There’s been talk recently about a ‘progressive alliance’ of some sort, comprising of all the anti-Conservative forces in British politics. This agreement, made up of Labour, the Greens, Lib Dems, and perhaps the SNP, is imagined as an encouragement of tactical voting, an electoral pact, or even a merger. I’ve seen a fair number of Lib Dems open to the first two, given the desperate need to defeat the Tories, but also many others objecting on the grounds that we hold a distinctive ideology and because of distrust of being pulled too close into the Labour Party’s orbit. Nick Barlow has summed up the major stumbling blocks for any agreement, which are the significant ideological distinctions between the parties (beyond being anti-conservative) and the difficulty of any kind of agreement when every force in party politics is pulling the other way.
The question that I want to answer, however, is whether a progressive coalition would actually do anything to progress its desired goal, which is to stop the Conservatives forming the next government in 2020. There is an intuitive appeal to the argument that, if the vote of the parties on the left was no longer divided, this would provide a ‘progressive majority’ which could beat the Tories. This is true on a national level, but even more compelling at a local level, where, thanks to our First Past The Post voting system, a Conservative candidate can win despite only being supported by a minority of the electors.
So far, so obvious. But all the arguments made above presuppose a large, rather monolithic, ‘progressive’ bloc which can be added together from the votes of the other parties. And here, I fear, the argument starts to fall apart, because large numbers of these parties’ voters probably wouldn’t be on board with the whole concept, because they don’t feel like these parties have a lot in common.
There are a few examples from my own party. Polling of 2015 Lib Dem voters in London suggest that they will split 52:48 in favour of Conservative Zac Goldsmith in the second round of the Mayoral contest, which hardly suggests a progressive insurgency in the making. Anecdotally, I find that many of our middle class supporters feel that it is ‘safe’ to vote for us but aren’t comfortable with Labour, some people support our candidates locally but have unpredictable views on national issues, and of course there are people who hold liberal views and so vote for us but have more right-wing views on economics. We can also look at where our vote went between 2010 and 2015 – yes, a good chunk went to Labour and the Greens, but a surprising number of our supporters defected to the Conservatives or UKIP. Now, consider that what remains is the people who were happy supporting us through five years of Coalition with the Tories, and it becomes clear that at least one component of the alliance looks pretty unpromising. If offered a choice between an incipient coalition with Jeremy Corbyn at its head and a Tory majority, a good number of Lib Dem voters will choose the latter.
We also have some solid evidence of how unwilling the supporters of the members of this alliance might be to go along with it. This post by Tim Bale, Paul Webb, and Monica Poletti is based on survey data which asked strong supporters of each major party to plot their own ideological position, along with that of their favoured party and the other parties, on a score from 0 to 10, with 0 being the most left-wing and 10 being the most right-wing. In principle, the closer the dots are, the greater potential for an agreement there should be between the parties. Of course, this approach is far from perfect – the left-right spectrum, while widely used, is unsubtle and frequently misleading, and these values are the averages of a potentially very wide spread. Nevertheless, it is an interesting starting point, and if anything underestimates any potential problems with the coherence of the ‘progressive alliance’.
With the help of MS Paint, I have visualised the outlook of each party’s supporters as a linear scale. First up, Labour.
A quick explainer: the pink dot is where Labour’s strong supporters put themselves, and the red dot is where they put their party. Green is Green, Yellow SNP, Orange Lib Dem, and so on. The thing that stands out here is how Labour voters see themselves as being in more-or-less the same space as the SNP and the Greens, with UKIP far out to the right. The Lib Dems, on the other hand, are perceived as slightly right-of-centre, roughly equidistant between Labour and the Tories. Any association of Labour with the Lib Dems will alienate these supporters; while you can see a pattern of a possible progressive coalition on the left there, the Lib Dems are the clear odd-one-out. (It should be said that this data was collected immediately after the General Election, so there may have been a shift of the views of Labour Party supporters since then.)
The Green axis has the greatest spread, with strong Green supporters viewing themselves (light green) and their party (dark green) as being firmly on the left, the Lib Dems and Labour clustered around the centre, and the SNP somewhere in between. Green supporters obviously don’t feel themselves to be in sympathy with Labour and the Lib Dems, although the leaderships of Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron may cause this to change. It is true that Green *voters* are much more ideologically diverse, with many of them holding mainstream centre-left views. However, more significantly, they are also generally suspicious of the political establishment and, having chosen a fringe party, would probably not be willing to be corralled into voting for two of the traditional Big Three parties.
I almost didn’t bother with the SNP because while they remain hegemonic in Scotland they have no conceivable interest at all in a progressive alliance, and also because they are primarily interested in nationalism rather than ‘progressivism’. But, for what it’s worth, strong SNP supporters see Labour and the Lib Dems as centre parties, and they themselves are almost totally overlapping with the Greens (that would technically be the Scottish Green Party, presumably) on the moderate left. In Scottish politics, the constitutional issue makes the left-right divide far less relevant anyway.
Finally, the Lib Dems (the lighter orange dot is where Lib Dem supporters see themselves). Of all the parties so far, this is the one which shows a greatest ‘progressive’ clustering – Lib Dem strong supporters on average see themselves as centre or left-of-centre, but not too far from Labour, the SNP, and the Greens, and far away from the Tories and UKIP. As has already been said, however, these are strong supporters, and not necessarily typical of all Lib Dem voters.
In conclusion, then, there is not much evidence that Labour, SNP, Lib Dem or Green supporters see themselves as having much in common with each other. There is a real risk of any form of formal alliance or pact alienating one part or another, with voters drifting off to the Tories, a far left party like TUSC, or to the great army of non-voters, and actually hurting the prospects of the left. A ‘progressive alliance’ could easily work out as less than the sum of its parts.
My fundamental misgiving about any ‘coalition of the left’ or ‘progressive alliance’ is that, in the face of two shattering election defeats, some people on the centre left are still trying to rearrange the people already voting for ‘progressive’ parties rather than trying to persuade Conservative or UKIP voters. In the aftermath of the 2010 election, Ed Miliband’s game plan for Labour was to absorb disgruntled Lib Dems; now, we hear muttering from some quarters about natural anti-Tory majorities. It strikes me as slightly anti-democratic to fix things in this way, but more than that it seems futile, and a distraction from the real task at hand. In 1997, Labour and Lib Dems together got 60% of the vote; in 2015, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens together only received 42%. By far the best thing for centre-left politics is for Labour and the Lib Dems to focus on rediscovering their appeal to people outside the ‘progressive’ ghetto, particularly people who voted for them in 2005 or 2010 and who switched to the Conservatives in 2015. Political parties have become sufficiently focused on targeting, and voters willing enough to vote tactically, that the likelihood of any of the ‘progressive’ parties actually acting as spoilers to one another to any great extent is small. It would be better to work out how to chip away at the actual Tory majority, rather than trying to construct an elusive anti-Tory majority.