Since 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.