In response to Owen Jones: how we can stop Brexit

In Owen Jones’ latest Guardian column he says that he can’t see how Brexit can be stopped but that he’d like to be persuaded that it can be. So, here’s my attempt to persuade him both that Brexit can be stopped and that the Stop Brexit campaign isn’t the way he portrays it in his column.

First, though, some common ground. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I agree with Owen that arguing about the referendum is not the way to Stop Brexit, and I especially never want to see ‘but it was an advisory referendum’ put forward as an argument in political debate again. People who like using referendums to decide policy issues are not going to be persuaded by that argument because for them ‘advisory referendum’ is as oxymoronic a phrase as ‘advisory election’. The Brexit process was put into action by an act of mass politics and it can only be stopped in the same way, not by either pretending it never happened or hoping a court will somehow reverse it. It will only be stopped by a popular movement against it. That said, while there are still some people on the Stop Brexit side still fighting like it’s 2016, a lot have moved on from there and are looking to the future, not fighting the old battles. By not looking at those fighting on those multiple other fronts, I think Jones does a disservice to the Stop Brexit movement.

This leads me to the first major disagreement I have with Jones’ depiction of the Stop Brexit campaign, that it’s somehow an elitist movement or just a reactionary Establishment clique led by “Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and unelected peers”. I think some of this comes from his experience of campaigns on the left where campaigns are usually more formally organised things with central groups to plan things and approved spokespeople. From my experience, the Stop Brexit movement is a dispersed movement that includes several groups of various degrees of organisation as well as a whole mass of individuals who aren’t formally attached to any group. Blair, Clegg, Adonis etc only speak for themselves, not for anyone else, but it suits certain sections of the pro-Brexit media to spin the idea that they are the official spokesmen for the movement. There are plenty of other people out there who could speak for the pro-European cause, but the media aren’t making any efforts to get out there and find them, preferring instead to drag out their old contacts and re-stage some old fights.

Jones has failed to notice that the Stop Brexit campaign is a lot more than it looks from the media portrayal of it. There are people out there making the positive case, talking to people, organising meetings and leafleting people, it’s just that they’re getting together and doing it off their own backs, not as part of formal movements that report to a committee chaired by Nick Clegg. People are out there trying to shift public opinion, but the biggest block to shifting that opinion is the lack of voices out there to amplify their efforts and speak up for them. Instead, the few journalists and commentators who would normally back a forming mass movement against letting right-wing ideology run free are too busy telling them that they’re nothing more than the establishment fighting for the status quo.

It is the Stop Brexiters who are campaigning against the status quo – the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and all their front benches all publicly support some form of Brexit even if they’re not clear on the details. The assumption of the media is that Brexit is going to happen, and anyone who argues otherwise can expect to be pilloried for daring to express such a radical view and going against the will of the people. There’s a whole range of new, diverse voices out there who aren’t arguing to return to June 22nd 2016 and pretend nothing happened but are making the case for why the UK needs to be committed to a European future and explaining the benefits of EU membership and what we’re about to lose. And yes, like Jones I’d love to press “a big red button to make it all just go away” so we can talk about “low wages, insecure jobs and the housing crisis” as well as so much else but Brexit isn’t going to go away as an issue any time soon. Brexit is the acute condition that we have to deal with first before we can get to any of the chronic ones lingering behind it.

“A Labour-managed Brexit that doesn’t shred our links with the EU and turn Britain into a low-regulation tax haven still seems preferable” if the alternative is the chaotic mess of some North Atlantic rights-free tax haven, in the same way a shit sandwich is preferable to a manure baguette. The positive message Jones wants to see is tied to all the issues he wants to tackle – if you want an economy that supports better wages and more skilled jobs, if you want a Government with the funds and the credit rating to tackle the housing crisis and everything else, then you need to be part of the largest trading bloc on the planet, not sitting hopefully outside it. Yes, there’s a huge problem with the way our political system works and it needs root and branch reform so that people can feel that they’re included and listened to, but to do that sort of reform needs economic stability and a system that hasn’t already surrendered what economic clout it has to corporations demanding tax cuts.

Finally, Jones argues a weirdly defeatist point arguing that if Labour argued to stop Brexit it “would haemorrhage many of the 3 million or so of its voters who backed leave” leading to “a decisive Conservative electoral victory, enabling the party to implement the most true blue of Tory Brexit deals”. This is oddly similar to the sort of anti-Corbyn argument that Jones eagerly denounced (and was proved right to do so) but yes, if Labour just announced ‘we’re against Brexit now’ without any build up it might well lose votes. If, however, it came after a time of them exposing the flaws in the Tory Brexit argument, coupled with voices across the political spectrum talking about the benefits of stopping it altogether, then they could build a narrative and actually lead the people to reject it, rather than just shrugging their shoulders with a ‘well, what can you do?’. There isn’t a a magic unicorn Brexit without economic harm out there, every version of it causes some damage, and Labour could use this opportunity to wipe the Tories out for a generation for putting the country on the path to ruin.

Brexit can be stopped, there’s a whole lot of arguments out there about why it should be stopped and a nascent mass movement that can foster new leaders who’ll make that case, but it needs courage and support from those in positions like Jones to speak up for them, not tell them to sit down and accept that things can’t be changed.

Should we hide in a bunker where we’re always right, or try and do things differently?

Sometimes, I wonder just how the various forms of the Right have become so dominant in our politics, and then sometimes I have days like yesterday that explain perfectly why they manage it. It’s not that they have the best ideas or anything like that, it’s that they know that the best way to build yourself back up when you’re in opposition is not to form a circular firing squad and commence sniping at each other.

Two things yesterday reminded me that liberals and the left are far too willing to form into a firing circle than they are to look around and realise there’s a much bigger fight going on. (I’m reminded of Lisa Nandy’s words about how we love to win battles against each other, while the Tories are busy fighting and winning the war) First, I spent the evening at the latest of the Mile End Institute’s ‘In Conversation With…’ series of events, this time featuring Diane Abbott. At one point, she was asked a question from a Labour member in the audience who was considering leaving the party to join the Liberal Democrats, and asking for a reason why. You won’t be surprised to learn that the answer featured ‘Clegg’, ‘coalition’, and ‘Cameron’ quite frequently but nothing about any post-2015 political issues. The message was that only Labour is any good, and there’s no point being a member of any other party.

Meanwhile, further around the well-armed circle, the New Statesman published this article in which various Labour and Liberal Democrat figures suggest that maybe if the non-Tory parties thought about making minor steps towards co-operation at some point in the future, it might help defeat the Tories in an election. (If only someone had written at length about the benefits of Lib Dem-Labour co-operation in defeating the Tories before) I’ve seen it posted in various corners of Lib Dem social media, where it’s been received by many people as though it was a skip full of radioactive donkey vomit. We’re the one true party, came the gold-tinged echo of Abbott’s comments, there’s no need for us to work with others, they should all come and join us.

And because this isn’t a new argument, here’s some desperation about in-fighting I wrote earlier:

We can sit around and wait for everyone to agree with us like we’ve done for most of the last century (a strategy of, at best, occasional and partial success) or we can get out there and try and find common ground we can build on. If we’re so convinced that that liberal arguments are correct, then why fear working with others when we should be able to persuade them to our way of thinking? Sure, it can be fun to sit around in a small group indulging in the narcissism of small differences, but maybe we’d be better off engaging with those we seek to dismiss and trying to persuade them to work with us and perhaps even getting them to agree with us? If we’re so convinced that they might be wrong on something, why not try and persuade them of that, instead of declaring them beyond the pale?

Let’s be prepared to reach out and play a role in building the common ground, instead of standing on the sidelines and complaining that we weren’t included when someone else builds it without us.

There was a time after the Richmond Park by-election where things were looking hopeful, and that we were actually taking baby steps to building more co-operation between the parties with the understanding that the looming threat of Brexit could be enough to break with the old ways and try something new. Instead, we’ve all just retreated into ‘we know best’ tribalism, shouting that it’s our way or the highway and forgetting all the lessons we could have learned before. That the Lib Dem leadership didn’t even make a pretence of talking to the Greens before declaring that we were going to fight the Manchester Gorton by-election in full force threw away all the goodwill from Richmond Park with a breathtaking flippancy. Everyone’s focused on the short term and manoeuvring for advantage against each other, eager to win the next series of little battles while completely ignoring the wider war going on about us.

And if you’ve read this far hoping for a solution, then I’m sorry to say I don’t have one, or at least an easy one, but maybe that’s the point. There’s no simple, easy, obvious solution to this problem because if there was, we’d have done it already. There’s only complicated, flawed, human solutions to it, that’ll be messy, that’ll delight some and anger others, that’ll collapse and need to be rebuilt before they can ever be put into action, that’ll need an awful lot of talking and negotiating and compromising before we can have a hope of using them. But they’re all we’ve got, unless we’re all happy to shut ourselves up in our isolated bunkers and not talk to anyone else, safe in the knowledge that we’re right and hoping that when it finally becomes time to crawl out of the bunker, we’ll have outlasted everyone else and there’ll be something left that was worth it.

I’d rather build something now, because maybe if we want to build a liberal society where everyone can get along despite all their differences, we ought to be able to build a political movement that embraces difference, rather than shouts it down.

Stuck in the middle with who?

It’s been interesting watching the reaction from some to the Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond Park by-election. One trend I’ve noticed is people (generally from the left) pointing out that Tim Farron hasn’t said that the party would never be in a coalition with the Tories again it means that the party is clearly just a bunch of evil Tories in disguise, can never be trusted and are somehow responsible for everything bad that has ever happened.

Now, while the interpretation might be a bit extreme, the basic fact is true in that Tim Farron hasn’t ruled out coalitions with anyone. (What he has done, however, is set out that any Lib Dem participation in coalition would be based on red lines like electoral reform without a referendum, that it’s hard to see the Tories agreeing to) However, there’s a reason for this, which is best illustrated by comparing his position to Paddy Ashdown’s back in 1992.

Back then, the party was well know for its policy of equidistance between the two main parties. Paddy’s Spitting Image appearances generally revolved around the phrase ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’, and polling showed that the public were pretty much evenly split on which party we were closest to. Then, a few weeks after the 1992 election Paddy gave a speech in Chard which declared a new strategic direction for the party. The party’s task for the next Parliament would be:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

That set the party on an explicitly anti-Tory path, which passed back and forth through various levels of co-operation and co-ordination with Labour, and eventually gave the party its best electoral performance in years at the 1997 election. (I’ve written a lot more about that here)

There’s plenty of people who would like to see Tim Farron make a similar declaration, but despite being from the left of the Liberal Democrats, he’s not in the same strategic position Ashdown was. For a start, Paddy was talking after thirteen years of Tory rule, which an unexpected election victory now threatened to make eighteen. That’s considerably longer than they’ve been in power now or will be by the time of the next election. Perhaps more importantly, Labour was in a completely different position. They’d just got 37% of the vote in the election under Neil Kinnock, who was about to be replaced by the very popular John Smith. Even though they’d lost the election, they were a credible alternative Government.

The problem Farron faces is that if he explicitly positions the party as anti-Tory, the immediate question from the media becomes ‘so you want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, do you?’ Labour in 2016 are simply not a credible alternative government in the way Labour of 1992-97 were, and the way our media frame politics as a binary choice mean Farron’s options are limited for the time being.

All that being said, Farron also has to be conscious of a much bigger opportunity than Ashdown ever had: a realignment of British politics. The referendum and its aftermath has shown up a division in our politics that could supplant the left-right cleavage as the main determinant of voter identification and electoral choice. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that there are already two parts of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – where questions of identity and nationalism drive the political debate much more than economic. If the politics of England and Wales follow a similar path and Leave/Remain (or nationalist/internationalist or open/closed) becomes the main political division then which side of left/right the Liberal Democrats support becomes a moot point.

If that happens, then the important issues for the Liberal Democrats are how to organise and co-ordinate a whole new wing of politics, which is an entirely different mindset to operating a party in the centre of it. It also puts Labour into a whole new set of troubles, trying to straddle a division and hold itself together while forces within it are pulling it in vastly different directions.

Farron’s having to play coy on the ‘which side do you support?’ question right now because giving a definitive answer weakens the party’s position, but if things keep changing, it might not be him who gets asked that question in the future.

Straight talking. Honest politics. Terrible negotiation skills.

Let’s assume that you’re looking to buy a car. You go to a car dealer who has a variety of cars available, some of which have the features you want, some of which don’t, some of which are in your price range, some of which aren’t. So, you’re negotiating with the dealer, trying to get the best package at the best price and then you blurt out ‘of course, I have to buy a car today, and you’re the only dealer open’. Now, do you think the dealer is going to offer you a better deal before or after you tell them that piece of information?

That scenario comes to mind when reading about John McDonnell’s pledge that “Labour will not seek to block or delay” Article 50 in Parliament. Labour are effectively walking into this process having told the Government that they don’t need to prepare any concessions to the Opposition in order to get Article 50 invoked, and have also let the Government know that they don’t even need to listen to their own rebels because there’s no way that Labour will be giving them any support in votes.

Leaving aside the issues of whether Labour should be for or against Brexit, this is just a bad tactical move from the party that’s supposed to be forming the official Opposition. They’re facing a Givernment party that’s got quite noticeable splits, but are throwing away the chance to make those splits mean anything. Proper Opposition (like Labour managed under Blair in the 90s) would capitalise on this to make the Government fight for every vote, esoecially on the most important issue facing the nation. This pre-capitulation just lets the Government off the hook. In the same way that Clegg weakened the Lib Dem negotiating position in the Coalition by refusing to countenance ending it or IDS made Blair’s Parliamentary life easy by backing him over Iraq, this is an Opposition willingly throwing away its chance of influence and power.

Oddly, just as those on the left who backed leaving the EU are realising that they were sold a lemon, McDonnell and Corbyn seem to be leaping onto the rapidly emptying Lexit bandwagon, talking of a ‘People’s Brexit’ and how staying in the EU supports ‘big business’. It might be the position they’ve had all along, but it feels like the worst possible time to be announcing it.

Richmond Park: Don’t write off working with other parties

The AlternativeOne thing I wanted to write about after being at Lib Dem Conference in September were the fringe meetings about working with other parties. One was Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy and Chris Bowers, talking about their book The Alternative, while the other featured Lucas, Norman Lamb and Peter Kyle talking about similar issues as part of a Social Liberal Forum fringe.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the fringes didn’t result in a spontaneous desire to co-operate between the three parties, but I think they gave everyone there a decent amount of food for thought, and having read The Alternative since, it’s clear that people aren’t just thinking that shouting ‘progressive alliance!’ enough times will overcome all obstacles.

One line that’s stuck with me from the first meeting was something Lisa Nandy said: ‘we’ve all won fought and won lots of battles against each other, and while we were busy doing that, the Tories were winning the war.’ That’s what makes it especially interesting to see that she’s one of the Labour MPs who’ve called for the party to consider not standing a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. Part of that comes from the rather odd situation of a by-election caused by an MP resigning to protest against Government policy only for the governing party to not stand a candidate against him. With the Tories having already left the field, it’s perhaps easier for Labour MPs to suggest their party does the same. (And according to this Guardian article, there’s a similar discussion going on in the Greens)

It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps a reflection of the interesting and febrile political times we’re living in that these suggestions have been made. It’s perhaps also a reflection that some people haven’t recognised this in the reaction I’ve seen from several Lib Dems online. There’s too much ‘we shouldn’t work with other parties’ and ‘those quotes will look good on the squeeze leaflets’ and not enough reflection on the possibilities that are opening up. Yes, if this was to happen, it might lead to the party having to make difficult decisions in the future, but if you want to change things you’re going to have to make difficult decisions and find ways to compromise with others. You can try glorious isolation in your idyllic world of never compromising, and maybe you can spend some time there mocking the Corbynistas for being naive about how to change things (it’ll stop both of you from looking in a mirror and making any discoveries about yourselves, anyway).

I stand by what I wrote back in July about similar reactions to the launch of MoreUnited:

We can sit around and wait for everyone to agree with us like we’ve done for most of the last century (a strategy of, at best, occasional and partial success) or we can get out there and try and find common ground we can build on. If we’re so convinced that that liberal arguments are correct, then why fear working with others when we should be able to persuade them to our way of thinking? Sure, it can be fun to sit around in a small group indulging in the narcissism of small differences, but maybe we’d be better off engaging with those we seek to dismiss and trying to persuade them to work with us and perhaps even getting them to agree with us? If we’re so convinced that they might be wrong on something, why not try and persuade them of that, instead of declaring them beyond the pale?

Let’s be prepared to reach out and play a role in building the common ground, instead of standing on the sidelines and complaining that we weren’t included when someone else builds it without us.

It’s fun to fight battles against each other, I admit that. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to win the war once in a while too, though?

Could membership of the single market be the wedge that causes a Labour split?

laboursplitIn a time when barely an hour passes without something interesting happening in British politics, some people might have missed that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the UK remaining in the single market appears to have got a little muddy this afternoon:

Now, this might all be a flash in the pan – though attempts to clarify Corbyn’s position don’t seem to be helping – but it feels potentially important for the future of the Labour party.

With my usual caveat that almost every prediction of a party split comes to nothing, membership of the single market feels to me like the issue that could act as a key division in a Labour split. If Corbyn wants to try a push a position of supporting the UK leaving the single market, remaining in it is a key issue (with a huge amount of current salience) that unites a big portion of the Parliamentary Labour Party from the right to the soft left. The divisions over the single market aren’t just in Labour either – Downing Street has already had to correct the Government’s own Brexit minister over his position on it.

If Corbyn won’t defend the single market, the thinking might go, there’s a huge space available for an opposition that will. It’s an issue that can create links across parties (such as to the SNP, the remaining Tory pro-Europeans and the Liberal Democrats) and also generate support from outside the parties. There are a lot of large businesses that would lose a lot if Britain loses membership of the single market (the Japanese are just the first to make this clear and public), and if such a split needed the funding and structure to become a party of its own, that would be a very important factor.

Now, this might just be a subject of interest for an afternoon and Corbyn might close it down by declaring his unequivocal support for the single market at his next press conference (‘I’m delighted to have the support of 63% of the people who worked on Bonekickers‘) but it’s clear that the UK’s relationship with the EU is going to be the fundamental issue in British politics for the next few years. If Corbyn is going to shift his public position on that to one not shared by the bulk of the PLP, it could be the trigger for the final breaking of ties.

If Labour were going to split, they’d have done it by now

laboursplitAmidst the fun (for certain values of the word ‘fun’, anyway) of this summer’s Labour leadership contest, there’s a regularly repeated assumption that the result of it will lead to the party splitting. As the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn appears likelier and likelier, so does the volume of people anticipating the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party splitting off to form their own parliamentary grouping and/or party.

Party splits in British politics are much more predicted than they ever actually occur. Sure, there’s the odd defection between parties (though even those are rare at a Parliamentary level), but there have been many more instances of people being absolutely certain that a party is going to split than actual instances of parties splitting.

There are two main reasons for this. First is the fact that even when people within a party believe it should split, the tendency is to project that desire onto the people you disagree with. No one wants to give up the power of the party’s existing name, assets and structures, so we get the situation we have now with supporters of Labour’s leaders demanding that the Blairites form their own party or go and join the Tories, while their opponents tell the bloody Trots to sod off back to the SWP. Both sides see themselves as the defenders of the tradition of the Labour Party and the others as betraying it, and both believe the others should leave so they can have their party back.

This brings us to the second reason, and the question of why these two strands of the left coexist in a single party in the first place. Most European countries have two separate parties on the left – a social democratic party, and a further left socialist/communist party. There are some elements of this in British politics with various parties vying to fill the gap to the left of Labour, but the British left parties are much smaller than their European counterparts. Most of them have had continuous (and often sizeable) parliamentary representation which hasn’t been the case in the UK since the Communists lost their last MPs after WW2.

The left that exists as separate parties in other countries has been subsumed within the wider Labour Party because the British electoral system rewards larger ‘catch-all’ parties and punishes smaller parties. Separate left parties can thrive in systems based on proportional representation, and even the French two-round system allows for the Communists and diverse left to exist separately from the Socialists, but in Britain they are forced to stay together for fear of the electoral consequences (perhaps best demonstrated in the SDP-Labour split of the 1980s).

Unless you’re entirely confident you can reduce the other side into an insignificant rump, then a party split is close to mutually assured destruction, scuppering the electoral chances of both sides. There have been plenty of times when the left could have split off to form their own party over the years, but none of them were taken because the political system would have made them even more disastrous for those involved than the SDP. If the Labour Party could exist as two (or more) separate parties, then they would have formed naturally by now rather than trying to cohabit in the same organisation. If we had a different electoral system, things might be different, as splitting wouldn’t be such a destructive mood. Maybe this is something both sides can now blame Tony Blair for, because if he’d delivered on his promise of PR after 1997, the party might not be in the mess it now is.

Lessons from the SDP for the potential of a Labour split

SDP_LogoWith all the talk at the moment of a potential Labour split, I thought it might be useful to take a look back at the history of the last major split in the party by reading Crewe and King’s history of the SDP, specifically the early sections on the formation of the party. I#m not going to recount the full history, but I think there were two interesting points in the SDP’s formation that tend to get overlooked in discussion of any potential current split.

First of all, the crisis that led to the foundation of the SDP had been brewing for a long time. Labour’s divisions over Europe had been around for a long time, and the rebellion by Jenkins and others over British membership of the EEC had taken place almost a decade before. On the left of the party, Tony Benn and others had been busy organising and developing the ‘Bennite’ movement for over a decade. There’d been a gradual process of alienation that had made the right-wingers who’d eventually form the SDP consider their position in the Labour Party over a long period of time. The conclusions people came to were after years of tough struggles against the left in local parties, trade unions and the NEC. People had a much longer time to feel they were no longer welcome in the Labour Party and might do better elsewhere.

As an example, Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture that was later seen as paving the way for the SDP was delivered in November 1979, while the Limehouse Declaration that established the party wasn’t until fourteen months later in January 1981. There was a long process both of preparing the ground for a new party and people deciding they needed to leave Labour. Then as now, the act of getting someone to defect from a party was a major task, as it’s a major shift in their life and relationships that requires time to achieve the psychological change needed to do it.

The second key point is that this long period building up to a split had led to the creation of various formal and informal groups that would provide the foundations of the SDP. These groups – the Manifesto Group, the Campaign for Labour Victory etc – weren’t founded with the intention of creating a new party but helped provide networks for those dissatisfied with the direction of the Labour Party. Again, this was a process that took place over time and in a number of different groupings – it’s worth noting that the original ‘Gang Of Three’ (Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers) were meeting and planning quite separately from Roy Jenkins and his supporters. Different groups coalesced over time, and the idea of a split emerged over time, it wasn’t a simple process of everyone deciding one day to do it.

The important lessons to learn for today are that any party split is going to be the end of a long process, not something that happens smoothly and quickly. (And as I’ve discussed before, there have been many many more times when people have said a party will definitely split than actual splits) The changes in the Labour Party have happened at an incredibly fast pace – the SDP came after a decade or more of Benn attempting to achieve what Corbyn’s done in less than a year. The gap between Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture and the foundation of the SDP is about the same as the gap between the last general election and today.

We’re still at a stage where most of the people who might split see their future as trying to win back the Labour Party, and aren’t close to breaking off all the ties they have with it. Maybe there will be a split in the future, but the lesson from the founding of the SDP is that it will take time to get them to that position, it’s not something that’s going to happen quickly.

Dreams of progressive alliances can’t ignore political baggage

PAFBSince I wrote about the possibility of ‘progressive’ electoral alliances last week, both James King and Andrew Hickey have explained why they think they wouldn’t work, and whoever is behind the Progressive Alliance UK campaign has taken to Facebook to tell us off for being negative.

Just for the record, I don’t think whoever’s behind the Progressive Alliance UK are “a group of party big whigs and donors” and I’m not sure where that impression came from. If anything, my reasoning that the project isn’t going to achieve much is precisely because the people pushing it aren’t at a high level in any of the parties you’d need to bring together to make such an alliance work. The closest we’ve come to any sort of alliance between parties of the centre-left came about because Ashdown and Blair wanted it to happen, often against the wishes of their members, not because they were forced into it.

It’s worth looking back at the circumstances that led to that agreement to see what obstacles are in the way to any formal alliance of parties. For a start, moves toward it began after 13 years of Tory rule (and four election defeats for variosu formations of the centre-left) and were kicked off with Paddy’s speech in Chard. However, John Smith wasn’t keen on any sort of agreement, and nothing really happened until Tony Blair became Labour leader. Any sort of agreement needs the party leaderships on side from the beginning, as they hold the key to getting the infrastructure of the parties on side.

What was also important was that the two leaders were close ideologically and could envisage themselves working together, even without drawing up any public common programme. It wasn’t just a case of them both being anti-Tory but actually having shared ideals and a common vision. This was something important for the electorate too, as it allowed them to switch their vote between the two parties with confidence, as there’d been enough signalling from them that they wanted the same thing.

The problem for any sort of agreement now is that the gap between Lib Dems and Labour is probably bigger than it’s ever been, both in terms of where the party leaderships are located and where the members and activists of the parties see each other. Consider the amount of flak Ashdown (especially) and Blair got from their memberships got for working together, and now imagine the apoplexy the right of the Lib Dems would have at working with ‘Corbynistas’ and the way the more excitable elements of the Labour membership would react to making a deal with ‘Tories in disguise’.

Electoral geography was also an important consideration. In the run up to 1997, most of the seats had either Conservatives and Labour in first and second place, or Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. There were very few seats that were Lib Dem-Labour battles, or where other parties got into those top two. That’s not the case now, and what’s more, there are very few seats where Lib Dems are in the top two at all. An agreement in 1997 made strong strategic sense for both parties as there were very few places they were in direct competition. (They’d also both had much stronger results in the 1992 election than they had in 2015)

The point is that it’s easy to talk about how a ‘Progressive Alliance’ would magically make everything better, but the path from where we are now to actually creating one isn’t clear. Trying to get people to jump straight into a formal electoral alliance is a bit like telling a couple who aren’t speaking to each other after an acrimonious break up that they should get married. It might be true that they’re better together, but that doesn’t mean you can just pretend all their baggage no longer exists.

A ‘progressive alliance’ needs a lot more than wishful thinking to happen

PAFBExploding onto the scene with all the impact of a sodden paper bag landing in a puddle, someone has launched Progressive Alliance UK, seeking “to build a broad alliance of progressives from across the centre and left of British politics to end Conservative rule”. The aim is to somehow bring together everyone vaguely nice progressive into one big electoral alliance that will enable the Tories to be defeated at the next election and allow for everyone to receive their very own unicorn.

I mock, but the idea does appear to be driven mostly by wishful thinking, imagining that ‘progressives’ will be able to overcome their differences thanks to a call for pragmatism and sweep to victory over the Tories. That there doesn’t seem to be much of a desire for pragmatism and co-operation from many of the supposed progressives right now isn’t acknowledged, with an assumption that all everyone needs to do is realise that this is is the only way to beat the Tories and come together to achieve it.

Trying to bring together the British centre-left/left/progressive/anti-Tory (delete as preferred) forces into one electoral alliance isn’t anything new, of course. The Liberal-Labour split has been lamented almost continually by some in the century or more since it happened. Realigning British politics to either unite the ‘progressive’ parties or creating a new party to achieve the same aim has been the dream of many politicians, though with at best limited success. Indeed, as I’ve written about somewhat extensively, the most successful anti-Tory alliance was perhaps the informal one of Blair and Ashdown in the 90s, rather than any formal arrangement.

This flags up what the problem would be for any ‘Progressive Alliance’ now. Blair and Ashdown not only got on well personally, they were close politically, which made working together a much easier prospect, even if they couldn’t persuade their parties to go for a formal alliance. Trying to put together any sort of alliance now would require Tim Farron and Jeremy Corbyn to suddenly discover a lot of common ground that doesn’t seem too evident in Farron’s latest call to Labour members to come and join the Liberal Democrats. And if you thought the problems of getting two parties into an electoral alliance were too easy to resolve, then the Progressive Alliance have a great challenge for you, as you’ll need to find a way to bring in the Greens and the SNP as well (poor Plaid Cymru don’t get a mention). I’m not quite sure who’s going to bridge that massive gap, if it even can be bridged, but it’ll take more than hopeful words on the internet to manage it.