Is a Progressive Alliance the way forward?

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

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  • I don’t think one covering the entire country can ever work but I think specific ones in specific seats might: for example I’d back a good Women’s Equality Party candidate in Shipley against Philip Davies, even though in general I think they’re a posh white women’s vanity project who couldn’t even be bothered to take a position on the most important political decision of my lifetime (brexit).

  • I think most Lib Dems can see the problem with any alliance that includes the Labour Party. Come the next GE the Tories would be out in force with their posters saying “Vote Lib Dem and get Corbyn as PM”. You need to be hammering the Labour Party and winning over their voters not making alliances with them.

  • The present rising of the right is largely due to the self-indulgence of the left attacking the centre (e.g. us in Government) as if we were the right. We should not countenance any encouragement for Labour until they put PR for Westminster (without a referendum) into their manifesto.

  • Perhaps staying away from HEADLINING and concentrating on policies might be a way forward? When Milliband was Labour leader the personal attacks were rife; now Corbyn is leader we see just more of the same…

    Reading the SNP and Labour manifestos there seems far, far more to agree with than disagree…
    Trying to get an agreed manifesto between opposition parties would be a start…..The problem is that, when in power, promises seem to be rather flexible…Sadly, LibDems are possibly the worst offenders on this (2010/15, anyone)…

  • David Sheppard 17th Dec '16 - 12:30pm

    More United is the way forward for thinking people to get together and vote for a candidate with moderate Labour, Liberal Democrat,Green views and shared values of any party that can win a seat. By the way Caroline Lucas has set the standard what a magnificent thing she did for our party and should not be forgotten.I hope we stand aside in Brighton for her and perhaps One more seat if the Greens have a realistic chance. More United less tribal=more seats for the Liberal cause.

  • David Evershed 17th Dec '16 - 12:49pm

    Liberal ideology is as far from Labour and Green as it is from Conservative ideology.

    The progressive alliance just seems to be a way of trying to turn the Lib Dems into a Labour Lite subsidiary of the Labour Party.

  • Perhaps our thinking would be clarified if we replace Progressive with Liberal ? There are Liberals in both Labour & The Greens but they are in a minority.
    British Politics is at a breaking point where we could see very big changes happen quickly, we need to keep our options open. The new “Progressive Alliance” could well be called The Libdems, we should not assume that we will need anyone else.

  • David Evershed 17th Dec ’16 – 12:49pm……..Liberal ideology is as far from Labour and Green as it is from Conservative ideology……..The progressive alliance just seems to be a way of trying to turn the Lib Dems into a Labour Lite subsidiary of the Labour Party…..

    Sadly, Liberal ideology has already proved as ‘negotiable’ (at least where the Right is concerned) as G.B.Shaw’s actress’s virtue…

  • Mick Taylor 17th Dec '16 - 1:26pm

    If we take expats approach we will never accept power because we can never compromise on anything.

  • Kay Kirkham 17th Dec '16 - 1:44pm

    Jennie Shipley has a female PPC so no need to look any further

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Dec '16 - 1:52pm

    Expats, its comments like these that prevent any form of negotiation with Labour as far as I can see. I attended a meeting in the early days of the Coalition when Nick Clegg was touring the country and basically he was savaged by Labour and shouted down for “propping up the Tories” when Labour walked away and hadn’t won as many seats as the Tories. We responded to the democratic decision of the electorate and, as recent Tory policies have shown, we did have some braking effect on the worst aspects of their policies.
    I used to think that I was closer to Labour than the Tories but when they were in power they did little to alleviate the situation of the poorest and weakest in our society, especially with regard to housing provision, they introduced privatisation into the NHS and used private debt to shore up the economy. I have recently moved from the South West to the North of England where Labour still holds sway and several Labour local authorities have criminalised the homeless, they make decisions behind closed doors so no one asks questions except the lone Lib Dem councillor on Manchester council and have been having internal bullying battles with Momentum.
    Is this the sort of party we should be giving up seats for? I don’t think so.

  • Laurence Cox 17th Dec '16 - 2:03pm

    @Andrew Brown

    You cannot run a ‘soft campaign’ in a General Election because that is a sure way to lose your deposit. Much better to have local agreements: the Lib Dems do not run a candidate against Caroline Lucas in Brighton and in return they do not run a candidate in, say, Lewes. We are not going to win even 50 seats, so that leaves 550 where, in principle we could stand down. If we and the Greens paired off the fifty best seats for each party, that would still leave us standing in 550 out of 600. When the Liberals and SDP stood in 1983, they stood as two separate parties – the negotiations were more difficult then because all seats were either Liberal or SDP, here we are not looking at more than 20% where one Party or the other stands down.

    As far as going into this sort of arrangement with Labour is concerned, I think that it is a waste of time, even the Blairites are too tribal, let alone the Corbynites. We would have a better chance with the SNP if they decided to stand candidates in English constituencies.

  • Mick Taylor 17th Dec ’16 – 1:26pm
    If we take expats approach we will never accept power because we can never compromise on anything….

    That is NOT what I said.

    BTW..How can you reconcile your sentence above with your 12.29pm…”Liberal ideology is as far from Labour and Green as it is from Conservative ideology”?

  • Tony Greaves 17th Dec '16 - 2:47pm

    No. Anyway who thinks Andy Burnham is a progressive?

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Dec '16 - 4:28pm

    In theory progressivism and a progressive alliance make sense, but the Greens and Labour aren’t very progressive. My heart doesn’t say “yeah, I want an alliance with those parties!” – I don’t want them to win.

    Most seem to say an alliance with Labour whilst Corbyn is leader is dangerous electorally, and I agree, but an alliance with the Greens is also dangerous electorally.

    The Greens could actually be harder to work with – they might have better leaders, but their membership base has never had to sully themselves with national power and I don’t think they would take it very well. Too uncompromising for government.

  • Richard Elliott 17th Dec '16 - 5:24pm

    Re positioning for the next general election there will be just as many (probably more) moderate tory remain votes as labour ones in the seats where libs can win, thus publically the line has to strictly neutral focusing on a few policies – notably pro-Europe, political reform including local devolution, and not pacts or alliances. Although some local deals may be possible as Laurence cox mentions. I like the more united solution to the progressive alliance which is not party focused and would urge others to support it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Dec '16 - 5:30pm

    Such a sensible piece and so many sensible comments.

    In my youth I was a member of the Labour party and as much as I liked the Liberal SDP Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats , where I lived it was the Labour Party or Tories. It helped that our local candidate was the yet to be elected, ex Liberal , Peter Hain , a very decent man , kind to me in my early political days and much liked by our local youth section. I would have loved an alliance with the , as I saw it , friends in other parties of the centre left. But I was in the party of Kinnock , Smith , and Blair , in , as Tim Farron puts it , the period of his , ” earlier work !”

    As I came to realise I had , openly, not been a socialist , but a social democrat ,” your’e a rightwinger , Lorenzo !” a charge levelled at me by some , and the sound of ” Kinnock’s a class traitor !” something heard from time to time , I came to realise in the course of my searching , and thinking , and studying , I was a Liberal as much or more than anything .

    As Charles Kennedy and Sir Ming Campbell impressed so much during the Iraq war , and as I had since gone off the far too broad and divided and for me discredited Labour Party , in 2004 I first joined the Liberal Democrats.

    In the present climate I feel more in common with the Anna Soubreys and Bright Blue sometimes tan with Labour .

    But then I see a Clive Lewis talk sense , or welcome an outstanding person like Kate Godfrey to our party from Labour , and I think of the late great Jo Cox , and … who knows …?!

    I do know this . With proportional representation we could be much more potent independent and in coalitions .

    But how to get it . ??? There is the case for a progressive alliance .But not while Labour is led as now !!!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Dec '16 - 1:52am


    Your enthusiasm is welcome , but this party , no one in it , wants a one issue party , electoral oblivion ! As the issue ceases importance , thus the party . UKIP are scratching for a role , the Tories grubbing for a success.

    This party needs to embrace the issues at hand that are the main issues, and be brave or correct or hopefully both on the supposedly smaller issues .

    Above all , it , and we need to speak to and with and for people , as individuals , vulnerable in difficult times economically and politically .

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Dec '16 - 2:19am

    Again, if the Lib Dems go all-out anti-brexit then soft-brexiters will go elsewhere.

  • Why would anyone want a ” short, time-limited parliament specifically to remove FPTP (and the Lords) and replace with PR (and an elected second chamber.” while at the same time preaching that the parties advocating it are incapable of working together?

    It’s quite sad to see people writing how we should do this or that campaigning when the vast majority of the UK hasn’t seen Focus leaflet in years. I know of seats we held in 2015 where virtually nothing has happened since, so what do people think is happening in seats where we have no councillors and polled 5% of the vote ? The Tories will say vote Lib Dem get Labour whatever we do, the only way to counter that is to have a coherent narrative of changing not just FPTP but politics. No one advocating a pact thinks it is without problems, but if the go it alone approach was going to yield success it would have done so in the last 100 years, and it hasn’t.

  • Opinion poll in the Guardian Today, Cons 38%, Lab 31% UKIP 13% SNP 6% Lib Dems 6% Greens 4%. I take it all back, clearly we are heading victory without the need to work with anyone from any other party.

  • It’s a very difficult vote to win for a progressive party when the current playing field is as it is. After the last GE even UKIP were saying that the current way of doing things was not fair and needed looking at so people didn’t feel there was such a gap between Westminster and the rest of the UK, which UKIP then used in the EU referendum.

    The Conservatives won a small majority based on that playing field and thusly (as others may have done before them) acted to make sure their politics was ingrained into the system and could not be easily changed but they also acted to change the system of our democracy to do the same: think cutting short-money, changing boundaries, inflating then attacking then inflating the house of lords…

    If progressive politics having some sort of arrangement means that the playing field becomes more level with a greater focus on the strength of political argument then surely it has to be generally considered positively.

  • And here in Wales, we also have Plaid calling for this progressive alliance. As I try to work out all the pros and cons, the cons far outweigh the pros. It’s a no brainer unless it’s sole aim is to change the voting system to a form of PR that everyone can support, as well as replacing the House of Lords with a new elected 2nd Chamber.

  • >And here in Wales, we also have Plaid calling for this progressive alliance
    Which is going to work well, given that in my corner of Wales, Plaid and Labour aren’t exactly besties!

    Meanwhile, today’s (Glasgow) Sunday Herald has Chris Mullin saying: “A TORY scare tactic claiming Labour would form a pact with “wicked Scottish nationalists” helped win them power and they will use it at every future General Election to frighten English voters.”

  • I have to concur with expat and caracatus above. I don’t think that, in our time, the definition of `progressive` is a difficult one to make. A Progressive is anyone who takes an internationalist perspective on current issues to do with migration and climate change, and so on – and hence who finds themselves to be ranged against the current upsurge in right wing populism. Accordingly, this is no time to be splitting hairs or indulging in ideological purism , and still less in petty feuding. Such things are a luxury when confronted with the Brexit Tories who are more and more dancing to UKIP’s tune (and thus representing a re-alignment on the right).

    I for one feel that I have a whole lot in common with the Greens in terms of attitudes and policies: it’s just the pesky matter of them putting `the environment` *first*, over and above people that divides us. As for Labour: I fail to feel afraid of Corbyn’s nostalgic brand of state-socialism. When this is not disguised Keynesianism (which I can live with) it is mere ineffectual posturing – about as much a threat to anything as Michael Foot’s donkey jacket was. The people who vote Labour, meanwhile, are often doing so because they wish for a fairer society, or even just to poke the Tories in the eye – both of which I can relate to.

    We might do well to remember that we Liberal democrats are *ourselves* a progressive alliance – one between Liberals and Social Democrats, and thus well placed to be at the centre of any new re-alignment.

  • David Evershed 18th Dec '16 - 12:41pm

    As Edward C almost said, LibDems are a coalition between Economic Liberals and Social Liberals.

    I would also point out what the Australian High Commissioner said the Sunday Politics show today, which is that the UK very much promote freetrade whilst the majority of the EU countries are protectionist.

    So the UK’s liberal internationalist freetrade tradition is more aligned with Brexit than with staying in the protectionist EU.

  • david franks 18th Dec '16 - 6:27pm

    You have to ask just how progressive is the Labour Party? They say they support a proportional voting system, have included it in their manifesto before, but every time they have had the oportunity to vote for it in the Commons they have refused to do so. How can they be relied upon to deliver?

  • Loads of good points in this discussion, so I will resist repeating them all, except to say that I support the limited use of deals with suitable candidates from suitable parties, subject to the willingness of local supporters. It’s apparent that few would object to us standing aside for Caroline Lucas in Brighton, and I support extending that to some more constituencies, but not too many. How many is just right? We will require detailed analysis of voting patterns, and a realistic assessment of the mood of local party members and activists.

    There’s not nearly enough political will from the Labour party leadership to consider a formal alliance, and I don’t think the public would have the stomach for it. I doubt Corbyn would survive in any coalition, but clearly he’s a big turn-off for everyone except a sub-section of the Labour party.

    The More United approach of backing individual candidates who support their values has more flexibility, and gets to ignore the more sectarian attitudes of some members of political parties. They haven’t yet firmed up their detailed policies, because they want that to be decided by members, so what they stand for is a bit woolly, but I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t very compatible with a LibDem manifesto*. Their approach will not require any party to stand-down, and voters will retain full choice, but they will support one candidate that should be palatable to the sort of person interested in an alliance and makes tactical voting more effective.

    Most of us can think of representatives of other parties who we could work with, but also think of other representatives from the same party that we wouldn’t want to work with. The challenge/trick is to encourage those parties to put forward the candidates that we could work with. Are they (we) more likely to do this if an alliance is on the books? Regarding the Greens, I agree with them on many things, but it’s apparent that many of their ideas are intended to be talking points and to influence the debate, rather than fully formed policies for government. I actually like that about them, but I struggle with some members loving protesting and placards more than the boring evidence. We must insist that any Green candidate is serious about taking an evidence-based approach to policy.

    *I would strongly encourage anyone vaguely interested in this to sign up to become a member so you get to shape those detailed policies.

  • Pacts, formal or informal, are a non starter for all the reasons explained so eloquently above. Our best hope is that voters of a liberal/progressive persuasion will have the cunning to vote tactically. Hopefully Greens / non authoritarian Labour will flock to us in seats we can win and we will have the grace to return the favour.
    Problem is, having denied the Tories an overall majority in this manner, would we be willing to join a Rainbow Coalition ? And if Labour were the largest member of that coalition (which still seems probable), would we put Corbyn into No.10 ?

  • Simon Banks 20th Dec '16 - 8:25pm

    Hammering the Labour Party, as opposed to pointing out their weaknesses, is not the way to win tactical voters, so important to beating the Tories, especially in the Westcountry. Such voters have to see us as having something in common with Labour. They can stand there being important differences too.

    I think while Jeremy Corbyn remains Labour leader, which one can assume he will now probably do till 2020, a full-blooded alliance is very difficult. Remember that in 1997 and 2001 it was perfectly clear that we were closer to Labour than the Tories, though of course not identical. This did not put off many Tory voters. But then, the Labour leader was clearly a credible Prime Minister (I think credibility counts for more than policy).

    Any arrangement, however, could be around co-operating on a limited number of policies that could be agreed by most people in Labour, us, the Greens and Plaid Cymru and would not be delivered by Theresa May’s Tories. That is doable. Labour, being low at present, might even be prepared to look at electoral reform. Such an agreement would specifically not be an agreement to go into government together or even to block a minority Tory government. It would also have to be agreed by the relevant parties at local level – no repeat of the Liberal-SDP carve up, which was at least between two parties not miles apart.

    Finally, before dismissing all thoughts of a progressive alliance, consider that it need not be top-down. More United delivered good numbers of helpers to Richmond Park and the perception that Labour torpedoed co-operation may well have contributed to their wretched result.

  • John Littler 23rd Dec '16 - 5:18pm

    “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? YES WHY NOT, WE ARE NOT GOING TO WIN IT.

    “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.)”. A VERY UNUSUAL EXCEPTION TO THE GENERAL RULE. WHERE A SITTING MP EXISTS WITHIN A PROGRESSIVE ALLIANCE, YOU DON’T FIGHT AMONG YOURSELVES AGAINST THEM, OBVIOUSLY.

    You could make this about Brexit, PR for westminster and a mainly elected upper house. You could probably also agree an industrial strategy. Labour’s position is closer to Vince’s.

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