition of capital punishment and legalisation of same sex relationships were achieved by private members bills with support from Roy Jenkins, the then home secretary and same sex partnerships were pioneered by LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone. The NHS was legislated for on the basis of a report by Liberal MP William Beveridge.
    Labour are too often following the Liberal/LibDem lead on social legislation.
    Oh, and by the way, was it not the coalition that raised foreign aid to its highest level?

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Jun '21 - 5:24pm

    @Mick Taylor
    David Steel put forward the abortion bill but the Labour MP Leo Abse put forward the divorce one.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Abse

  • Mick Taylor 21st Jun '21 - 6:33pm

    The point was that they were not Labour initiatives but stemmed from private member’s bills

  • @ Mick Taylor

    I said that those changes were introduced under Labour governments with the support of liberals.

    Without support from Labour governments those private members bills would have stood no chance of succeeding.

    So the conclusion is that a Labour government is a pre-requisite to have a progressive agenda.

  • James Fowler 21st Jun '21 - 8:53pm

    This article is pretty much spot on.

  • John Shoesmith: What was rejected in the 2011 referendum was AV, not PR, after a totally dishonest No campaign (masterminded by Demonic Cummings, lest we forget) which supporters of reform failed to counter as we were far too flat-footed. It was a similar story to how the Brexit referendum was won. I don’t we can draw any conclusions from the AV referendum about the views of the electorate on an issue that most of them hardly ever give any thought to.

  • The Prog. Alliance worked for Oxfordshire CC and at Brecon and Richmond, although Labour were not involved.

    The ’97 informal approach by Ashdown & Blair worked for both parties and should be the minimum. I suspect it is being carried out on the quiet now for the current two by elections,

  • J LITTLER: Not sure how much the Unite to Remain alliance helped us in practice. In Richmond and Twickenham it could be argued we didn’t need the Green vote, such was the scale of our wins there. The same is true in most of the other seats we won where the Green stood aside (the one possible exception is Westmoreland & Lonsdale). It most likely helped us win the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election, but even so, many Plaid or Green supporters seem to have stayed at home rather than vote for us. Also because it was rather top-down in its implementation, it caused resentment among activists in some constituencies where it was applied.

    We can say that UTR mostly didn’t *harm* us, and may have helped us win one seat we might not have won without it. But any formal pact with Labour would be a different matter. A 1997-style informal agreement not to tread on each other’s toes in Tory-facing battlegrounds isn’t a “minimum” so much as the only sensible way to go. Such an agreement is, by its nature, “on the quiet”. I did see evidence of Labour activity when delivering in C&A, but the party seems to have only run a token campaign (Keir Starmer didn’t visit even once, although some Labour MPs did). Lib Dems in B&S are focusing our campaign on Tory-facing wards, courting the same sort of soft Tory voters as we did in C&A — people who are not keen on Johnson’s Tories but at the same time would rather vote for Count Binface than Labour.

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