Friday, 6 August 2021

Progressive isn't the same thing as anti-Tory


Not entirely unexpectedly, given the poor performance of the Labour Party in recent months, the idea of forming what has erroneously been called a ‘progressive alliance’ has been rearing its ugly head again. Leaving aside the obvious lack of understanding by London-based political commentators of Welsh and Scottish politics (what on earth leads them to believe, even for a moment, that parties like the SNP and Plaid would want to be part of a formal coalition government to run the UK for five years, as opposed to a looser arrangement which allows Labour to govern in return for specific concessions?), there are plenty of reasons for the Labour leadership to reject the idea outright. Whilst it’s clear that the Lib Dems might be natural bedfellows for the Labour Party, why would a party so committed to austerity economics as the Labour Party want to constrain itself by an agreement with parties such as the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid which reject austerity? Why would a party so committed to the possession and renewal of weapons of mass destruction as the Labour Party want to constrain its ability to incinerate millions by trying to reach an agreement with parties which seek to scrap nuclear weapons?

It seems, however, that it’s not for obvious policy reasons like that that the Labour leadership rejects any sort of agreement with the Greens, SNP and Plaid at all – it’s because of their fear that the Tories might use any hint of an accommodation with the SNP in an appeal to an increasingly aggressive form of English nationalism (as if Labour haven’t already lost most of the English nationalist vote already). In effect, they would prefer to leave the Tories in government indefinitely than take a principled position against what has become the core driver of the English Conservative and Unionist Party. In the meantime, the Tories are using the absolute power given to them by a distorted electoral system which is unfit for purpose to promote a series of measures, including active voter suppression, to cement their undemocratic hold on power by uniting around 35 – 40% of English electors behind them.

There are serious problems with the whole concept of a ‘progressive alliance’, not the least of which is that the biggest party in any such alliance is hardly worthy of the description ‘progressive’. What is really meant is not a ‘progressive’ alliance at all, but a non-Tory alliance, as though being ‘not-a-Tory’ is, in itself, sufficient ground to unite a disparate group of parties around a five-year plan for government. It isn’t, and it is never going to be. What might, as an outside chance, be possible would be a much looser joint commitment by all the non-Tory forces to electoral reform, with a promise that they would jointly act to introduce STV and then call a new election under the new system within two years of them being elected on that platform. Coupled with vague hints that anyone supporting such an approach should consider voting for whichever pro-STV candidate was most likely to win in any given constituency (Labour are never going to agree to stand down candidates in a general election, and people should really stop predicating their analysis on an assumption that they will), that might just open a route away from a system of politics which gives absolute power to a single party on the basis of a minority of the votes.

Whilst it’s impossible to be certain what that might mean for future governments – changing the system might also change voting behaviour – it seems probable that long periods of single party rule would be consigned to history, and we would end up with governments which were forced to pay attention to alternative views and seek accommodations with them. Even this weak version of an alliance looks unlikely currently, though. Whilst Plaid, the SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems are all committed to electoral reform, the Labour party is another question entirely. There are certainly individuals within the party supportive of STV (former Welsh minister Alun Davies, for example, has often indicated his support), but the London-based leadership is lukewarm at best. It often appears that they are content for the Tories to be in unconstrained government for 90% of the time in exchange for having their turn for the other 10%, and that they’d sooner be out of power completely than compromise with anyone else. Unless and until that changes, not only is any sort of alliance impossible – it’s actually pointless. Starmer’s reported comments this week are not exactly a cause for optimism.

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