LDV interview: Chris Bowers talks about The Alternative

The AlternativeLast week, Chris Bowers wrote about The Alternative, the book exploring the potential of a progressive alliance he has co-edited with Green co-leader Caroline Lucas and Labour MP Lisa Nandy.

I have really enjoyed reading the book. After a referendum campaign filled with divisiveness and nastiness, it’s good for the soul to read about how progressive ideas on the economy, immigration, public services could improve our society and our democracy.

While the book offers a vision of what life could be like, it doesn’t, nor does it claim to, provide a roadmap for getting there. Too many barriers and obstacles stand in the way and more work has to be done to overcome them – if the political will exists.

So, my first question to Chris was basically, how realistic is all of this?

Politics is in disrepute so co-operation is paramount and we need to start out on a path of exploration to see what is possible.

People didn’t vote Tory or for Brexit because of a passion for them. We need to look at ways of making politics more relevant to their lives.

He went on to talk about the  article written by Uffe Elbœk one of the founders of The Alternative movement in Denmark:

The Alternative tackled the sterility of politics. They road tested ideas in a totally new way and they were successful.

Yes, said I, they got 9 MPs, but the Danes still elected a right wing government.

Of course, we did as well, and Chris pointed out that this happened in the UK because the left was split. .

He said that there were seats where only one opposition party has a realistic chance of beating the Tories

We need to look at common ideas expressed by people who are concerned about creating a caring and compassionate society and offer an alternative force for government

The elephant in the room, of course,  is Jeremy Corbyn.  Even if he were inclined to co-operate, his association with a progressive alliance could be pretty toxic. We saw what the Tories Any association of him would be killed by the Tories, wouldn’t it?

The project for cross party co-operation is not dependent on one individual. We have to acknowledge that Corbyn represents a political direction supported by a lot of people.

That said, he acknowledges that  there is an  element of the Corbynista that doesn’t want to co-operate

Bowers thinks that it will defuse lots of tensions if we work more together as parties. That certainly became true during the independence referendum in Scotland, in my experience.

The book looks at three examples of Lab/Lib Dem coalition at council level. Why, I asked, did they not include probably the strongest example of Lib Labbery about – the Scottish coalition which ran from 1999-2007.  That did some transformational stuff including STV for local government, free tuition and free personal care.  I was surprised by his answer. “Yes, you’re right. We probably should have done.” Not a hint of defensiveness, which I admired. He had approached the LGA Lib Dem group for examples but hadn’t thought beyond local government in England.

I asked why the Lib Dem contributors were all male. They were all very good and there was certainly no deliberate attempt to exclude women, but, still, it’s not a great look for the party that’s the least diverse in both Holyrood and Westminster. There were plenty women who could have contributed.

Bowers said that they were trying to strike all sorts of balances and there were actually more Lib Dems than Labour in the book.

That Lib Dem contribution  included two very different articles from Duncan Brack and Andrew George. Brack looks at the lessons of the Blair/Ashdown project and makes the case for more covert co-operation rather than electoral alliances. Andrew George, on the other hand, looks at things like joint selection of candidates. In a world where voters were terrified by a prospect of Labour working with the SNP, is such joint working even possible now?

Bowers said that the value of these contributions is that they looked at all the options. He sees the possibility of unofficial 3 seat deals where everyone puts up a candidate but there’s a non aggression pact. He gave the example of 3 Sussex seats – Lewes where the Lib Dems are the clear challengers to the Conservatives, Kemptown where Labour are in pole position and Brighton Pavilion where Caroline Lucas holds the seat.

You have to brainstorm everything because, as Bowers put it, “every now and again the unthinkable might become viable.”

Will Labour give enough away, though? Will they ever agree to PR.

Bowers cites Katie Ghose’s piece for Labour List in which she says very clearly that it’s in Labour’s interests to do so.

I asked what he thought about More United, the initiative backed by Paddy Ashdown.

He said he like the idea in principle as a good aid agency for the right candidates but he was dubious about the tactics.

Nothing I’ve sen convinces me that it wouldn’t end up supporting two candidates against each other.

He wold like to see that tactical awareness rather than just support for individual candidates.

By setting out the criteria, though, for joint working, though, he thinks it’s a welcome step.

I mused that all this all has to be the end of equidistance. By working with progressives, we have to say that we aren’t going to work with the Tories,

“I don’t like equidistance,” he said, “because it defines us in terms of other parties. Stronger Economy Fairer Society allowed us to be defined like that. In the debate of 7 leasders, you could sum up what 6 of the 7 parties were about in a few words but that wasn’t the case for us.”

Although he admires Nick Clegg, he does think that we lost some of that distinct identity under his leadership.

But in 2010, he believes, we had to follow the dictates of the people. He is comfortable that coalition with the Conservatives then was the only option and doesn’t rule it out again in the future – so long as we are clear about what we stand for.  He thinks we may well still get credit for what we did in government.

He adds that it might well come down to electoral reform.  The Tories won’t consider it, but Labour might. He also suggests we don’t talk about PR, but about a voting system in which everyone’s voice is heard.

I saw Gordon Brown at the Edinburgh Book Festival the other day. He was talking about a constitutional convention and I was keen to find out Bowers’ view.

He  isn’t mad about the idea because he feels it sounds too removed from people. Instead,  he argues that we need to be getting them excited about politics and give them confidence that the political process can help them.

The Alternative, edited by Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy and Chris Bowers, is published by Biteback Publishing and can be bought here.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Sep '16 - 2:23pm


    Your analysis and reflectiveness is excellent here.

    I especially agree with your commenting on the lack of mention , let alone exploration, of the real first coalition in decades, that of Donald Dewer and Jim Wallace. It is such a shame that such sensible and genuine co operation could not have been continued , and the Jenkins report implemented, and Tony Blair perhaps in government with Paddy and a different era .

    But we are here and the elephant in the room is too big . And though I was in Labour once , the decent contributors to the book are a million miles from the loud commentators on the web sites. They reflect a Labour party full of anger , even hatred, for other than Corbyn , by some or many voices there. For some or many of us , Corbyn and his politics,is what we did not like or want when we were in Labour , and sure as anything do not want it in the Liberal Democrats !

    It may seem a sideshow to those more forgiving or less understanding of the ideology of the far left , but anyone who was in Labour and in London, and in my case both and a youth , in the eighties , cannot forget why from a different party then , looking at the SDP Liberal Alliance , looked like a look at common sense !

    If Labour split there is much to consider. Or if they change , and that means their leadership too!

  • I do wish people would step back a bit from their habitual knee-jerk anti-Corbyn mantra and actually consider what he says on the merits of each issue.

    Corbyn has said he is open to discussion on PR and his buddy the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has come out recently in support of PR. See the Link below.

    John McDonnell calls on Jeremy Corbyn to back proportional …
    http://www.independent.co.uk › News › UK › UK Politics
    7 May 2016 – Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell is calling on Labour to support a change in the voting system to proportional representation …

  • Conor McGovern 5th Sep '16 - 3:58pm

    We need to get real and work with others on the progressive wing of politics to beat the Tories and usher in a fairer Britain, the sooner the better.

  • Simon McGrath 5th Sep '16 - 5:18pm

    yet another article that assumes UK politics is divided into 2 groups :Tories and non Tories.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Sep '16 - 6:43pm

    David Raw

    I am not habitual or kneejerk about anything , apart from maybe a liking for classic movies , great music , and apple pie !

    I do welcome any move towards pr from the current Labour leadership .

    My issue is with the many examples of far left support for attitudes , associations , and actions , extolled by the present leadership , and not something to be taken lightly , certainly not taken liberally !

    If you feel otherwise that is fine , convince by all means , but do not criticise sincerity, please .

  • I look forward to reading the book. However I didn’t quite get why there were no Lib Dem women contributors.

  • Stevan Rose 5th Sep '16 - 10:55pm

    “Corbyn has said he is open to discussion on PR and his buddy the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has come out recently in support of PR. ”

    Corbyn and McDonnell have not one liberal or democratic brain cell between them. They are no better than the BNP and hardly progressive.


    If you want more then remember how he failed to defend his own MP, Ruth Smeeth following a verbal assault by a Momentum activist. The second we start collaborating with Corbyn and McDonnell is the second we will have lost any integrity we might still possess along with most of the membership and remaining loyal voters.

    Simon is right; I’m a Lib Dem not an anti-Tory. And frankly I’m not up for Green nonsense either.

  • The real elephant in the room is that the majority of the English public have preferred right-wingers (or at least centre-right), since 1978. Blair understood that and accordingly moved his party right. Milliband reversed that and lost. Corbyn is a Michael Foot throwback who got there by droves of Trot entryists buying a £5 vote but who remain a tiny, if vocal, minority of the population. The Green party has a stated manifesto commitment to growth reduction which says all you need to know about them. This band of regressives are not winners and will never be popular in England. Nobody wants to hear about how much they need to pay to prop up a creaking welfare state when the pips are already squeaking. They demonstrated this by voting for spending cuts in two last elections! What folk really want are better jobs and a lower cost of living, not new taxes. There is no underlying progressive upsurge coming because sneering progressive patrician sanctimoniousness is not in the least bit appealing to them! Liberals can learn that lesson now or ignore it and remain in the wilderness forever.

  • @Geoffrey Payne: There are two LD women who contribute within one chapter on the history of Lab/Lib Dem working but none have a standalone chapter.

    I do think that is an issue. I’m not sure I totally understand why. I don’t think there was any deliberate attempt to exclude. I suspect it’s more that male contributors tend to come to mind faster.

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