Progressive Alliances and Proportional Representation

As far as this article is concerned a ‘progressive’ is someone who – in this or any order – wants the UK to rejoin the EU; wants to save the planet from ecocide; unreservedly supports the NHS; believes that in a decent society the strong have a moral duty to support the weak (i.e. we need a fair taxation system); believes education is for all and not for the privileged; believes in national self-determination (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland);  and is disgusted by the corruption underpinning the present government.

The Need for an “Electoral Alliance”

So far, so obvious. But the only way to achieve these objectives is to first get rid of the current government and ensure that we never see a return to unrepresentative right-wing rule. ‘Getting rid of the current government’ means the ‘progressive’ parties need to form a temporary electoral alliance and then to turn the UK into a grown-up democracy with the introduction of ‘Proportional Representation’ (PR). 

Given the nature of our electoral system – ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP) – the ‘winning’ party is usually rejected by the majority, often the vast majority, of the electorate. This was true in 2019 when the Conservatives ‘won’ a landslide majority of 80 seats, despite having been rejected by 57.6% of the electorate.  In fact, to ‘win’ a FPTP election you need only one vote more than any other party in one seat more than all other parties combined. Certain areas of the country will only ever have a Conservative MP; others will never have a Conservative MP. This is a travesty of democracy. Remember: Conservatives (and Brexiteers) are as entitled as anyone else to fair representation.

So how do we forge a ‘Progressive Alliance’? The progressive (left and centre) is fragmented; the right is not. This is why the right can win a disproportionate number of seats. It also means that if the left is to win it needs to ensure that all the tendencies within the left family are working towards the same short-term end, which is to boot out the right and install democracy. In each constituency all the B-list candidates of the left need to withdraw from the race to maximise support for the one most likely to win. Or if they cannot agree to withdraw then an ad hoc tactical voting arrangement will be needed. This worked well in the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election (reported surreally by NationCymru as ‘Welsh speaker wins election’).

A problem for every solution

Pretty straightforward, mmmh? Unfortunately not. For a start, how do we know which candidate of the Left to support? If, in a Conservative-held constituency, the Labour candidate has come second at the last two general elections it is obvious that the LibDem and Green parties should refrain from putting up a candidate. But hang on … if, on the other hand, in the period since the last general election the LibDems have worked their socks off and gained control of the local authority in which the constituency is situated, then why not back the LibDem candidate? A pragmatic decision will be needed – spurred on by the realisation that failure to co-operate spells disaster. Who will take that decision and on the basis of what criteria?

A number of other factors conspire to muddy the waters. Firstly, there would need to be broad agreement amongst the parties of the left that this is indeed the correct strategy. Secondly, parties would need to refrain from standing in hopeless seats. Thirdly, there would need to be a sufficient measure of goodwill at the level of the party hierarchies (enough of the foot soldiers understand the need for co-operation). Fourthly, Labour would need to ditch its absurd policy of nominating a candidate in every single constituency. This pig-headedness handed victory on a plate to the Conservative candidate in Cheltenham in 2019. Fifthly, Labour would need to abandon its arrogant and erroneous belief that it alone is left-wing and all other self-identifying progressive parties are not. Sixthly, Labour needs to understand that ‘coalition’ is not a dirty word. Ultimately, the question Labour needs to ask itself is: is it better to achieve some of your aims or none of your aims?

What’s in it for me?

Finally, in any pre-emptive dividing up of the spoils the smaller parties of the Left are likely to walk away if not empty-handed then without much to show the folks back home. Think of the Greens. How likely is it that dozens of LibDem and Labour candidates will stand down in their favour, given their polling results at the last general election? But some sort of tokenism may well be the price that the larger parties on the Left have to pay if only to garner Green support in marginal constituencies.

Assume that all these problems can be resolved and that, in accordance with current polling trends, the left wins a majority at the next election, but Labour on its own fails to win an outright majority. Under our present electoral system a hung parliament is what most voters hope for. It’s in nobody’s interest to have a ‘strong government’! Labour will then need to come to an arrangement with the other parties of the ‘Progressive Alliance’ on a temporary legislative programme. The basic principles would need to be agreed in advance of the election. If this is not to be a flash-in-the-pan election result, with the Conservatives reverting to government as the fragile coalition collapses, the coalition will need to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated.

Legislative priority

The crucially important point, therefore, is that a ‘Progressive Alliance’ would need a formal agreement to introduce PR as a priority. If this is made clear in the manifestos of the progressive alliance parties, there is no need for a referendum – although polling evidence shows consistent majority support for PR. Had the LibDems in the coalition with the Conservatives insisted on PR instead of the laughable ‘Alternative Vote’ (which is not PR), we would have been spared the pointless trauma of Brexit – because, for the first time ever, the Commons would have truly reflected the electorate’s wishes.

What sort of PR is needed? The obvious answer is the ‘Single Transferable Vote’ (STV) which is the system supported by the independent, cross-party Electoral Reform Society. In a country like Britain where party membership is very much a minority sport, any party-based system of PR would be entirely inappropriate. We need an electoral system that gives proportional representation of opinion,regardless of whether that opinion is organised on party lines or not. That is what STV does. STV is the most powerful vote on the planet and has justifiably been described as the ‘Supervote’.

The next step, after introducing PR, is to apply to rejoin the EU, in line with what the majority of voters want, as expressed in opinion poll after opinion poll.

Enlightened self-interest

Support for Scottish (and subsequently Welsh) independence is clearly a progressive cause. As is the reunification of Ireland. But any referendum on these subjects needs to be delayed until after the introduction of PR. Otherwise the loss of the Scottish seats would help the Tories in any subsequent FPTP election.

The way ahead?

There are too many ‘ifs’ to make a Progressive Alliance a reality at the time of writing. As I have suggested above, to be realistic, most of the effort to create the alliance will need to come from Labour. But the alliance can be created if the will is there. So, who will make the opening move? Both Starmer and Davey appear to be more interested in navel-gazing than in preparing for government. And can Labour voters ever forgive their leadership for suggesting we should ‘embrace Brexit’? But if Keir and Ed don’t get their act together pretty smartish they will go down in history as figures of justifiable contempt whose refusal to co-operate will have sentenced the British to even more Tory agony.

A new organisation called ‘Compass’ is promoting Progressive Alliance as a means to attain a fairer society. They have produced this excellent paper entitled All You Need to Know about Progressive Alliance, which I recommend for further reading.

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