Progressive Alliance: can electoral pacts prevent a Tory landslide?

Posted On: 
18th May 2017

Activists from Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and others gathered this week for the launch of the ‘progressive alliance’ – a platform they hope can have an impact in dozens of seats. John Ashmore reports

Labour's Clive Lewis speaking at the Progressive Alliance event in central London
Sam Barnes at Corporate Photo London

At a packed hall in the heart of the City of London, a group of activists are launching what they hope will be the first step on a journey to a whole new kind of politics.

The Progressive Alliance intends to turn what parties called a big tent in a stadium-sized arena, bringing in progressives of all different shades and none to challenge the Conservatives. Supporters range from Greens to Lib Dems, the Women’s Equality Party, National Health Action and notable Labour MPs such as Jon Cruddas, Tulip Siddiq and Clive Lewis. It’s a promising start; a crowd of around 1,000 people, a genuinely diverse range of speakers and a lot of media interest.

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Kicking off your organisation at a venue called The Brewery also shows a degree of organisational confidence that may bode well.

The Alliance is the brainchild of Neal Lawson, the director of the formerly Labour-leaning think-tank Compass, who acts as ringmaster for an eclectic range of speakers. They include Lewis, the Green party’s Jonathan Bartley and Sian Berry, WEP leader Sophie Walker and the journalists Paul Mason and Zoe Williams.

It’s not just politicians from the UK that are interested either – there’s a video message from the charismatic former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, as well as speeches from Podemos activist Sirio Canos Donnay and Claire Sandberg, the digital organising director for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The immediate focus for the Alliance is on tactical voting; getting parties to stand down candidates where others are better place to unseat the Tories.

It’s not a new phenomenon – the Lib Dems certainly benefited from Labour voters’ support during the 1997 election – but the Alliance have taken things a step further.

Time is certainly not on their side, with only a few weeks since Theresa May called the snap election and a tiny number of staff. “We’re pretty much a Wizard of Oz organisation which works of the back of a lot of volunteers who put an awful lot of time into this, God bless them,” explains the bespectacled Lawson.

How successful they are will be difficult to judge. Lawson says he aim is to “have an impact on 20 or 25 seats” and reduce the Tory majority by 40 or 50 seats in the process.

For Claire Sandberg there are clear parallels with the Bernie Sanders campaign, which fed on people power to give the establishment politician par excellence a run for her money. “We didn’t have a ton of staff and in many places we didn’t have a ton of time, so those are some similarities to this context, where obviously it’s a very short period of time and not a ton of resources to get something like this going,” she said.

“It has to be volunteer-powered and people everywhere are seeing there’s a real need to get involved in the next four weeks because they’re so critical.”

But for all the enthusiasm and urgency she sees here, even Sandberg talks about the goal being to “prevent a Tory landslide” rather than change the result of the election outright.

December’s by-election in Richmond Park, where the Greens stood down their candidate to help the Lib Dems defeat Zac Goldsmith, has served as a blueprint for what the Alliance hopes to achieve come 8 June.

But what was less remarked about that race was that Ukip also stood down their candidate to try to help a true Brexiteer in Goldsmith. Paul Nuttall’s party have since shown a surprising willingness to conspire in their own downfall, standing aside in hundreds of seats while the Tories hoover up their former voters.

While several of the speakers describe a Tory-Ukip ‘regressive alliance’, the reality is less a tie-up than the Tories swallowing Ukip whole, with nothing but a carcass likely to remain come 9 June.

Although the immediate focus is on the general election, Lawson sees this as a longer-term, broader politics encompassing other kinds of groups.

“We envisage the notion of progressive alliances not just being political parties but being across NGOs, across civil society, even in the business community as well. There are lots of people who want a different kind of progressive politics.”

For Green co-leader Jonathan Bartley, the Alliance combines a long-term project centred on changing the voting system with the more immediate electoral imperative of taking votes from the Tories.

“For us this general election is the start not the end. We’re looking at the long game and we want to bring about electoral reform as a red line. The Progressive Alliance is a route to making that happen but it’s also about doing what we can to minimise a Conservative majority if there is one and hopefully put in place a progressive government.”

As well as the iniquities of first past the post, Labour’s own unwillingness to team up with other parties is problematic for the alliance.

While the likes of Lewis and Cruddas are on board with the Alliance, the party at a national level has a steadfast policy of not standing aside.

It’s a cause of clear frustration for Sian Berry, the former Green candidate for London mayor, especially when her own party has been so forthcoming. “It couldn’t have been clearer to Labour that they could have had more Green party candidates standing down in marginal seats if they had stood down on the Isle of Wight. It would have been the least possible skin off their nose. But they had this rule they would not change.”

But Clive Lewis is not toeing the party line on this one. His attitude may have been shaped by his own battle in Norwich South, one of a rare group of four-way marginals in 2015.

And he comes close to admitting that the way the electoral landscape has evolved makes it look very difficult for his party to win again on their own, especially given Labour’s collapse in Scotland.

“It’s no longer the electorate it was in 1945, there are no longer four million manual workers, one million coal miners. The electorate has changed, it’s dissipated and now many parties speak to different parts of the electorate. The Labour party doesn’t speak to them entirely,” he says.

“Now I think you can either say ‘we are the way, the light and we will absorb all of them’ or we can actually say we want a strong Labour party but we understand we are perhaps the biggest tent but on a campsite of others, because what we have at the moment is an electoral system which is shoehorning a multi-party system into a two-party system.”

Lewis is also insistent that this must be an avowedly left-wing project, rather than an attempt to coalesce around the political centre ground.

“We don’t want to see something which is just a triangulation from neoliberalism, from Thatcherite economic policies, from foreign policy which sees thousands if not hundreds of thousands killed by bombing.

“We want to see something radically different. I think there’s a hunger for that, it means working with a wide range of people. But what it isn’t is a rehash of a failed 1990s SDP-type politics. That’s not what this is about.”