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So how might a progressive alliance work?

by Ian Shires on 1 June, 2021

Interesting piece on Liberal Democrat Voice over the weekend. Judging by the comments it has stirred up mixed emotions, but if we want to change things then it’s something we all need to get to grips with. The Pandemic experience has shown that there is a will to do things differently, but it’s going to take some good leadership across left of centre parties if we are to grasp the opportunity. The last thing we should want to see is a return to the old “normal”.

In today’s Guardian, our Layla Moran, Green MP Caroline Lucas and Labour MP Clive Lewis argue that we need progressive parties to come to an arrangement to beat the Tories.

Meanwhile the rightwing parties have consolidated, after the Tories swallowed the Brexit party whole. But progressives remain split, competing for the same voters – we divide; they conquer.

And yet poll after poll shows there is a progressive majority. We need to shape and win that majority.

This is why citizens are now using their votes wisely, to back the best-placed non-Tory; and why, under the radar, local parties are campaigning tactically to best direct their resources.

They argue against the tribalism that prevents progressive parties working together:

Old politics holds us back. The Labour rulebook demands the party stands candidates in every seat, regardless of whether doing so guarantees another Tory win. Local parties should be allowed to decide. But tribalism runs deep everywhere, and trust takes times to grow, with the inevitable result of another likely general election loss. We cannot allow that to happen. This self-defeating tribalism must go. While well-intentioned, party bureaucracies could be the last bastions of the old politics to fall. If this needs to be a grassroots alliance, then so be it.

Part of the problem with the idea of a progressive alliance was that loads of people think it’s a fab idea, but nobody has been able to set out how it might work in practice. But in recent years, there have been some good examples of where parties have worked together to our mutual gain.

Layla’s arrangement with the Greens in Oxfordshire has helped both parties and hurt the Tories badly. From Lib Dem wins in Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017 and 2019 to a joint administration of Lib Dem Labour and Green ousting the Tories from power in Oxfordshire County Council in May this year, this is a shining example of how a progressive alliance can work in practice. The test will be whether they can govern as cleverly as they have campaigned.

During the leadership election last year, Layla talked about how she had made great efforts to win over the Greens in the run up to her win in 2017. She went along to their meetings and talked to them and answered some tough questions. She put the effort into building up strong relationships with them on the ground.

However, the Unite to Remain effort at the 2019 election was doomed to failure, mainly because Labour refused to get involved and partly because it was imposed on seats in a way that was never going to work.

The last time Caroline Lucas faced a Lib Dem in her Brighton Pavilion seat was in 2015. Her then opponent Chris Bowers went on to co-edit The Alternative, an argument for a more progressive politics with her and Labour’s Lisa Nandy. I interviewed both Chris and Caroline for Lib Dem Voice back in 2016.

No progressive alliance would work without the co-operation of the Labour Party. In 1997, we and Labour by and large kept out of each other’s way except in places like Chesterfield where we were genuinely fighting each other for the seat. I was involved in that campaign and our move forward then put us in pole position for Paul Holmes to win in 2001.

As important as Labour being willing to take part is that they must genuinely appeal to many people. Tony Blair always left me cold, but he appealed to people well beyond Labour’s core vote. They liked him and people weren’t scared witless by the idea of him as PM.

Labour’s path to a majority is significantly hampered by the SNP’s strength in Scotland so it might develop more of an open mind to co-operation. Scotland is also a completely different political eco-system and there will be no electoral co-operation of any sort between the SNP and the Lib Dems. Our core values are too different – liberalism is the antithesis of nationalism, after all. However, there is scope for Labour to work with the Lib Dems on that progressive alternative to nationalism and who knows, we might even change the mood music towards a more equitable and just UK.

I’m not sure that standing down in more than a handful of seats benefits the lead party, but I’m not opposed to it in principle. I’m much more in favour of the 97 style co-operation.

And one thing today’s article makes clear is that all the progressive parties can use the areas where we very strongly agree to change the mood music in our politics, and present a vision of how things could be better. Layla, Caroline and Clive say:

But what is essential is that any alliance is built on values, vision and the spirit of a new kind of politics. A politics of failed imagination, little hope and low effort has got us into this mess. We need a new politics that is in genuine and authentic service to the people, because of an abiding belief in the best of people and what they can achieve, given support.

One of the great things about politics is that outside of elections, politicians of all parties are actually very good about working together on issues that they care about. It’s just when it comes to actual elections that the tribalism tends to come to the fore.

Labour will need to decide whether it actually wants to run the country or not. If it does, its leadership will have to look at co-operation with others to make that happen.

We know from the Scottish example from 1999-2007 that progressive coalitions can work well. We need to get to that stage at Westminster. The electoral system makes it much more difficult so we will need to be clever about the arrangements we make in the run up to whenever the next election is.

I mean, we may not have long. Once this horrific government has repealed the fixed term Parliament Act and grabbed back the power for the PM to go to the country at a whim, he may want to do so before too many brexit and pandemic mistakes catch up with him. The full horror of both has not hit us yet. Once furlough ends we face rising unemployment and economic turmoil, causing hardship for many, particularly the most vulnerable.

So, we need the will amongst all progressive parties to actively work together to get rid of the Tories and we need Labour to set some heather on fire with a leader people actually like. And we need to be smart about listening to what local parties want. The participants all need to come out of it on one piece, too. No being the smile on the face of any tigers for us.

Let’s not muck it up. I really don’t want the Tories in power for a second longer than they have to be and I’m sure many of you reading this will agree with that at least.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron’s Musings

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