Friday, 26 February 2021

Self-identifying as progressive isn't enough


Last week, the idea of a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ to defeat the Tories made one of its regular outings in the pages of the Guardian. One of the reasons why the argument won’t go away is that it makes obvious mathematical sense: more people voted against the Tories than voted for them. There is, though, more to politics than mathematics, and being united against the Tories isn’t the same as being united in favour of a particular alternative. From the comfort of an armchair, there is an obvious attraction in the idea of a ‘once-off’ alliance committed to introducing a form of proportional representation which would ensure than all views were better represented and that one party could not end up with an absolute majority of seats on the basis of a minority of votes.

In fairness, the article does identify one major problem with the plan, which is “Labour’s self-perceived monopoly status [with] a mindset in which it is the one and only tent on the centre-left”. That’s a big hurdle to clear. Much of Labour’s messaging for decades has been that they are not the Tories and the only way to get a non-Tory government is to vote Labour, in a deliberate attempt to ‘squeeze’ the vote for smaller parties. If they once admit that, actually, there is a route to getting rid of the Tories which does not depend on voting Labour, what are they left with? It’s hard to see them ever doing that so, for Labour, the only sort of ‘alliance’ which they are ever likely to contemplate is one which calls on everyone else to vote Labour. History shows that they can, occasionally, win enough votes in England to gain a majority of seats and form a government, and the simple truth is that they’d prefer to have absolute power occasionally than to share power more regularly.

There is, though, an even bigger problem which the article doesn’t even consider. Can one really consider Labour to be a ‘progressive’ party at all? The word seems to mean different things to different people, but the fact that Labour chooses to self-identify as progressive doesn’t necessarily make it true.

There is a report today that Labour’s shadow defence secretary is making a speech in which he will declare that “Labour’s support for the UK’s nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable”. (He is apparently also going to declare that “Labour’s commitment to international law and the UN … is total”, a statement which seems rather to ignore the fact that it was a UN treaty which made the production, use and stockpiling of nuclear weapons illegal from 1 January this year. Labour’s ‘commitment’ to international law looks awfully similar in practice to the Tories’ ‘commitment’ to international law.) His argument for this stance is firstly that nuclear weapons provide jobs, and secondly that being seen to prevaricate over the possession of nuclear weapons has damaged the party’s reputation amongst certain groups of voters.

In rather blunter terms, in order to win elections, Labour thinks it needs the votes of those who think it morally and legally acceptable to use weapons of mass destruction to wipe out entire cities and their populations. And it would prefer to seek those votes than to form any sort of alliance with other parties to challenge and defeat that barbaric and inhumane viewpoint. It’s hard to see what is ‘progressive’ about that. And that’s the really big problem with the idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ – it assumes that people would be willing to vote tactically for policies indistinguishable from those of the Tories in order to get rid of the Tories. It needs more than that to work.

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