Why Lib Dem members were right to reject a “progressive alliance”

At Spring Conference in Southport last weekend, Liberal Democrat members from across the party came together to back an amendment submitted by Liberal Reform members to the party’s strategy motion, removing a reference to a “progressive alliance of ideas”.

Liberal Reform organised this amendment not because we are against working across party lines, but because we saw this as a clear first step on the slippery slope towards a formal electoral pact. There is a general understanding that this is what has come to be meant by the term “progressive alliance”: in a publication by pressure group Compass entitled “What Is The Progressive Alliance?” there is talk of “electoral deals and tactical voting”, whilst a post for the Social Liberal Forum (whose Chair spoke against the amendment) blog on “The Progressive Alliance” discusses non-Conservative parties standing down in order to avoid “long periods of Conservative domination.”

With this definition of “progressive alliance” so widely used and accepted, its appearance in our party’s strategy as a seemingly innocuous term to mean working across party lines felt unwise, and as such we offered up the alternative wording of “working with those on all sides of politics who share goals with us to achieve them”, in order to guard against any misinterpretation.

Perhaps a “progressive alliance” would be more palatable if other non-Conservative parties were in any way progressive. As expertly pointed out in Callum Robertson’s proposal of the amendment, there is little that is progressive or indeed liberal about either Labour or the Greens in particular. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has more than ever become wedded to centralised statism and a return to the 1970s, whilst the Greens continue to support an anti-growth, anti-free trade agenda. Neither of these positions are compatible with our vision of a liberal Britain. Laura Gordon, prospective candidate for Sheffield Hallam, spoke during the debate of Labour’s regressive nature, in particular the council’s attempts to suppress peaceful protests over the felling of perfectly healthy trees, whilst Joe Otten during his summation argued that the Lib Dems should not do Labour the courtesy of allowing them to describe themselves as “progressive” via an alliance.

Of course there are also tactical reasons to avoid a progressive alliance. Many seats that the party competes for count on a critical mass of soft-Tory support in order to be successful; how can we tell these voters that we are their only chance of defeating Labour if elsewhere we are actively working to put Labour into power? Conceiving ourselves as part of a purely anti-Tory coalition will do damage to our electoral chances around the country, particularly in the north.

By the end of the debate the conference hall was in no doubt of the risk of misinterpreting a “progressive alliance of ideas” for something more akin to the general definition of what a “progressive alliance” means. The decisive vote for the amendment shows Liberal Reform’s concerns about a progressive alliance to be mainstream among party members, and we hope that the party’s leadership consider this before any future decision is made to explore progressive alliance options further.

* Andy Briggs is Co-Chair of Liberal Reform, a pressure group for personal, political, social and economic liberalism.

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  • As someone who keenly supports the Progressive Alliance, I was also pleased to see the amendment pass.

    The original un-amended strategy document proposed a “progressive alliance of ideas” – I’m not sure I know what that is – and it’s important to also note the lower case p.a. in the original motion. Whatever it referred to, it wasn’t referring to the Progressive Alliance that receives so much vitriol.

    The new wording commits us to actually “working with those on all sides of politics who share goals with us to achieve them.” – which is clearly the intent of the Progressive Alliance – an alliance built around those who share our progressive goals.

    I’m very pleased that the amended motion supports the idea that we should be working with those who agree with us. This naturally includes the Greens, who also oppose Brexit and support reforming our voting system to make it fairer, and clearly doesn’t apply to the leadership of Labour and the Tories, who clearly do not share our goals in these areas.

  • Callum Robertson 16th Mar '18 - 2:02pm

    As the mover of this amendment I and every other speaker in favour of the amendment made it clear what this amendment meant in principle. People can attempt to frame the amendment how they please but that doesn’t detract from the points I and other speakers made opposing the notion of a progressive alliance

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Mar '18 - 2:35pm

    Entirely personally, I would have used the phrase ‘wider alliances among those who share our priorities’ and dropped the progressive/regressive concept.

    I hope Liberal Reform, in their uneasiness about electoral pacts, recognise that the too-close, too-cosy form of Coalition chosen with the Conservatives six years ago, is one reason why electoral pacts are now poison to us (at this time), and we are (too) reliant on soft-Tory votes, having driven away many left-wing voters we too recklessly alienated.

    But we are living in an age when both major parties could split. Assuming that the left-right division in politics will continue (and that it will continue in the form of a Labour/Tory division) is probably silly. We should be ready, if the time comes, to work closely with everyone from Jess Philips and Ben Bradshaw to Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry. And we should not use electoral pacts, yet, but we should not rule them out indefinitely.

  • Paul Pettinger 16th Mar '18 - 2:51pm

    As noted, Liberal Reform’s amendment facilitates more overt cross party working in support of our values than the Federal Board’s original motion (which instead framed us as providing intellectual leadership). I currently serve on the Board of Compass (which runs the Progressive Alliance) and toyed with voting with Liberal Reform.

    Andy is mistaken to say that there is a general understanding of what the word “progressive alliance” means. It is still a fairly open ended and largely undefined concept. During the Conference debate Liberal Reform seemed to use this ambiguity to paint any progressive alliance as an ugly way to prop up authoritarianism and Brexiters. I wouldn’t suggest liberals engaged with the Progressive Alliance were this anything like the case. Instead the Progressive Alliance is an emerging project that we can contribute to and help shape.

    Andy criticises a progressive alliance on tactical grounds, but outside of Scotland the very large majority of our target seats are fights versus the Tories that are open to us again leading a broadly progressive bloc of voters to victory. If we are serious about holding and gaining seats then we mustn’t dismiss engaging with the PA. So far it has helped us win the important Richmond by-election (Labour polled fewer votes than they had local members), avoid the banana skin of our Leader losing his seat at the last Election (the Greens stood down and their 2015 vote alone was more than twice that of Tim Farron’s 2017 majority), while Layla Moran’s campaign in Oxford West and Abingdon has credited local progressive alliance campaigners as having helped get us over the winning line there (where we enjoyed a very impressive 9.1% swing). The last thing we need is for the Greens to stand in all our Con marginals.

    One thing that is clearly defined about the Progressive Alliance is achieving proportional representation and creating a more pluralistic and deliberative democracy. This speaks to those interested in the progressive alliance concept continuing to operate in open and transparent ways, and to be willing to make accommodation. I’d welcome involving Liberal Reform members in discussions. If Lib Dems disagree then members should at least understand each other better and I think we may be surprised to the extent to which there is agreement.

  • Gordon Lishman 16th Mar '18 - 3:16pm

    It’s not surprising the amendment was passed. The Federal Board’s proposal wasn’t supported by the proposer or summator and that the overall debate was unbalanced. It would have been helpful if the Board’s case had been presented. At least, members would have had a clear choice.
    The proposal, which I drafted, was not about electoral pacts with any other party or parties. In particular, I think that an electoral pact with Labour is neither possible nor desirable. Fighting elections in a former mill-town in Lancashire, it would be surprising if I thought otherwise. However, the original text did include two important principles which are not covered by the amendment.
    The first is that the UK Party system is not fit for purpose. The two biggest parties are no longer coherent in ideas and policies and they no longer represent clear constituencies. I want to see a realignment. It would contain a nationalist, backward-looking party of people with little generosity of spirit. It will probably include a smallish socialist rump. I believe that leaves room for a progressive party which should be led by a Liberal world-view. Recent research showed that our members share broadly liberal, progressive views which are shared by most Remainers, whichever party they support.
    The second is that any realignment should be based on shared values, campaigns, ideas and policies. It was that sort of shared approach that led to the big reforms of the last century – including the 1945 Conservative manifesto which committed to the Beveridge reforms (including an NHS free at the point of delivery); Roy Jenkins’s socially liberal reforms of the 1960s; and the 1975 referendum campaign. The last two led directly to the creation of the SDP and, 30 years ago, the Liberal Democrats. You might well call it “a progressive alliance of ideas”.
    Whatever you think of the coalition years, they demonstrated pretty clearly that the strategy of slowly building up Parliamentary representation to the point of entry to government as a junior partner is unlikely to deliver breakthrough for a Liberal Party.
    I agree with the motion’s commitment, echoed by Vince, to building and leading a movement. It must be based on talking with others, not just about specific, short-term issues (although that’s part of it), but about a new narrative about our society and our world. I think that Liberals can lead that process – and that’s what we were trying to say!

  • Andy Briggs 16th Mar '18 - 3:33pm

    Thanks all for your comments so far, I shall try to respond to each of you in turn:

    William, I am afraid Callum is right, the motive for submitting and subsequently passing this amendment was quite clear. None the less, thank you for your support.

    Matt, you are right that the coalition has driven away much left wing support, and it is for this reason now trying to concieve ourselves as part of an anti-Tory alliance is nonsensical. These voters, quite rightly, won’t buy it.

    Paul, thank you for at least toying with the idea of supporting our amendment, although again, as Callum has said, the reason behind this amendment was quite clear. I would ask which liberals outside of the party you believe that a progressive alliance would be between? As you have ruled out the authoritarian Green and Labour parties. I would also ask how you intend to sell your idea of a progressive alliance to those in Labour facing areas? Or are their concerns no longer valid? By all means though, feel free to get in contact with Liberal Reform and let us know your thoughts on this or any other matter.

    Gordon, we have spoken about this before elsewhere, but again I would ask, if this was your sole meaning, which in itself is entirely agreeable, why the use of the loaded term “progressive alliance”? This could have been better articulated, and indeed I believe our amendment does just that.

  • OnceALibDem 16th Mar '18 - 3:42pm

    “The Federal Board’s proposal wasn’t supported by the proposer or summator and that the overall debate was unbalanced. It would have been helpful if the Board’s case had been presented. ”

    Sounds like a lack of organisation and tactics to me.

  • @Andy: Congratulations again on achieving such a wide support base for your amendment.

    I’m a bit surprised though, as you seem to be saying that the amendment really means you don’t think we should work with people we agree with to secure our goals.

    I thought that was precisely what your amendment called for?

    Perhaps if your intention was different a tighter worded amendment might have been better? I know that the Federal Conference Committee offers a service that offers members drafting advice, and maybe you would wish to consider it in the future?

    Regardless, I am happy to be a member of a party that prioritises working with those we agree with in other parties to secure our goals. Thanks again for your amendment.

  • I think the difficulty that those who talk of “progressive alliances” (or Progressive Alliances) have is that all too often their stance seems to pre-suppose that Labour and the Greens are (i) progressive and (ii) the only progressive voices in politics other than the LDs. Regardless of the intention behind the inclusion of that specific phrase, its use was always going to lead to ambiguity at best given that background.

    That is why I think that the Liberal Reform wording is an improvement. As others have pointed out it is broader than the original wording, but crucially what it does not do is implicitly or explicitly give the impression that we consider Labour and the Greens in their current incarnations to be partners in progress: that would have been not only wrong given their current stances on many issues, but dangerous for the party for tactical reasons as Andy says.

    It ought not to be controversial that we can work with others both within and outside other parties where our values are aligned. We just must not assume that those individuals are to be found in just the parties of the “left”.

  • David Evans 16th Mar '18 - 5:47pm

    I normally agree with Gordon Lishman on most points, but I have to disagree most strongly when he says “Whatever you think of the coalition years, they demonstrated pretty clearly that the strategy of slowly building up Parliamentary representation to the point of entry to government as a junior partner is unlikely to deliver breakthrough for a Liberal Party.”

    It is clear that it did deliver the opportunity to make a breakthrough into government, but what then became even clearer was that the party’s senior figures hadn’t got a clue what they had to do to make a success of it.

    For the avoidance of doubt, success to me means making use of the opportunity won for them by the hard work of many generations of Liberals and Lib Dems to show to the British public the benefits of having Lib Dems in government. Thereby strengthening the party so that future generations would also have that benefit of a growing Lib Dem party steadily building and safeguarding that fair, free and open society that we all aspire to.

    i.e. It wasn’t the success we all had in getting there, it was the mess some us made once they got there.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Mar '18 - 6:35pm

    Andy this is good and sensible.

    I am with the views here of William and Matt.

    I am not on the left or right of the party. I sincerely believe that all three groups, I like, are all of a piece for intelligent varied ideas, Liberal Reform, Social Liberal Forum, the Social Democrat Group.

    I would like us to have a broad party like the Democrats of Italy and particularly America, but we don’t.

    If say Dan Jarvis, Sir Keir Starmer or Liz Kendall , Ben Bradshaw, had become Labour leader, there would have been no momentum, no leftward march, I think an alliance might be sensible in such a scenario. Now , forget it, I as ex Labour, no Blairite only, see the hate towards right of Corbyn, from too many in my old party of youthful days.

    Calumn, Laura and our chum Joe , did well on this, but the social liberal forum and social democrat group, are correct to maintain contacts.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '18 - 7:41pm

    I’m glad I got in the hall on time to vote on Sunday morning after celebrating a friend’s 30th the night before!

    I voted for the Liberal Reform amendment because I’m not a conservative or socialist and the progressive alliance at the moment basically means Jeremy Corbyn for PM.

    I’m pleased to see it won and the vote wasn’t really close. We need to stand up for liberalism and against extremes.

  • Paul Pettinger 16th Mar '18 - 11:37pm

    @Andy, there are lots of people in other parties with a broadly similar outlook to ours. Some are in the Conservatives but, overall, there is far greater overlap between our members and those in Lab and the SNP. See the findings of the Mile End Institute’s ‘Grassroots Britain’s party members: who they are, what they think, and what they do’ from January this year: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/qmul/media/publications/Grassroots,-Britain's-Party-Members.pdf. The progressive alliance is still fairly open ended and largely undefined but regarding Labour facing areas that you mention, we can still compete against people in parties that we work with, while with PR we can start gaining representatives in areas beyond our current marginals.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Mar '18 - 12:08am

    David, yes, but she might have favoured an alliance, Corbyn does not !

  • “Andy is mistaken to say that there is a general understanding of what the word “progressive alliance” means”

    I really don’t think he is. Maybe in the lofty intellectual world of think tanks there is dispute, but everywhere else it means “making a pact with Labour and the greens (and maybe the SNP and Plaid)”.

    I’m about as far left as you can get in this party and I still voted for the LR amendment.

  • I think you’d be doing Corbyn a great favour by setting up an alliance (formal or otherwise) with ‘selected’ Labour MPs….They hate Corbyn far more than the LibDem/Tories and take every opportunity to undermine him…Mind you, some of their ideas (Asking FiFA to postpone the WC until 2019, when an alternative venue could be announced) are daft enough to appeal to some on here…

  • William Fowler 17th Mar '18 - 9:25am

    It is slightly odd that the LibDems are so out in the cold. If you compare things under the Coalition govn and the present mess, it surely makes the point that the former was far better for the health of the country. Instead we have gone back decades to a two party fight, the end result, in the next election, will have the losing half of the country totally appalled at the result in a way we have not seen before.

    I do think Labour are keen to completely obliterate other left-leaning parties so not much hope of an alliance even if it was in their interests to do so.

  • William, Is it really so odd that the LibDems are so out in the cold? Surely coalition was only better for the *short term* health of the country. By allowing ourselves to be suckered in by Cameron and being uber loyal to him while he was undermining us at every step, our leaders were responsible for our downfall and so laid the foundation for the two party polarisation there is now.

    To me nothing is more fundamental to the long term future of this country than a thriving and successful Lib Dem party, keeping the extremes of the other two parties in check while building up a real Lib presence in the corridors of power. Our catastrophic self inflicted collapse was a disaster for all those ambitions and our country.

    Short term gain, Long term pain.

  • Katharine Pindar 17th Mar '18 - 8:19pm

    @ Gordon Lishman. Gordon, while old hands like us may dream of a ‘realignment’ of the parties, we surely know that it isn’t going to happen. You write optimistically of the two biggest parties ‘no longer representing clear constituencies’, and one can see that idea in considering the Tory advance in working-class areas, and the Labour progress in the university towns. But while the country still has the First Past The Post voting system, the two big parties will each continue to be a collection of disparate groups which tolerate each other because they all seek the one supreme goal, retaining or winning power. Surely, only if the internal contradictions of either party eventually become intolerable and they do begin to break up will there be any motivation felt in them for Electoral Reform. So our party must continue as before, to foster a progressive movement but not a progressive alliance, and accordingly I too voted for the amendment.

    Lorenzo, it may indeed be impossible to imagine sharing Coalition while the Labour Party retains the present leadership, but that situation will surely not last for ever.

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Mar '18 - 8:00am

    The original motion did not mention the Labour or Green parties. If by your reckoning they are not progressive then they would not be part of a progressive alliance of ideas.
    If we consider that the word progressive describes us then we should take ownership of it and let others worry if it applies to them.
    What the proposers of the amendment appear to be saying is that the word progressive describes the Labour and Green party and then they describe why this is not the case.
    They then explain why we can’t work with these parties by proposing an amendment that says we should.
    It must be timidity of the first order if we cannot describe ourselves as progressive anymore.

  • Paul Pettinger 18th Mar '18 - 1:47pm

    @Jennie, in contrast to Ashdown and Blair’s ‘project’ in the 90’s (which many were anxious about, me included), the progressive alliance is an open and transparent campaign. A progressive alliance *could* involve pacts – and a pact of sorts was effectively achieved with Greens at the last Election – but as any pact would be overtly in support of equal votes/ proportional representation, what would be wrong in that? The way FPTP punishes pluralism and denies people an equal voice at the ballot box is one the greatest injustices of our time. Getting PR will mean, in the long run, that voters enjoy far more choice + representation from people from more parties.

  • Gordon Lishman 18th Mar '18 - 2:20pm

    Andy Briggs: just to clear, when you say “I would ask, if this was your sole meaning, which in itself is entirely agreeable”, does this mean that you and your colleagues would vote for a proposal which contained (1) a commitment to supporting realignment; (2) an emphasis on ideas, policies, campaigns and people in creating that realignment; and (3) a commitment to the idea that, from our point of view, realignment should concentrate on drawing together people of broadly progressive views?
    And, in answer to your question: yes, I said exactly what I meant, which I then explained in a number of contexts.

  • Gordon’s observation “Whatever you think of the coalition years, they demonstrated pretty clearly that the strategy of slowly building up Parliamentary representation to the point of entry to government as a junior partner is unlikely to deliver breakthrough for a Liberal Party.” is an important one.
    Clearly voters have to be renergised at every election. The concept of a tipping point where mass support is achieved once a ceetain level of base support is gained is an attractive one. However, the concept has not survived the reality of governmental responsibility.
    The coaltion of opinion within the Conservative and Labour parties appears more fragile in terms of unity then it has for many decades.
    I think Gordon is right on this point. We need to remain open to moderates from both of the traditional mainstream parties. Liberalism has permeated all of the main political parties in the UK and we will find llike-minded souls on both sides of the political divide – not least among the electorate.

  • Ed Shepherd 18th Mar '18 - 3:33pm

    So why did Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour get such a high percentage of the vote against the predictions of so many pundits and politicians at the previous general election? Because after years of zero hours contracts, privatised companies that get bailed out by the state, wage stagnation, benefits deflation and disastrous foreign adventures in the middle-east perhaps proposals for some nationalisation and less foreign adventurism begins to look attractive to many voters. Scaremongering about returning to the seventies does not have the traction is did in the 1980s because many voters are too young to have a first-hand opinion on the 1970s and many older voters might remember it as a time of radical progress in society (laws against racism, against sexism and to protect consumers) as well as rising living standards (I am quite certain that a lot more British people had modern consumer goods and cars in 1979 than they had in 1969). A bit of union militancy, nationalised railways and free higher education might seem a lot more appealing to some than working on a zero hours contract, getting a loan to pay your mortgage interest and/or your degree whilst bailing out the directors of Carillion.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Mar '18 - 4:00pm

    Chris, yes, but that needs Labour support for us !

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Mar '18 - 4:28pm

    Just to clarify this has nothing to do with Your Liberal Britain (YLB)

  • Neil Sandison 20th Mar '18 - 12:36pm

    Our objective should be to build a modern progressive movement that looks forward not back .We should be aware others are misusing the term liberal and recasting to fit their own agenda .At this rate the word liberal will be significantly devalued. The country will need again an open ,tolerant and progressive party that is prepared to challenge orthodox thinking ,is not over romantic about the past that never was we see too many socialist and Thatcherites coming out of the wood work claiming their period in office was the golden age ,air brushing out the misery and self inflicted harm to the economy they generated .We must again become the drivers of change not the victims of it.

  • Simon Banks 30th Apr '18 - 5:14pm

    So in other words, Liberal Reform want to return us to “equidistance” and they’re as much against local electoral deals with Greens, say, as with Tories?

    The most powerful speeches for the amendment were well-directed attacks on the intolerance and bully-boy tactics of Labour where they are used to being in power. But all of us know many Labour supporters are not like that, especially where the dominant local force is the Tories – or where it’s us, as any analysis of our past successes in the Westcountry cannot ignore the extent to which people who used to vote Labour switched to us (and thanks to how we handled the coalition and the 2015 general election, have switched back again).

    The amendment could have clarified that the motion meant joint campaigns on issues and suchlike with other progressive forces, not electoral pacts, though Lib Dem/Green pacts are already a reality in a number of areas. Instead, it ditched the whole idea of sharing anything more with parties generally considered to be left of centre than with parties of the right. So we’re not only back before Paddy’s Chard speech, we’ve shied away from Jo Grimond’s “realignment of the left”. This debate will go on.

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