A note on the progressive alliance

An important blog by Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass

With all the talk of a possible general election it is worth reflecting on the possibilities for a Progressive Alliance. The Progressive Alliance (PA) reached maximum recognition at two points – first at the Richmond Park by-election this time two years ago – and then at the subsequent snap general election in June 2017. In the harsh electoral reality of an impending Tory landslide, Compass made an equally snap decision to run the PA in the form of local electoral deals plus tactical campaigning and voting to try and reduce this expected Tory landslide.

But this was never how the PA was conceived. What we envisioned was a long and deep journey to build a set of values, relationships and policy agreements up to an expected 2020 general election. In the justifiable rush to stop the Tories in 2017, the PA is too often seen as simply an electoral fix – an instrumental move to get round the appalling fact that our first-past-the-post voting system simply denies the vast majority a meaningful vote. One of our hopes, of course, was that a hung parliament could lead to a progressive majority in Westminster – in part on the basis of an agreement to change the electoral system. Indeed it is still hard to see how we will get electoral reform without a PA-style government – as any clear winner is unlikely to be the turkey to vote for Christmas.

Compass doesn’t think it was a wrong call to run the PA in this way at this time.  Firstly, because it worked: it massively contributed to stopping a Tory landslide and would have put Jeremy Corbyn into No.10 if Labour has reciprocated other progressive parties’ actions in any way. Labour did not and still finds itself in opposition. It could have been so different.

Secondly, because it prefigured what a non-tribal and generous politics looks and feels like. And let’s not forget that again back in Richmond, in the 2018 local elections, the PA worked – as a deal between the Lib Dems and the Greens saw council candidates from both parties win seats that would have been unwinnable without a deal.

But we do have regrets. The first is that the Green Party in particular was badly let down. Greens saw the bigger picture and stood aside and therefore up for a better politics, in which national interest came before party interest. Not only did Labour fail to reciprocate at a national level; they wouldn’t even offer a polite thank-you to those who had helped their candidates and their cause so much. By inspiring a big wave of tactical voting for Labour candidates, the PA helped contribute to what on the surface seems to be the return of two-party politics.

The other regret is the corollary of all this, that as things stand it is hard to see how such an instrumental version of the PA can be run again. Labour is firmly in ‘one more heave’ mode, the Lib Dems are struggling for life, and the Greens are understandably once bitten twice shy.

But, beneath the surface there are strong grounds for keeping the idea of the PA alive. We simply don’t know the timing and conditions of the next general election. We do know that Labour, at this stage in the electoral cycle and with the most incompetent government in living memory, should be at least 15 points ahead in the polls. Even in the marginals now, pollsters have Labour running further behind the Tories than in 2017 and without a full-throated push around the PA there is likely to be a lot less tactical voting. Privately, few MPs think Labour will win a majority next time.

So PA politics could have to kick in again – but it’s probably not worth trying to plan now for whatever the electoral reality is whenever the next election comes. Pacts, tactical campaigning and voting, stand-asides – all should be considered on their merits and in the context to get a progressive government and help change the adversarial nature of our political system. Compass has shown it is possible to move to scale quickly – we will be ready to do so again.

In the meantime we have to do the deep digging we planned to do in the three-year window we thought we had, before the 2017 snap general election was called. This is the Common Platform: a plan to build on and up the new collaborative and democratic practices we see everywhere in civil society and the economy. Locally, across sectors and eventually nationally we want to help establishing the thinking, practice and alliances that will make the political shift happen.

In all this we have to challenge many in the Labour Party who now claim that ‘it is the Progressive Alliance’ – i.e. the place where all progressives can find a home. It isn’t. The Labour Party isn’t the Progressive Alliance, it’s the party of Labour and its prime historic job is to represent the interest of workers, which it does through the dominant influence of the trade unions. It is why other progressive parties whose have a different main focus, specialising in representing the interests of liberty, the environment, their nations, the NHS or feminism, all matter. In all the complexity and fluidity of the 21stcentury, no single party or tradition can claim to hold all the answers or indeed to represent all progressives.

Electoral alliances and tactical campaigning and voting is one and only one of many ways in which Progressive Alliance politics can be made to work. We have to explore them all and be ready to deploy them as and when necessary. In our increasingly complex and diverse society the one thing we know is that the future will not be imposed by any one party, or faction within it, but will be negotiated by all of us. The politics of the Progressive Alliance, that of pluralism, collaboration and negotiation, will be the politics of the 21stcentury.

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