There is increasing concern that Johnson’s new Tory government is undermining our democracy. Measures such as voter suppression, weakening of judicial reviews and draconian new prosecution laws for everyone from street protesters and asylum seekers to Extinction Rebellion (XR) poster makers and investigative journalists, are all driving us “ever closer to authoritarianism”.
Our sister publication, West Country Bylines, makes this point with their “boiled frog” analogy! The former Supreme Court judge, Lord Neuberger, describes the UK as being driven down a “slippery slope towards dictatorship” by legislation like the Internal Market Bill as reported in The New European.
There is a growing consensus that it is virtually impossible for us to escape this creeping menace by a single opposition party winning the next election. It is increasingly apparent that our only realistic chance of better governance is for the opposition parties to form a Progressive Alliance (PA).
The idea of a PA has a long history but has recently been given new impetus by the group Compass, created by three MPs, Layla Moran, Clive Lewis and Caroline Lucas. They remind us that the need for a PA is a question of maths. Our current “First Past the Post” (FPTP) voting system is profoundly undemocratic. Since 1945, the total vote for “progressive” parties has been greater than that for “regressive” parties at all but one general election. Geographical boundaries have let the Conservatives win huge majorities, even with a minority of the vote. In 2017 the Tories won just 2% more of the vote than Labour’s 40% but still gained a 55 seat advantage. In 2019 the Tories acquired an 80 seat majority despite 55% not voting for them.
The majority of the country is still voting for progressive parties but getting Conservative governments.
The Conservative vote spread means that it takes only 38,000 votes to elect each Tory MP whereas each Labour MP requires 51,000 votes. For LibDem MPs it’s 334,000 votes, and Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP, required 846,000 votes. With the proposed boundary changes Labour will need to win even more seats to obtain a majority of just one.
To quote Compass:
“There is a deep democratic injustice at work which means that Conservatives start every election with an inbuilt, unfair advantage. If the Conservatives’ and Labour’s vote shares for the 2019 General Election were to be swapped, Labour would still be three seats short of a majority”.
Our current FPTP system indicates then that it will be extremely difficult for any opposition party, even the biggest, to win an election.
The progressive alliance solution
The idea of PA contains three distinct proposals:
- An electoral pact between the various opposition parties (e.g. Labour, The Green Party, the Liberal Democrats (LD),
- electoral reform,
- a coalition style alliance.
An electoral pact is the PA’s necessary first step – its point is to sidestep the obstacle of FPTP in order to remove the Conservatives at the next election. Measures include tactical voting and weaker parties standing aside to let stronger ones win in particular regions. This would prevent the kind of fragmentation amongst opposition votes that keep the Conservatives in power. According to a recent Best for Britain poll, Labour could win up to 351 seats if it works with LD and the Greens at the next election.
Once the Conservatives have been removed, votes can then take place on replacing FPTP with a fairer voting system such as Proportional Representation.
The third more ambitious goal advocated by Compass is the subsequent formation of a coalition government with broad co-operation over key policies.
“[PA is] more than transactional electoral politics. It [is] a part of a cultural revolution for our politics, to build the ideas and forces that could set us on the path to a good society …. We see a debate in which values and broadly shared policies are developed and promoted.”
One virtue of the electoral pact is that, at the very least, it gets progressive politics over the line. Its disadvantage is that as a single issue policy to ‘remove the Tories’ it might not galvanise sufficient voters. The broader (Compass) alliance could, in principle, attract more voters. But it raises the issues of whether ongoing inter-party co-operation is achievable or even desirable.
Distrust and intransigence
For a PA to work it firstly has to overcome antagonism between the opposition parties. The Labour Left have no intention of forgiving LD their coalition with the Tories in 2010. Labour distrust extends to the Greens – for example, their ‘regressive alliance’ with LD and the Conservatives at the London Assembly was viewed as directly against Labour interests. Conversely the Greens distrust LD. For example, in the recent Amersham and Chesham election, they refused to stand aside for LD who they regarded as conducting a ‘cynical campaign’ on HS2. LD have been equally intransigent – during Theresa May’s premiership, Jo Swinson refused to support even a temporary unity government led by Corbyn. Similarly, in the 2017 election approximately 60 seats were lost to the Tories because Labour refused to step aside.
“Labour would rather have no power than share just a tiny bit of it”
Also is it feasible to think that parties could work together in a way that is persuasive for voters? How could they be allied if they endorse opposing policies on key issues such as nationalisation, taxation and so on? The Labour Left regard any collusion with LD as compromising true socialism and emasculating labour policy. Labour, they argue, should be reconnecting with its working-class base, not watering down its policies to align with other ideologically very different parties. In fact, the Left disputes whether LD are “progressive” at all. Given Ed Davey’s advocacy of deregulation, privatisation and free market competition they have a point – it’s hard to imagine how an alliance between, say, Starmer and Davey could mobilize non-voters! Labour List maintains that Labour is already a PA.
On the other hand, as British Politics argues, PA could also be undermined by the parties staunchly retaining their separate identities since voters may resist voting for a party that is allied with others whose values they don’t identify with.
The greatest resistance to PA appears to come from the Labour Left. Are their objections realistic?
The Labour Left seem to believe that if they can just elect the right leader all will be well, that out there is a socialist messiah who will show the centre the error of their ways whilst simultaneously attracting a hugely diverse range of voter groups that include the working and middle classes, the young and old, the recent red defectors and disenfranchised non-voters, the UKs ethnic minorities, Muslims and Jewish people alike. But this is a huge ask, it doesn’t obviously overcome the FPTP maths, and also overlooks the weak position Labour is currently in.
Firstly, Labour is deeply distrusted. It is not only competing with the perceived greater expertise of the Tories as the ‘party of business’ but years of media poison have done enormous, possible irretrievable, damage to its reputation as a viable party. Nor is the public perception of Labour likely to change soon as it continues to be deprived of positive oxygen by the mainstream media, Sussex Bylines
Furthermore, Labour is a deeply disunited party. The Left want Starmer replaced but, after the Batley and Spen win, this looks unlikely. Labour is currently in a stalemate with chronic internal tensions that are not appealing to voters.
Labour also isn’t heeding new voting habits. People now tend to vote in the same way they obtain car insurance. They are less constrained by long term loyalties and instead shop around, changing allegiance in a fairly ruthless consumer fashion. This volatility makes it harder for Labour to retain voters, particularly younger ones who have little compunction about side stepping to other smaller parties such as the Greens.
Moreover, Labour has failed to galvanise support even in the face of, arguably, the most corrupt, dishonest and dangerous UK government in the last hundred years. Excuses can always be found. But it doesn’t bode well.
These are just some reasons why Labour is polling badly and why support has declined in Scotland and regions of England. But they do suggest that Labour isn’t in a strong enough position to surmount the hurdle of FPTP and might actually fare better as part of a PA.
The way forward
Firstly, in an alliance, Labour’s poor reputation and voter leakage to other progressive parties would matter less. At least, it wouldn’t fragment the progressive movement, just change its shape, as it were. In fact, regarding Labour’s unappealing internal tensions, some realignment and diversification via an alliance with external parties could be more beneficial than harmful to it. Writing for the Constitution Society, Dr Andrew Blick argues that PA is a win-win proposal:
“… an electoral Pact would not only deprive the Conservatives of their majority but all parties involved stand to gain – Labour could win back several of the ‘Red Wall’ seats lost in 2019, including Blyth Valley and Leigh. LD could take seats such as Guildford and Cheltenham, targeted in 2019 unsuccessfully. The Greens could also make significant gains.”
The viability of PA is strengthened by the many values that Labour has in common with other opposition parties. For example, both Labour and LD want free child care paid for by business tax increases, investment in policing and a green industrial revolution. Both want to scrap school SATS and the public sector pay cap. According to Channel 4 News’ Fact Check, both also plan to spend similar amounts on health and social care (£30 billion in next five years with some six billion injected into care for the elderly). Despite the distrust and ideological differences noted between the opposition parties, there are crossover points that, with determination and a spirit of co-operation, could be built upon.
This continuity is supported by the growing recognition amongst the opposition parties that none of them can feasibly ‘go it alone’. Despite the Labour Left’s hostility to PA, 76% of Labour members said that the opposition parties should “work together” rather than “standing against each other” and, like Starmer, they are favourable to Proportional Representation (PR).
“If we have broadly aligned socialist values this should be enough to work against Tories. All this could be done in concert with Labour’s mission to reach and bring wealth to working class communities.”
Sweeney’s point here gets to the nub of the matter. For the Labour Left, anyone who endorses a PA is a centrist and ‘therefore not a true socialist’. But this tar-brushing ignores the vital role of what can be called pragmatic centrism. Pragmatic centrists recognize that in order to win a more progressive governance, compromises have to be made. They want a fairer distribution of wealth, support for vulnerable people, full racial and gender equality, social care reform, effective unions and more control (if not yet full ownership) of the means of production, but accept that this has to be secured within our current capitalist framework. If the Labour Left want to deny the title ‘socialist’ to upholders of these values then so be it.
Surely, the urgent thing is not to squabble over semantics but to get these vital progressive policies delivered. If the maths of our current FPTP system means that a Progressive Alliance is our only escape route from the new Conservativism then we surely have to swallow our purist reservations and take it.