The idea of a “progressive alliance” is back in fashion. It has been supported both by Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Many people on the left argue that such an alliance is the only way to keep the Tories from winning a parliamentary majority on 8 June.
After Labour’s repeated electoral defeats in the Thatcher era—notably in 1987 and 1992—it was widely argued that under the current, first-past-the-post electoral system another majority Labour government was impossible.
Electoral pacts between Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens were necessary to defeat the Tories and introduce a different electoral system of proportional representation.
These arguments faded as the Tory party imploded following Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992, when the pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. In 1997 Labour under Tony Blair won a landslide—a 176-seat majority on a 10.2 percent swing.
Of course, I’m not suggesting history will repeat itself on 8 June. Much has changed in the past twenty years—in particular, the grip of the two main parties on the electorate has weakened substantially.
But if we consider the “progressive alliance” argument on its merits, what would it mean this time?
First of all, let’s take the SNP out of the equation. It is the 800 pound gorilla of Scottish politics, controlling the Holyrood executive and all but three of Scotland’s seats in Westminster. It doesn’t need an electoral pact with anyone.
An SNP spokesperson told the Independent newspaper, “Any progressive alliance would be more likely to occur after the results of the general election, when the number of seats gained by each party was known.
“It’s not something we are seriously thinking about right at the beginning of the campaign.”
The Tories have traditionally been relatively weak in Wales, so the argument is really about England. The Greens had their best Westminster election ever in 2015. They won over a million votes, 3.8 percent of the total, and successfully defended Lucas’s Brighton seat.
But this success was significantly achieved by the Greens positioning themselves well to the left of a lacklustre Labour campaign. This can’t really be repeated in 2017, since Jeremy Corbyn has nailed his colours to the mast and is fighting for policies to the left of the mainstream. So I don’t see a Labour-Green pact making much difference.
Bringing the Lib Dems in could change the equation, but in what sense would an alliance with them be “progressive”?
They were the enablers of the Tories’ austerity policies in 2010-15. That the Lib Dems haven’t changed is indicated by the speed with which the likes of Vince Cable ruled out a coalition with Labour under Corbyn.
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron is trying to position his party to win the support of voters of all parties who oppose Brexit.
This reveals the real logic of the “progressive alliance”—as a pact against Brexit. Gina Miller, who led the court case to get a parliamentary vote on triggering article 50, has initiated a “Best for Britain” tactical voting campaign.
In this context, Blair’s intervention last weekend is highly significant. He called for votes for “as many members of parliament as possible to parliament that are going to keep an open mind on this Brexit negotiation until we see the final terms”—Labour, Tories and Lib Dems.
This is an agenda for splitting Labour and perhaps for creating a new pro-European centre party. Again, we’ve seen that before with the 1981 Social Democratic Party breakaway from Labour, which helped to ensure that the Tories held office for 18 years.
Many good socialists are attracted by the idea of a “progressive alliance” because they want to stop both Theresa May and Brexit. But the chances of preventing Britain leaving the European Union are very small—there simply aren’t the votes to do it.
The danger is that seeking this unachievable goal can divide the left.
And it can divert attention from waging a determined, militant and energetic campaign for a Labour victory.