The idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ has raised its ugly head again recently, both during Plaid’s annual conference and in relation to the pending by-election in Richmond Park. It’s an issue which I’ve discussed in the past, because it raises a number of problems. Glyn Morris referred to it yesterday as well, pointing out that, to be meaningful, it needs to be about more than an anti-Tory electoral alliance.
My first problem is with the concept: I’m not sure what the word ‘progressive’ means. It’s a word often used by politicians and parties who see themselves as the good guys and the ‘non-progressives’ as the bad guys, but that is, in essence, a definition which starts from a subjective viewpoint. Taking it as its lowest common denominator in recent discussions, the desired outcome would appear to be that Labour, the Lib Dems, Plaid, the SNP, and the Greens agree amongst themselves that only one candidate should stand in any given constituency, in order that the best-placed ‘progressive’ should be able to defeat the baby-eaters. But what does that mean in practice?
Let’s take the issue of Trident, for a start. Labour are in favour of renewing it, the Lib Dems want to replace it with an alternative form of nuclear deterrent (they don’t seem entirely sure what, only that it should be less accurate and less immediately available; a position the logic of which escapes me). So, if there were to be a ‘progressive’ alliance, would someone like me, who is utterly opposed to the possession of nuclear weapons, be expected to vote for a Labour pro-Trident candidate in order to defeat a Tory pro-Trident candidate? Why would anyone do that? It’s a point which highlights the dodgy assumption being made by too many politicians that their electoral supporters would vote for a different party if only their normal party told them to. It’s a position which owes more to abstract mathematical analysis than to serious political thought.
Or take the question of an ‘anti-austerity’ programme. Labour’s pitch at the last general election may have been presented in that light, but the actual policy put forward was more about a disagreement about the extent and speed of austerity. The basic Tory position was accepted; the difference was about the detail and timing. Again, why would any serious opponent of austerity, who wants an alternative economic strategy, compromise and support austerity-lite just because his or her usual party told them to?
This article highlights some of the issues in arriving at a consensus platform, as seen from a Labour viewpoint. Seen from that perspective, one of the conditions would be that “... the nationalist parties would have to accept a federal or ‘devo-max’ model of governance in exchange for using power to pursue progressive politics and give up hopes of independence.” I think that neatly brings us to one of the key points: from a Labour perspective, the whole concept is not about what such an alliance actually achieves, it’s about getting Labour back into power and making other views subordinate to those of the big boys. Just think about the constituencies across the UK, and which parties would be standing down for which other parties. In the vast majority of constituencies in England (and in Wales), the simple reality is that such an alliance would mean other parties standing down to give Labour a free run. It is, for Labour, a route back to two-party politics, marginalising other views in the process.
I can think of one, and only one, reason to back an alliance between disparate parties on a once-off basis, and that is an agreement to change the electoral system to one based on proportional representation. (My own preference would be for STV, but there are other possible alternatives.) Imagine electing a government which had that as its one and only priority, and which agreed in advance that it would resign and call new elections under the new system after passing the legislation. I believe that would do more for the advancement of whatever progressive politics actually is than any political manoeuvring based solely on not being the Tories.
That’s something that Plaid, the SNP, the Green Party, and the Lib Dems could probably all agree on. There’s a problem with Labour, though. That particular ‘progressive’ party is wedded to the current system, and seems unlikely to change as long as they believe that they can win an outright majority under such a system. In that context, talk of other parties standing down in favour of Labour hardly encourages them to shift their position.
Oh, and there’s another problem with PR as well. Labour might not support it, but my understanding is that UKIP do. I know that ‘official’ wisdom is that they eat even more babies than the Tories, but if we were serious about seeing a change in the electoral system as the number one priority for building an alternative approach to politics, one could make a good argument that, on a one-off basis, a UKIP MP might be a better bet than a Labour one. That’s not a serious proposal, by the way; but it highlights a problem with the logic of much of what is being proposed, namely that the sort of alliance being proposed would not deliver real long term political change, only a short term change of government.None of the above is intended to suggest that parties cannot or should not work together in relation to specific policy issues where there is common ground, but an electoral alliance which merely serves to reinforce Labour’s hegemony as the ‘main’ non-Tory party looks more like a regressive step to me than a progressive one. Too many people who should know better are confusing ends with means.