Progressive alliance: Lego-brick policies

Photo: dollyhaul (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Trevor Fisher argues that the quest for an alliance of anti-Tory parties is fraught with dangers

The temperature is rising on the progressive alliance, but not with more light to match the heat.

Two articles in late spring point up the problems acutely – one by Nick Cohen in the right wing Spectator, and another by three MPs from three of the parties slated for alliance negotiations in the Guardian. Layla Moran, Clive Lewis and Caroline Lucas provide these ‘three wise voices’.

The common assumption of the articles as with others is Lego brick politics: that voters can be treated like pawns in a game drawn from spreadsheets. The election results in 2019 are assumed to show a progressive majority in the electorate, and assumed to be a guide in an election which Cohen thinks will be in 2023/24. He should wait till the Fixed Term Parliament Act is repealed before deciding, but the key issue is the one Cohen states with admirable clarity, to wit: “one centre-left candidate in each English and Welsh constituency, who would be either the sitting MP or the representative of the party that came second behind the Conservatives, running on a common platform”.

Well before the common platform fell apart, dissident voices would be braying in every Tory news outlet, as there would be a mass emergence of independent left or liberal candidates who would not toe the line and could not be stopped from standing. George Galloway following his Batley outing would be a prime candidate. But the calculations are even more dubious.

The Cohen article quotes Naomi Smith of the failed anti-Brexit organisation Best for Britain and argues that a “Best for Britain analysis from January showed that Labour could win 70 more seats if it was prepared to… work with others”. A decent sub-editor would have pointed out that Bonking Boris has an 80-seat majority. An extra 70, if achieved – a big if – would leave him with a useful 10-seat majority, and that is before the extra 5-10 seats from boundary reviews. The exercise of shuffling the Lego bricks of 2019 is deeply flawed as the electorate will change. But there are bigger problems.

The three wise voices article has a headline – “To beat the Tories, we must first join forces to beat the electoral system” – which a Tory propagandist would effectively construe as “they can’t win as the electoral system will not change”. The next election will be fought on first-past-the-post, and if the Tories cannot win unless the system is changed and there will be no change – then the Tories can never be beaten.

The logic is clear but false. If only PR can deliver victory, the next election is lost, as it will be fought under FPTP. And the next one. And so on ad infinitum. This is logical but wrong – the Tories can be beaten under FPTP, and have been beaten before. There is however no magic bullet; attention has to be given to voter appeal. This is not happening. One reason is that the allies assume the Tories are unpopular. The recent by-elections provide a complex picture – and there is more evidence from the 6th May elections.

Is there an anti-Tory alliance?

The assumption that there is an anti-Tory majority which will line up in military formation to vote for a stitched up progressive alliance was tested by David Cowling for the Mayoral and Commissioner elections on 6th May, for which there was a form of PR. His analysis addressed the question, “Why do we assume that voters will readily embrace the decision to reduce their choice of political options at elections?”

His analysis of the data for the Lib Dems on May 6th is sobering. Labour and Green voters tend to be centre-left, but Lib Dems are not committed lefties – as one would expect from a party that spent five years in coalition with the Tories and has never apologised for the austerity which followed. Layla Moran was defeated in the Lib Dem leadership election by Ed Davey, an Orange Book advocate of the Liberal right. Cowling argues that “there is much work that needs to be done among Lib Dem voters. They seem much less reliable… than either Labour or Green voters”. Currently the party is obsessed with stopping the Greens becoming the third party in England, and with the Greens ahead of them on 9% it’s a real fear. Would the Lib Dems want to give them more credibility in a progressive alliance? How does that work?

The three by-elections since May provide little evidence of popular support for a progressive alliance.

Hartlepool showed that Brexit still dominates red wall constituencies, while Remain voters in Chesham and Amersham voted for the Lib Dems. Analysis has yet to address other factors but the complete collapse of the Labour vote in the Buckinghamshire seat provided food for thought. In 2017, Labour was second with 11,374, with the Lib Dems third with 7,179; in 2019 they reversed, with Labour on 7,166 to the Lib Dems’ 14,627. Labour’s deposit-losing 622 votes will surely not be repeated in a General Election – and the Lib Dems cannot be hoping to hold on to the seat.

If these two by-elections did not provide evidence for a progressive alliance, the Batley & Spen election showed only the continued collapse of Lib Dems in a seat where the Greens stood down – they have only once polled more than a 1,000 votes – and a range of small parties, dominated by George Galloway’s sectarian Workers Party, make this constituency untypical. All that recent elections have shown on the alliance front is that the Tories remain dominant and can count themselves unlucky not to have taken all three by-elections. Evidence voters want an anti-Tory alliance remains hard to find.

None of this means that Labour will ‘win’ the next election and there is a mountain to climb. It is however to deny there is any advantage for Labour in trying to stitch up a deal with other parties. It will have enough trouble within its own ranks. Its only realistic option is to offer a Labour government and let the voters decide.


  1. The article is OK. It only discusses Progressive Alliances with Parties standing down though.

    No mention of 1997 style cooperation and non-aggression approach between Labour, LDs and Greens. This is the most realistic type of pact or agreement (formal or informal). Probably only worth doing in ‘winnable’ (under FPTP) seats, maybe 100 or so.

    Some factual errors too.

    “A decent sub-editor would have pointed out that Bonking Boris has an 80-seat majority. An extra 70, if achieved – a big if – would leave him with a useful 10-seat majority…”

    This sentence misunderstands how Parliamentary arithmetic works. If the Tories lose 40 seats then they have 325 MPs and a majority of zero (although in practice they might have a working majority with about 321 as speakers and Sinn Fein don’t vote).

    If the Tories lose 70 seats (to whoever) then they would have 295 MPs and would be 30 MPs short of a majority. They would not have a “useful 10-seat majority”.

    In addition the Best For Britain analysis quoted from Nick Cohen in The Spectator does not show “that Labour could win 70 more seats if it was prepared to… work with others”.

    Best For Britain “source” (via link in The Spectator) actually suggested Labour would get an extra 149 MPs compared to 2019 with pacts compared to an extra 81 MPs without pacts. The difference between the two is 68 not 70.

    Optimistic some would say – or maybe Labour was polling really well at the time (research published 16 Jan 2021).

    I guess the point of the poll is not the specific projections of MPs, but the fact that if vote splitting between Labour, Lib Dems and Greens is not addressed, then the Tories will probably get another majority of MPs on a minority vote share. Again.

    This sentence is very strange too: “The logic is clear but false. If only PR can deliver victory, the next election is lost, as it will be fought under FPTP.”

    Obviously the next election will be fought under FPTP. The point about PR is that if Labour commits to implement PR AFTER winning an election under FPTP, then the Libs Dems and the Greens have a reason to cooperate with Labour. This significantly increases Labour’s chances of winning under FPTP.

    Vote splitting and ‘efficient’ voter distribution are the main factors determining who wins under FPTP. Total number of votes nationally is less important.

  2. so Labour voters in Chesham and Amersham nearly all voted for the LIb Dem candidate, successfully electing them by a de facto progressive alliance. Somehow the author manages mental gymnastics to take this as proof against the viability of a progressive alliance. Quite the most incoherent article I’ve ever read in The Chartist.

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