The Progressive Alliance – A Fool’s Errand

In the few days since our remarkable victory in Chesham and Amersham, some are suggesting we shouldn’t campaign, or even stand, in Batley and Spen.

On the face of it, it makes sense. The Lib Dems are closer to Labour on most policies than we are to the Tories, so we could be taking votes from Labour and gift the seat to the blues.

However, that view relies on one massive assumption. One we consistently make internally, even though the evidence of our eyes and ears disproves it. We assume that with no Lib Dem, our voters are more likely to go Labour than Tory. This is categorically untrue. Our data shows us that our voters split almost perfectly in half when no Lib Dem candidate is available.

So, we have a bizarre situation where, by standing no candidate, we could theoretically boost the Labour and Tory votes in Batley and Spen equally. Yet no by-election takes place in a sterile lab environment. Elections have context.

It is a common theme in the Northern MBCs that we fight two different battles at ward level – against the Tories on the edges and against Labour in the centres. The Lib Dem presence in Batley and Spen looks (I’m no local and happy to be corrected) to be concentrated on those Tory-facing patches. So, it’s more likely that by not standing, we would boost the Tory vote in the seat rather than Labour.

A disclaimer. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I am always keen to give Labour a kicking. I don’t believe they are a progressive party, and my experience growing up in the North of England taught me that the Labour Party is as deeply arrogant and entitled an organisation as the Conservatives. I struggle to see a situation where I personally would be happy for us to enter any form of electoral agreement with Labour.

However, I accept that the best way to get rid of the Tories at the next election is for us and Labour to unofficially lay off each other and each concentrate our fire where we can do best. For us, that means winning over the people who gave us their votes in Chesham and Amersham last week. In Scotland, it means those Ruth Davidson Tories who cannot abide Boris but want to preserve the Union.

That’s my point. As a political organisation, our policies align more closely to Labour than the Tories, but our voters and potential voters are not in the same boat. We have to understand our electoral coalition. Our voters are, in my experience certainly, more likely to go Tory without us on the ballot.

We don’t need to give up on our principles – we just need to accept that while a Progressive Alliance may gain us votes from approving lefties up and down the country, those soft Tories (who we need to feel safe enough that they can vote for us without the world exploding) will not follow. We may get more votes, but elections aren’t always as simple as that.

It’s about who the votes come from as much as how many there are. A switched vote from the Tories is worth two votes off their majority. A vote from a third-placed Labour is only worth one. We still need those Labour votes, but we can get them with a good squeeze campaign and a massive bar chart.

The Tory votes will only come if we don’t frighten the horses with a Labour pact. A Progressive Alliance may well do as much to prevent Lib Dem gains as to encourage them.

* Ed Thornley is Constituency Organiser in Edinburgh Western, and helped deliver that constituency’s best ever result in May’s election.

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41 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 21st Jun '21 - 9:01am

    A depressing article. Are we saying that the Liberal Democrats have a future as a Tory-lite party, providing a safe haven for Tories with a social conscience, but no future if it seeks to form an anti-Tory front? And as for Scotland, the Liberal Democrats have a future only as a pro-Union, Tory-lite alternative to the Tories?

    My view is that 2015 provided a hard lesson to the Liberal Democrats of the price of choosing to back the Tories – massive loss of support from centre/left voters who felt utterly betrayed. Never again.

  • James Moore 21st Jun '21 - 9:24am

    “Our data shows us that our voters split almost perfectly in half when no Lib Dem candidate is available.”

    What data is that?

    Real world data from the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in our area showed far more of our second preference vote went to Labour than the Conservatives.

    In Leicester City, for example, 2981 or our second preferences went to Labour and just 1365 to the Conservatives – and this is an area where you would think many people voting Liberal Democrat would be doing so to express their dislike of the unpopular Labour city council and mayor.

    These elections are one of the reasons why the discussion about a Progressive Alliance has reemerged among our activists. Boris’ right-wing populism and Brexit have brought Liberal and Labour voters closer together.

    That doesn’t in itself make the case for an electoral alliance, but surely parties with similar agendas and similar constituencies should be at least open to talking to one other? In many marginal seats we need to win over Labour supporters in order to make progress. The evidence from Chesham suggests it is a lot easier when Labour can be persuaded not to make too much effort in seats they can’t win and in which we have a chance.

  • John Marriott 21st Jun '21 - 9:50am

    As she accepted Paul Henreid’s proffered cigarette at the end of the 1942 classic film, ‘Now Voyager’, Bette Davis offered the immortal advice; “Don’t ask for the moon. We have the stars”. You know, that’s in some way how I am feeling now about the ‘wash up’ sessions after C&A on LDV.

    On the one hand we have those, who see this by election result as the breakthrough the party needs. Others, like Ed Thornley, if I have read him correctly, prefer to adopt a more pragmatic approach. Some, like our resident psephologist, ‘Michael 1’, who has again sprung into life with a torrent of statistics, writes elsewhere that he will only be happy when every seat in the House of Commons is occupied by a Lib Dem. Oh, to have his unbridled enthusiasm! Clearly aiming for the moon is not good enough for him, and possibly people like Brad Barrows and even Paul Holmes.

    Of course, I exaggerate; but clearly there is a danger that identifying too closely with a Labour Party even in its current emasculated form could indeed frighten away the kind of pragmatic Tory voters any opposition party needs to make a real impact. In some ways the situation across the pond is not dissimilar. If President Biden tacks too far to the left, whatever that is over there, he runs the risk of losing some of the votes he needs to hold back the forces of reaction in the 2022 Congressional elections.

    Whether some of us like it or not, roughly 40% of England, where, unfortunately it counts in terms of numbers, is small ‘c’ Conservative. Blair recognised that in the mid 1990s and tailored his policies accordingly. What he didn’t do when he gained power was to implement the kind of policies that could have transformed our country into a democracy that was fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

  • I am utterly against joining a Coalition Government with Labour in 2024 ( or whenever ) unless we get a cast iron guarantee of actual Electoral Reform, not just a Parliamentary Vote where The Labour Backbenches stab us in the back. I really cant imagine how Labour could actually deliver on any Deal with us & joining a Coalition would set us back another Decade.

    There are things that could change this outlook – IF Labour Conference voted for “Fair Votes”, IF The Labour Leadership accepted that vote, IF some Anti-Reform Labour MPs or Candidates were threatened with Deselection – thats a lot of IFs & I cant see it happening in the next 3 Years but its worth keeping an eye on.

    The best we can hope for with Labour is an unspoken agreement not to tread on each others toes & to avoid mutual attacks at National level. Thats what we had in the mid 1990s & it worked for both Parties.

    The Greens (GPEW) are another story but this comment is too long as it is.

  • John Shoesmith 21st Jun '21 - 10:49am

    For me there is one over-riding priority – to be on the winning side in a General Election. That’s because within our system the GE winner takes 100% of the power. In the FPTP system that means an Alliance – we stand zero chance alone.
    People will not have confidence in an Alliance if they do not know how it will work and what it will do. Many voters will be afraid of Labour. All voters will be afraid of unstable government. Our voters will be afraid that Libdem policies will go the way of tuition fees in post-election horse trading. That’s why it is essential to sort that out shared beliefs and policies before an election.
    Would Labour join in? There’s merit in asking them, because we will be seen to be doing what our voters want.
    We simply can’t allow Tories to go on inflicting their policies on the country based on well under 50% of votes. We need to learn to fight effectively under FPTP. At the moment we are gifting the country to Boris, and we must not do that again.

  • Jenny Barnes 21st Jun '21 - 11:11am

    I see a trend of anti-Newnew Labour & anti- politician voting developing in the UK. Starmer’s labour is, I think, headed the way of PASOK in Greece; and if I’m right Batley & Spen will either be a Tory win or, if Labour do hold it, with a much reduced majority.
    Labour don’t look like the sort of party we should be allying with – and nor do the Tories. Greens, maybe,

  • lynne featherstone 21st Jun '21 - 11:15am

    Good to see someone who knows Labour the way seemingly relatively few of us do in the Party. I sometimes felt, when building Hornsey & Wood Green, that the Party didn’t really care about my seat where I overturned after two elections a Labour majority of 26,000 with a Tory inbetween. They did help in the late stages with some finance – but the work was all done by then over the precedding eight years. Labour are even more hostile to us than the Conservatives. Nevertheless – we are second in many more Tory facing seats. I just wish our message and our passion was attractive enough to sentient human beings to be enough – but then I always was a dreamer!

  • Our philosophy is that we are ‘non-binary’ in ideological terms. We a pro-free market with a social conscience – we want businesses (particularly small businesses) to succeed but are appalled by market failures: the damage that unbridled competition can do to people’s lives and the negative environmental impacts it can have. We are pro-worker but in a wider context than the traditional working-class. We want to break the chains of poverty but do not want to make new chains to constrain the rich. We want freedom, but not the one-sided type of freedom that can lead to abuse and discrimination. (No-one is free until everyone is free.) In other words, putting us into a “progressive alliance” forces us back into the binary world that we’re trying to escape from.

    Proportional representation is our escape route: a one-off alliance to achieve that can release society from binarism forever. If Labour (or Tories) can help deliver, so be, it but they shouldn’t rely on us to fight their class or culture wars for them.

  • I would have thought that history has taught us that we are best sailing our own canoe, with anyone else we sink to the bottom.
    We would not be in the mess that we are now in had we not gone into Coalition, taken the hit in October 2010, emerged with 20 to 30 MPs and then continued in business.

  • Brad Barrows 21st Jun '21 - 12:18pm

    @Andrew Toye
    Unfortunately the Liberal Democrats will not win a majority of seats at the next General Election but they may, if they are very lucky with how the results pan out, find themselves in a position to be able to decide which of the main two political parties gets to form the government. That will be the real ‘binary choice’. In 2010 it chose to back the Conservatives and was soundly punished by voters in 2015. The only way to avoid the binary choice is to take the line that the Liberal Democrats will never again join a coalition without PR being the top legislative commitment – if that leads to a minority government, so be it.

  • Christine Headley 21st Jun '21 - 12:20pm

    I was an activist living in Stroud in 2019. We weren’t allowed to put up a candidate, so that Molly Scott Cato could save her deposit in a Tory/Labour marginal. While the people who vote in Green councillors are mostly happy to vote Labour in generals (Molly saved her deposit), a proportion of the people who would have voted for us voted Conservative. Probably not 4,000, but in a closer fight you could be letting a Tory in. We came third in 2017, and Labour won by 647.

  • Christine Headley 21st Jun '21 - 12:25pm

    @Brad Barrows
    Hobson’s choice. Whatever the terms of a deal with Labour might have been, our two parties would have equalled the Tories in size and we would have needed a third party (or more) for a parliamentary majority. Far more difficult to keep together.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobson%27s_choice

  • Sounds like a sound argument for electoral reform Christine with PR using preferential voting. Voters need to feel they can vote for whom they think will best represent them. Tactical voting introduces too many uncertainties and is inherently unfair.

  • Paul Barker 21st Jun '21 - 1:08pm

    On the more general points raised by this article & the comments so far, it all comes down to the Big Question – “What should our long-term aim be ?”

    It seems to me that our long-term aims should be, in no order –
    To replace one of The 2 Big Parties as second Party, driving either Labour or Tories into third place. We should not have a preference which we replace, its not our choice, its up to The Voters.
    To get some form of “Fair Voting” – the details dont matter.

    Both aims need steady recovery & a ruthless discipline – not to be tempted by the siren calls of Government as we were in 2010. We need more Councillors, more MPs & better Polling & we are getting them but it will take time.

  • Brad Barrows 21st Jun '21 - 3:38pm

    @Martin
    There would be no constitutional crisis if no party wins an overall majority – there will either be an arrangement between parties to enable a person to be selected by the Queen to be asked to form a government with majority support, or we may even have a minority government (like in February 1974).

  • Alex Macfie 21st Jun '21 - 3:57pm

    Brad Barrows: The article is saying nothing about the ideological positioning of the Liberal Democrats. You overrate the political and ideological awareness of the average voter. The OP points out that it’s just an assumption that Lib Dem voters would automatically go to Labour in the absence of a Lib Dem candidate. Well here’s something else that’s just an assumption, and also untrue — the idea that we have to tack to the right in order to win the soft Tory vote. But we won it in spades in 1997 and the 2000s while taking policy positions that were more radical than Labour. The difference between us and Labour, explaining why many soft Tories will consider us but never Labour, is that we don’t have Labour’s hard-left or trade union baggage. This explains why someone like Layla Moran (supposedly on the “left” of the Lib Dems) can win somewhere like Oxford West & Abingdon, a quintessentially Middle England constituency.

    And anyway if we are trying to take votes from the Tories, that is not “backing the Tories”, it’s the exact opposite. Especially if it’s in Con~Lab battlegrounds and the likely effect is to help Labour win.

    James Moore: The PCC elections you mention were under the Supplementary Vote system, under which voters are likely to behave differently from FPTP. The 1st preference enables them to vote for the person/party they really want, and only the 2nd preference needs to be tactical. If they had been held under FPTP many of our 1st pref votes would have gone to one of the front-runners for tactical reasons. And in a seat like B&S, voters who might consider voting for us but mainly want to get the Tories out already know they need to vote Labour under FPTP. So what’s left of our vote are those soft Tories who won’t touch Labour, and those for whom it’s us or Count Binface.

  • Two points:
    1. The electorate is perfectly capable of figuring out how to vote tactically without the need for political stitch ups.
    2. There’s no prospect of a “progressive alliance” involving Labour. Whoever is in control of Labour at any point in time has spent enough energy getting control of Labour that they won’t contemplate giving up that control to participate in an alliance with other parties.

  • Brad Barrows 21st Jun '21 - 5:20pm

    @Martin
    A PM who loses an election does not have to resign in a situation where no other party has won an overall majority. He or she could, as you say, carry on until defeated in a Confidence Vote. The Queen does not choose who to ask to try to form the next government – she is advised on who to select by the outgoing PM as their last act when they formally see the Queen to resign.

  • James Fowler 21st Jun '21 - 8:48pm

    Ed is right. Trying to game an election via alternate candidatures in the crude way suggested by many commentators would alienate more than concentrate support.

    I’m not against coalitions of almost any stripe though. We just have to win our place in them by standing and getting elected clearly as liberals first. Most proponents of the ‘progressive alliance’ put the cart before the horse. Alliances must come after an election not before, otherwise the platform of support we stand on is fissiparous from the outset.

  • Russell Simpson 22nd Jun '21 - 8:58am

    Phillip Collins in the Independent yesterday writes:”There is an opportunity here for a party that can summon the spirit of Remain and offer a prospectus that is pro-business, economically responsible, socially liberal and authentically green, none of which describes the Conservative party.

    There is always the temptation for the Lib Dems to become a party of constant protest but there is another option here. The Home Counties rather liked the coalition government and Lib Dems of that vintage would be very attractive to them.”

    Rory Stewart made a similar point on Politics Live yesterday. If the LDs wanted to be useful to the country (and make people like me become a member again) they’d embrace the Coalition and take 30-40 seats at the next election. Just saying.

    https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/new-battleground-home-counties-lib-dem-victory-chesham-amersham-by-election-b941710.html

  • James Fowler 22nd Jun '21 - 9:12am

    @Russell Simpson – very much agree.

  • The thing we have to remember about the Coalition is that it was 5/6 Tory, 1/6 Lib Dem. If we want to “embrace the Coalition” we’d need to separate out, in the minds of the voters, the 1/6 of its policies that were ours from the majority that came from the Tories. Unfortunately that horse bolted the moment Clegg and Cameron hosted a joint press conference in the Rose Garden, thus making it look like the Coalition was a meeting of minds rather than a compromise.
    Also the Tory Party of Johnson is not the same as the Tory Party of David Cameron. Banging on about how great the Coalition was would only make it look like we’d do the same thing again and prop up Johnson or Gove if the Tories lose their majority. In terms of Lib Dem policies implemented, the Coalition it was a curate’s egg. It lost us so much support because we failed to differentiate ourselves from the Tories when in government. But it’s the past. Best thing is to let it lie. New voters were in primary school when it happened.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jun '21 - 11:51am

    “The Tory votes will only come if we don’t frighten the horses with a Labour pact. A Progressive Alliance may well do as much to prevent Lib Dem gains as to encourage them.”

    Yep. I, and speaking as a Labour Party member, would agree this is broadly correct. The most effective approach for the Lib Dems is to run the same type of uncontentious, small c conservative, campaign that Sarah Green showed was a winning formula in C&A. In other words stick to the things that Tory voters might be concerned about: like an influx of undesirable lower socio-economic groups onto their patch who will come with increased levels of housebuilding. They’ll know that their houses which are presently in a semi rural setting will be worth a lot less if they are surrounded by “affordable” other housing which might change their bedroom window view from farm fields to views of other houses.

    They don’t want their own properties to be affordable!

    Stick to safe topics like road safety. As Ed Thornley writes, “don’t frighten the horses” with silly talk of pacts with the Labour Party or ending poverty. Conservatives (especially those with a small c) , by definition, like things as they are.

  • Would it not be possible to have a Libdem / Labout candidate as a step towards a progressive alliance

  • I’ve been broadly supportive of the concept of a “Progressive Alliance” as I really would love to see the Tories out of office, and I am optimistic about potential benefits, but it seems that many supporters are far, far too optimistic about what is achievable.

    Most people involved are keen and well-meaning. Often a bit naive of what goes into successful election campaigning or what’s important to other voters. They see only the benefits and don’t consider the knock on effects. There’s a lot of goodwill which can and should be tapped into, but there’s also a narcissism inherent in some who are convinced we can fix everything with their simple plan if only everyone would agree to go along with it.

    The biggest hurdle is that Labour do not as a party support PR. It’s hard to justify a temporary restriction of voter choice to create a ‘progressive alliance’ if it’s not also a statement against FPTP and part of a plan to allow for voter choice next time.

    The other big hurdle is that people demanding cooperation often only want it on their terms and struggle to accept that it’s not always going to be obvious which party is in the best position to beat the Tories. So much of the last election campaign was spent tearing lumps out of people that might have beaten the Tories if we’d not spent so much time bickering about who was in the best position to do so.

    The term ‘progressive’ causes problems, because everyone has a different definition, generally believing it applies to them, but not to others. We already see bickering about it, which isn’t going to go away. If an alliance is hinged on electoral reform then it’s OK to have different views on other things.

  • Jenny Barnes 22nd Jun '21 - 1:56pm

    Martin ” I, for example, am sceptical of UBI and think that such a change could only be put in place smoothly while there is rapid economic growth >>>”

    I think UBI could be combined with climate change action – Greenhouse gas taxes like increased APD, fuel and house gas could be used to provide the beginnings of UBI. Climate action is likely to lead to slower economic growth – but we do need a planet to live on.

  • nvelope2003 22nd Jun '21 - 5:19pm

    Interesting that the boss of Iceland Supermarket is in favour of UBI. I wonder why !

  • jason pierce 22nd Jun '21 - 7:20pm

    The Party should be pro a mixed economy not unfettered unregulated free markets and that was at one time in the manifesto and should always be in there.

  • Paul Holmes 22nd Jun '21 - 9:03pm

    @Russell Simpson. Strange that the electorate who ‘rather liked the Coalition’ in fact reduced us from to 57 to 8 MP’s in 2015. Then, with the added magic ingredient of Brexit/Reject- Re run -Revoke to add a real wow factor, elected not 30 to 40 LD MP’s but 12 in 2017 and 11 in 2019.

    Just saying.

  • John Littler 24th Jun '21 - 4:10pm

    The evidence should be from elections not polling and it worked in ’97, Richmond, Brecon
    & Oxfordshire CC, all for LibDems ( & Labour in ’97), plus for Tories/Brexits.

    I support a Progressive Alliance in principle but it has to be done right or it won’t be enough.

    1) Labour has to stay moderate, as a Corbyn figure would scare too many voters away from even the LibDems, as happened in 2019;

    2) Labour and LibDem activists need to be vocally supportive and abandon tribalism – difficult! ;

    3) it’s only worth the trouble in seats where it might work;

    4) parties need a formula to decide who stands where ambiguous;

    5) unofficial candidatures need to be banned from party, long term;

    6) all parties need to campaign together and to include Greens & PC & possibly SDLP & Alliance in N.I., and it could capture the public mood as more than the sum of the parts

    7) if stepping down is too far for Labour, the ’97 Blair / Ashdown strategy of resources , rhetoric & some common policy, with many paper candidates should be the minimum.

    Otherwise we are looking at a heavily dug in Populist One Party State.

  • John Littler 24th Jun '21 - 4:15pm

    Parties don’t have to like each other or agree everything, just work to defeat populism and the digging in of an insidious one party state, not even supported by most voters

  • Jenny Barnes 24th Jun '21 - 4:20pm

    “Labour has to stay moderate, as a Corbyn figure would scare too many voters ”
    “Otherwise we are looking at a heavily dug in Populist One Party State”

    So the voters get a choice of a blue thatcherite party, a red thatcherite party, or a yellow thatcherite party?

    Starmerism looks to be somewhat to the right of the Tories, and the LDs have form for joining a Tory coalition government.

  • John Littler 24th Jun '21 - 4:20pm

    Paul, the LibDems lost 1 seat in 2019 but were the only party gaining 1.2m votes and 80 2nd places, which is due to a rotten borough system

  • Alex Macfie 24th Jun '21 - 9:48pm

    John Littler: There was no electoral pact between Lib Dems and Labour in 1997. The one-sided Tory/Brexit “pact” worked because the Brexit Party was just a Nigel Farage fan club. Unlike the BP, we cannot “instruct” our voters what to do if we don’t put up a candidate. Such pacts always rely on voters doing what they are supposed to do. The pacts between Lib Dems and Greens/Plaid worked well enough, because enough voters did transfer as intended. But a pact with Labour would be much riskier because many of our voters would rather vote for Count Binface.

  • Christine Headley,

    The total of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs was higher than the number of Conservative MPs elected in 2010.

    According to Wikipedia there were 306 Conservatives elected at the 2010 general election. I assume this figure includes Anne McIntosh who was elected on 27th May. There were 258 Labour MPs and 57 Liberal Democrat ones totally 315. 315 is 9 more than 306. With 650 MPs 326 are needed for a majority. If we exclude Sinn Fein’s 5 MPs and the Speaker, 323 MPs were needed for a majority. I think it would be safe to count the 3 SDLP and 1 Alliance MPs in the total for a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition making 319 only 4 short. Therefore if the Democratic Unionists abstained the government would have a majority and if they voted against the one Green, three Plaid Cymru and 6 SNP’s would hold the balance.

    However in 2010, there were some Labour MPs who declared that they would not support a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government and this made one much more difficult. There was also the problem of Gordon Brown.

    Paul Barker,

    We cannot replace the Tories. We as liberals oppose conservatism. If we replaced the Tories we would end up like the Australian Liberal Party.

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