Dick Newby writes: Are progressive alliances needed to win?

Ever since Boris won the 2019 General Election, there has been growing talk of the need for a “progressive alliance” to stop the Tories winning the next election.

Quite what this might involve is unclear. Some would like a national pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens so only one party would stand in each seat, and others want simply to promote greater tactical voting and other parties to scale back their campaigning where another party is the main challenger.

Helpfully, the by-elections in both Batley and Spen and Chesham & Amersham give us some insight into how this could work and how voters might react.

Chesham & Amersham: a victory for tactical voting

Let’s take Chesham & Amersham first, where the Liberal Democrats started in firm second place. We fought a vigorous campaign and proved early Green party claims that they were going to be the main challenger wrong. People who were traditionally Labour voters, realising that their vote could make a difference, decided to tactically lend their vote to the Lib Dems – including some Party members and activists.

Despite Labour frontbenchers visiting the constituency the Party did not campaign with any real intensity. As a result, Labour’s vote share fell from 12.8% to 1.6%, shifting overwhelmingly to the yellow column. The Green vote also went down, albeit to a lesser extent (from 5.5% to 3.9%), for the same reasons.

In the end, the Liberal Democrats could have won the seat without large scale tactical voting taking place. However, it would’ve been a close call and weakened the impact of the win. It also would’ve given the Tories a better chance of reclaiming the seat at the next General Election.

Batley & Spen: the unseen benefit of progressive co-operation?

In Batley and Spen, the Lib Dems faced calls to not stand to help Labour fend off the Tories. However, our support was concentrated in Cleckheaton, where we have sitting Councillors – including my colleague in the Lords, Kath Pinnock. Because of this, we took the decision to campaign only in Tory-facing areas and focus on reaching out to voters who would otherwise vote Conservative.

In the event, our candidate Tom Gordon got 1,254 votes, a number four times the size of the Labour majority. Had we not focused to winning over Conservative votes and had some of our supporters not loaned Labour their vote, the result would have been very different.

Conclusions from the ground

So, what conclusions can we draw from these by-elections?

Firstly, local people had a good understanding of the electoral arithmetic in their seat, and people whose main aim was to prevent a Tory win voted accordingly.

Secondly, this was achieved without parties standing down and throwing their weight behind each other (the failure of the Greens to field a candidate in Batley was not a strategic decision.)

Thirdly, the Liberal Democrats are the only party that can win over substantial numbers of Conservative voters and our vote is not simply made up of people who would otherwise Labour.

Fourthly, and arguably most significantly, the by-elections have shown that the Tory juggernaut can be beaten when people vote tactically.

An endorsement of progressive alliances?

So what are the implications of these by-elections for those whose main objective is preventing a Tory majority?

First of all, they are a source of optimism. The Tories lost both contests, despite expecting a win and despite the Prime Minister being deployed on visits to both in the run up to polling day. This suggests their organisation and political intelligence isn’t as good as they think.

There is no reason to believe that the motivation of voters in these two very different seats is different from that of voters elsewhere across the country. And as a result, the possibility of tactical voting playing a large part in the result of the next election, is clearly considerable.

If this is to happen, however, several things are necessary.

Unlike in the by-elections, where there was a high level of campaigning and focus on who could beat the Conservatives, in many seats, particularly where constituency boundaries do not follow those of natural communities, voters may be less clear about who’s the main challenger. There needs to be national, as well as local, publicity on the potential for tactical voting to change the result in individual seats.

There also needs to be a willingness from parties to be more targeted in their campaigning in seats where they cannot win, something which didn’t always happen in 2019 and was a major factor in the Tory win.

2019 and the importance of collaboration

For Liberal Democrats, it was particularly frustrating to see intensive Labour efforts in places like Wimbledon, which allowed the Conservatives to cling on. The same phenomenon applied elsewhere too, not least where candidates starting from poor third places campaigned hard to burnish their credentials and thus make it easier for them to be selected for a more winnable seat in the future.

There needs to be more discussion on the issues where the parties broadly agree. For Liberal Democrats, and I suspect the Greens, there needs to be an unequivocal commitment by Labour to ditch the broken First Past The Post electoral system, which can see Governments win a majority of seats with as little as 37% of the vote.

But there is most definitely not a case for a single national slate of non-Tory candidates, or indeed of widespread standing down of candidate. This is bad in principle – as political parties do not own voters – and is often counter-productive in practice.

There is also the issues of seats, particularly in the northern cities and Scotland/Wales, where the local contests are very often between two or more non-Tory parties. Trying to reach agreement to stand aside in these areas simply isn’t an option.

The by-elections shown that, with sensible co-operation, the Conservatives can be beaten. We must carry this success forward to the next General Election, whenever it comes.

* Dick Newby is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

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22 Comments

  • Christopher Oxford 13th Jul '21 - 12:43pm

    Neal Lawson of the centre-left campaign group Compass has been promoting discussion of cross-party co-operation to maximise the electoral potential of the progressive majority, and in this recent ‘Guardian’ piece, he lays out how a Progressive Alliance can work in practice.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/24/how-progressive-alliance-tory-britain

    As you’ll see, the optimum model is more Ashdown/Blair 1997 than single slate. Any consideration of the idea must be realistic: only 1 in 5 seats ever change hands in a single General Election, and the LDs only have the resources to focus on places we have a realistic chance. (Faith we can leap from nowhere to first, as was suggested in Kensington in 2019, is invariably misplaced.) What we need to achieve is to win enough of our target seats, and allow Labour and the Greens to win seats elsewhere by not actively campaigning, to decisively deprive the Conservatives of their majority, and enable a viable non-Conservative government to take power. The state of the country now, and its prospective fate if the Conservatives were to win a fifth term, are so grim that we cannot allow partisanship to stand in the way of pragmatism – even if some party feathers are ruffled in the process.

  • No great wish to disagree with my fellow West Yorkie Dick Newby, but I do agree that the party best placed to defeat this awful Johnsonian Government should be supported….. something that’s already clearly happened/happening in Scotland.

    However, unless some neutral polling organisation does a bit of post election doorstep research in Birkenshaw, East Bierley, Gpmersal, Drub, Birstall, Cleckheaton, and Heckmondwike (where Kim and Jo were Head Girl) nobody really knows conclusively what happened in detail in Batley & Spen…..

    …….other than the anonymous Tories blew it because they thought they could walk it,

    …….Galloway’s ego trip was thwarted thank goodness (he won’t be seen there again)

    ……. A lot of decent folk of all parties voted with their hearts…… for Kim.

    Not sure what the Lib Dems gained. Maybe Dick can tell us.

  • nvelope2003 13th Jul '21 - 3:24pm

    In the 1923 election the Liberals won 159 seats and supported the Labour Government. In 1924 they managed 40 seats of which only 8 were won in three cornered seats i.e. facing a Conservative and Labour candidate. There was the odd unopposed return but the rest were won probably because either the Conservatives or Labour did not stand. It was the end of the Liberal Party as a real contender for power which it had been for about 70 years. and the Whigs for about 200 years before. So much for progressive alliances. Alliances with Irish Nationalists in 1910, Conservatives in 1918, 1931 and 2010 and Labour in 1929 and 1976 ? resulted in various other disasters. Time to think again ?

  • Peter Martin 13th Jul '21 - 4:04pm

    “In the event, our candidate Tom Gordon got 1,254 votes, a number four times the size of the Labour majority. Had we not focused to winning over Conservative votes and had some of our sup porters not loaned Labour their vote, the result would have been very different.”

    Maybe slightly different.

    Lets take a look at the numbers:

    Labour: 35.3% ( -7.4)
    Tory: 34.4% (-1.6)
    Workers Party: 21.9% (new)
    Lib Dem: 3.3% (-1.3)

    As the WP picked up more than 6 times as many votes as the Lib Dems it would be reasonable to suggest they had more than 6 times as much effect on the final result.

    In 2017 the Labour Party had 55.5% of the vote. This is not far off the combined total of the WP and Labour Party in the bye election. It dropped by 12.8 pts in 2019 and another 7.4 pts in the by-election to be 35.3%. Just enough to get them over the line but otherwise there is nothing much for Labour to celebrate.

    The stated objective of George Galloway was to bring about a Labour defeat. Most of his vote would have come from the 55% who voted Labour in 2017 but have been unhappy with their party ever since. They will almost certain to be be pro Brexit, they won’t like Keir Starmer and they will want to register a protest. If George Galloway hadn’t stood many would have abstained but enough would have voted Tory to overcome their 323 vote deficit.

    George Galloway won it for Labour. It was a massive own goal on his part.

  • nvelope2003 13th Jul '21 - 4:21pm

    And the Conservative vote fell, if only by 1.6%, in a seat they were expected, by almost everyone, to win easily !

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Jul '21 - 4:28pm

    David

    I think some Tory votes went Liberal democrat, thus did help Kim. I agree with a Progressive, or I,d call it Social Democratic Alliance, but some think it not possible. I think more like Clive Lewis and layla Moran are necessary for it!

  • Paul Barker 13th Jul '21 - 5:11pm

    The problem with the debate about Alliances is that Labour & The Greens get lumped in together, as though they were even remotely comparable.

    There are two seperate strategies needed, one for Labour & one for The GPEW. For Labour we need to persuade as many Labour & Libdem activists as possible to focus on Target Seats – a repeat of 1997.

    With The greens in England & Wales actual Deals may be possible in some places & may be useful but if thats what some of go for we need to start now, or sooner.

  • Big Tall Tim 13th Jul '21 - 5:17pm

    Dick is absolutely right.
    If Labour commit to PR, non-aggression pact yes, single non- Tory candidate in each seat no.
    As someone who has only a bit more time for Labour or the Greens, than I do for the Tories, but who recognises we’re falling into a one party state and all the danger that brings, a one-off non-aggression pact to then enact PR, is what this country so badly needs for the next election.

  • Big Tall Tim 13th Jul ’21 – 5:17pm:
    If Labour commit to PR,..

    Labour already have PR: 31.1% of MPs from 32.1% of the votes. It’s hard to see why they would want to change the system and risk votes hemorrhaging away to smaller parties.

  • Big Tall Tim 13th Jul '21 - 10:24pm

    So they don’t have much to lose by supporting PR…in fact, they would slightly gain from it.
    What they will gain in the seats they need to win is the non-existent campaigning by us and the Greens.

  • Peter Watson 14th Jul '21 - 8:05am

    “Conclusions from the ground”
    An obvious question mark here is over the extent to which any of these conclusions, based upon a couple of high-profile by-elections that make no noticeable difference to the distribution of seats in Parliament, can be applied to the scenario of a national general election.

    Another obvious question mark is over the extent to which even these by-election results reflect anything other than a level of dissatisfaction with one particular Tory government and its leader at one particular time rather than a widespread demand for a progressive alternative. Indeed, the Lib Dem campaign in Chesham & Amersham appeared to be about being more small-c conservative than the big-C Conservatives: opposition to HS2 and building/development rather than campaigning on the sort of social and economic reform discussed by Lib Dems on this site.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jul '21 - 9:51am

    Both Labour and Lib Dems need to concentrate on recovering and increasing their vote share rather than trying corral what they think might have been their previous voters. The Labour vote in the B&S by-election was 20 percentage points down on the 2017 by-election. They only won because of the vagaries of our FPTP system. Lib Dems usually tell us how unfair this is – but not this time.

    Any pact or alliance will largely be counterproductive for both . Tory inclined voters will be less likely to vote Lib Dem. Disgruntled Labour voters will be more likely to vote for new parties of the left such as the Workers Party.

  • No – it’s nothing more than a sign that politics is getting back to a form of normal, after the disruption caused first by the coalition government, then Brexit and, most recently, Covid. Voters are now beginning to question the Tory government again, after giving them the benefit of the doubt over Covid – and the alternative was a Corbyn-led fisaco.

    This whole debate around a progressive alliance is all rather pointless. The Tories will lose power at some point – it’s just a matter of when. Alliances, deals or whatever won’t make much difference. And heaven help us if the only motivation is “preventing a Tory majority” – that’s a recipe for a dismal alternative government that will herald greater Tory success the following time.

    How about this? Opposition parties have some ambition and try to attract voters for positive reasons, rather than by just not being Tory. As Lord Newby points out, electors are perfectly able to figure out how to cast their votes to get a change locally.

    But in the end, it boils down to leadership – and the binary choice between alternative prime ministers in our current system. In 1992, voters preferred Major to Kinnock, more recently, voters preferred anyone to Corbyn. We can cooperate all we like, but if the likely alternative PM is much less popular than the incumbent, any form of progressive alliance won’t make any difference.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jul '21 - 11:07am

    The latest polling from Survation shows an increased Tory lead of 11%. So what difference will a progressive alliance make?

    The message from the right is that Keir Starmer isn’t doing any better than Jeremy Corbyn because he’s not moved sufficiently far from his predecessor. He needs to be more like Tony Blair and move to the centre ground! I’m not quite sure why they think this will work any better for the Labour Party than it is currently doing for the Lib Dems.

    https://www.survation.com/conservative-lead-jumps-to-11-points/

  • Peter Martin 14th Jul '21 - 11:14am

    @ Guy,

    “…..more recently, voters preferred anyone to Corbyn”

    Except Jo Swinson, perhaps?

  • Guy is right in my opinion.
    I would start for us with an analysis of our own party. When resources are limited you dépend a lot on the enthusiasm of members. The results of having a group of enthusiasts in an area can be seen over many years.
    This is not some strange LibDem phenomenon. The same can be seen in some elections in various places. It is more Important for LibDems because of lack of other resources.
    The worst thing that the party nationally could do would be to have negotiations with other parties on where to find a strong campaign and where to have little activity. This top down approach not produce results.
    The job that has to be done by the party nationally is to support local parties. The task that only they can do is to build up enthusiasm by first class communication with members and finding what they need to get results locally.
    They must then recognise the need for a bottom up approach.
    The party should be driven by the members. That would at least give us a chance.

  • On the polls, individual Polls should be ignored unless they break new ground, the general trend of Polls in the last month is for the Tory lead to decline – wiki have a nice graph.

  • @Peter, it’s definitely fair to say that we can’t stick all of our eggs in the “people are realising Boris is awful” basket, and it’s almost inevitable that the Tories will find themselves a new leader should they believe he’s a serious liability to their electoral chances.

    However, I do wonder if you are basing your view on how people voted in Chesham and Amersham on personal experience, or the opinion pieces by people who normally support Labour or the Tories who are inevitably trying to set their own narrative. I wasn’t there myself, so it’s all second hand information (at best) for me, but from what I have heard from a variety of people who were there, the shift away from the Tories was more about their general approach than specifically an anti-HS2 protest, or even the deregulation of planning (though it is interesting to opposition to deregulation described as ‘conservative’).

    Rather, it was an accumulation of things and a sense that the behaviour of the current Conservative Government doesn’t match their views of what the Conservative party is supposed to stand for. How many of those traditional Tory voters who stayed at home
    or switched did so in the hope that their protest would encourage corrective action? How many switched because they are fed up with the lot of them and would like a different government? We can expect some will vote Conservative next time, but it’s our job to remind voters in these sorts of seats that even if there’s a nice new shiny face in Number 10 come the next election, the side they’ve seen in the last couple of years is a permanent feature of the Conservatives, never far from the surface.

    The challenge is doing this without it coming across as an attack on those who used to vote Conservative. The bigger challenge is doing that whilst in any kind of visible agreement with the Labour party or their activists.

    I’d say we have a fair chance of holding onto C&A come the next election, but we must be realistic that it’s not going to be easy and the same approach won’t be possible.

  • Peter Watson 14th Jul '21 - 2:20pm

    @Fiona “I do wonder if you are basing your view on how people voted in Chesham and Amersham on personal experience …”
    Neither, really. The candidate’s website made it pretty clear what the campaign priorities were. I’ve not seen any of the leaflets that were sent out and I don’t know what the conversations were like on the doorstep, but I’m guessing that not many were about Lib Dem support for HS2 and a dislike of grammar schools like those in the constituency! 😉 Before the by-election, I found this article about the campaign strategy on the Cambridge University Liberal Association website interesting: http://cula.org.uk/2021/06/13/why-im-not-going-to-chesham-and-amersham/

    On reflection, how people voted and how Lib Dems campaigned are quite different things. At first glance, the results suggest that, in the absence of exit polling information, the result could have been due to Tory voters staying at home rather than changing allegiance. In the context of a so-called “progressive alliance”, I also found this article, published after the Chesham & Amersham result, to be an interesting read about Lib Dem strategy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/voter-suppression-lib-dem-style-chesham-and-amersham-election/

    It would be wonderful if the Chesham & Amersham result signified a hunger for radical and progressive politics with voters in those affluent Lib Dem target seats looking to redistribute their wealth elsewhere, but I’ve not seen any evidence to suggest that is the case. Indeed, the party seems to be deliberately pitching its strategy as a grab for disaffected Tory voters as if Ed Davey is little more than the new Theresa May! 🙁

  • Thank you to Peter Watson for the links, especially the one from the local paper.
    Calling vigorous campaigning voter suppression without any evidence whatsoever certainly should win a prize for imaginative journalism. I have sympathy for the staff member struggling to interpret a significant Tory defeat in a positive light. I have no sympathy whatsoever for a newspaper prepared to publish this sort of nonsense.
    The reality appears to involve that the party was already campaigning hard in the constituency. They were seen as the best placed to beat the Tories.
    The lessons for the party must include that to win there needs to be enthusiasm from the members. People with liberal sympathies need to be persuaded to join with the party. They need to be persuaded that they can make a real difference.

  • Richard Scott 16th Jul '21 - 9:00am

    I am a member of the Liberal Democrats and Compass.

    I have read many fair points in the above comments regarding the challenges of the Progressive Alliance approach.

    Such a strategy may indeed involve a “stand aside” approach in some seats, based on the underlying political maths. It could also involve targeted campaigning, unified tactical voting recommendations and so on. These options need to take into account the dynamics between political interests at the local government and Westminster levels, whether voters from a second or third placed “progressive” party would indeed switch to a “preferred” progressive party, or to the Tories themselves. And so on.

    But the elephant in the room for everyone in this party is as follows: our current “vote for our party everywhere” strategy has resulted in a Conservative government for four consecutive general elections (once in coalition with the LibDems!).

    Despite the outstanding win in Chesham and Amersham, I frankly see no other credible strategy for defeating the Conservatives at the next General Election that does not involve some kind of Progressive Alliance strategy. What has changed since 2019 when we were once again almost wiped out in Westminster despite a 50% increase in votes from 2017?

    But to reject outright any consideration of cooperative campaigning with Labour and the Greens is political nonsense. Politics is inherently about compromise and coalitions. To deny this is to deny the nature of politics itself.

    It saddens me to say this, but I worry that, for many Liberal Democrats (including many MPs and senior Party leaders), the summit of their ambition seems to be 20-30 Westminster MPs, running a few District Councils, and the occasional by-election win.

    That’s not enough. That is not nearly enough. Our immediate goal must be to remove this Conservative Government from power. We all know what is happening and the direction our country is taking under the Johnson regime. Unless each and every one of us truly commits to this goal, then we are consigning ourselves to irrelevance.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Jul '21 - 3:47pm

    While I agree with most of this post it is important not to underestimate the task to unseat the Government at the next General Election. The Party could do more to support non-aligned bodies such as Unlock Democracy, Make Votes Matter and the ERS that make the case and provide the information to make tactical voting work. Let’s hope this election will be the last under FPTP.

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