Whether the next election happens this year or the next, it is better to plan now rather than wait; and Labour, galvanised by its significant advance in votes gained, is losing no time in doing so. Other parties, Liberal Democrats and Greens will of course be doing the same, but I wager that the first salvo of the next election will more likely be directed at our nearest political neighbours rather than the Conservatives. Too often election battles resemble more a re-hash of the Life of Brian, only without the humour, than a co-operative attempt to remove the Conservatives from office.
To the die-hard party activists on the left, the Progressive Alliance is simply an irritant, a distraction, a dangerous political diversion from the comforting binary politics of Labour-Conservative showdowns, rehearsed endlessly over decades of political struggle, more in favour of the Conservatives it has to be said, than Labour. And just as Labour activists see the progressive alliance as a front for Liberal Democrats, so many Liberal Democrats see this as a ‘left-unity project’ that dissolves party identity and threatens their electoral prospects. What neither fails to see is that this project is not a separate political party or movement but a way of doing politics differently.
We are not a threat, we are not competing, we are not carving out separate political terrain or asking anyone to drop party political allegiance and ‘join us’. For there is no separate ‘us’ to join. And the ‘us’ in this case is made up of people who are members or supporters of existing political parties or none.
But don’t be fooled; that “doing politics differently” is not a gentle walk in the park. It is loaded with meaning and at least as challenging a call to arms as any electoral battle. Its battles are more with ourselves and a deeply ingrained political culture of tribalism that refuses to see the world except through the narrow lens of ideology and party difference, topped with a rich layer of historic political and personal enmity. It is the politics of the past because it is locked in the past, it has nothing to offer the future. It is more evident in Britain and the United States than in Europe, and more prominent among party activists than a wider public. This is not to say that there are no good grounds for anger, only that anger should not rule our politics or blind us to possibility.
Let me put it this way: I too was very angry with the Libdems and the coalition government. Now can we please move on?
When Jeremy Corbyn became leader I was excited because for the first time, I felt I had a party that spoke for me and my political values instead of being a pale, kinder imitation of the Conservatives. Suddenly there was a clear alternative to the dominant neo-liberal model that had for too long insisted that “there is no alternative”.
Here is the tricky bit: it is because I now belong to a party that speaks my language, that I am more confident in relating to others from different parties that speak a different language and embrace a different worldview. With the advent of Corbyn, I never thought that everyone must now believe in what I believe or insist on only one right point of view. I might argue, persuade or vigorously defend the values I hold, but not bully, condemn or demean others for taking a different stance. And when someone , after an extended exchange of views, still said ‘I disagree’, to accept and respect that. This is as much to say I would rather live in a democracy than a one party state.
Democracy thrives on choice and difference that allows new ideas and thinking to surface. No one party has all the answers to the biggest challenges bearing down on us: gaping inequality, dangerous climate change, Brexit and and the threat of an imploding economy, an ageing population, and the impact of automation and AI on jobs. Democracy ossifies when one party or ideology gains unhealthy dominance; and it fractures when multi-party politics is defined by poisonous and polarised viewpoints that blind us to what we have in common. (Was that not the message of Jo Cox whose day we celebrated recently?) British political culture is in the unenviable position of embracing both negatives: a crushing neo-liberal ideology imposed from above while below, those best placed to defend a wounded society are far too busy attacking each other.
We are at a turning point and time is running out. If we are ever to address these multiple challenges, each massive in its potential impact on society, it will take all of us from every party – but particulary the centre left – to seek out common ground and place public good before party allegiance. To endlessley repeat the old divisive politics is to jeapordise the wellbeing of future generations. Is that how we want to be remembered?
Let us build on the green shoots of a different way of doing of politics that a progressive alliance affords, one based on vision, consensus and pragmatism in place of narrow dogma and tribalism.