By Paul Thompson
Last Monday saw the latest round in the Compass campaign for a ‘progressive alliance’ – a pamphlet from the writer, Jeremy Gilbert. An honest and thoughtful piece aimed squarely at Labour supporters, it didn’t persuade me, a founding signatory of Compass and someone who tries hard not be tribalist.
However, let’s start with some of the arguments in the pamphlet that can be agreed on. There are progressive people and policies in other parties. Labour must not become a party of permanent opposition and should be prepared to cooperate with other progressives to promote radical policies, including voting and constitutional reform, Coalitions are a fact of life. All this is consistent with the position taken at its founding conference by Open Labour – affirming a practical, pluralist politics, but rejecting a progressive alliance.
For Gilbert, the progressive alliance is not just a policy, but the lynchpin of the strategy for the Labour left. The rationale is framed primarily in terms of deep pessimism, even despair, about the prospects for a Labour Government. Given the recent performance in actual and opinion polls, it is hard not to share much of this. For someone who has been a consistent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Gilbert is clear that recent by-elections are ‘proof enough that simply acquiring a mass membership isn’t enough and isn’t working’ (p.24). Corbyn, he says, has galvanised hundreds of thousands to join the party, ‘but that is pretty much all it has galvanised’ (p. 25). The progressive alliance is, in contrast, the ‘spark to light the fire’.
It’s when we get to how the spark might work that the idea runs into immediate difficulties. Previous arguments from Compass Chair Neal Lawson have been frustratingly short of detail on how it might work. Gilbert’s take is this – decisions on whether to stand down and/or support another party’s candidate would be left to local parties, with the national party playing a ‘brokering’ role ‘in order to secure a promise to give Labour a free run in a specifically named target constituency elsewhere’ (p. 9). What is presented as grassroots decision-making can, however, be nothing of the sort. Supporting other candidates is against Party rules and would have to be reversed by a national, ultimately conference decision.
Reciprocal arrangements would have to be underpinned by an electoral pact. That is not merely the implicit, but the explicit logic of the pamphlet. Whilst asserting that what a government would do after being elected under ‘such arrangements’ is an ‘open question’, Gilbert argues that their minimum programme would be proportional representation and ‘possibly’ to call an immediate further election. Such minimalism is justified as the overriding priority of the strategy is to ‘deprive the Tories of their parliamentary majority’ (p. 9). This argument highlights a striking feature of the pamphlet – the complete absence of the electorate amongst all these party games. Why anyone in significant numbers would vote for such a programme or even to simply deprive the Tories of a majority is never addressed. The reverse is likely to be true – an electorate already disillusioned by mainstream politics would regard it as another elite fix. As the Open Labour document remarks, ‘Alliances between progressive parties should be based on open principles and common agendas – not dictating voting choices to the public, or foisting national deals on local activists without their consent’. The electorate is savvy enough to vote tactically for a progressive party with a better chance of winning. Vote swap schemes are also a grassroots alterative to pacts.
We now move to a second kind of difficulty – who would want an alliance? Gilbert frames the strategy in terms of benefits to Labour, stating unequivocally that the Party would not have to give up a ‘single seat it could actually win’ (p. 11). This seems to be based largely on the premise that rival progressive parties are competing in largely non-competitive constituencies. There is a degree of plausibility with respect to the Liberal Democrats, though there are northern and university towns where there is tight competition with Labour. As for Plaid Cymru – ‘there seems to be almost no reason for Labour and them to run candidates against one another. Their main areas of strength are in traditionally otherwise Conservative constituencies’ (p. 23). Unfortunately, that is not true. In two out of their three parliamentary seats, the competition is with Labour and half of Plaid Assembly seats are in South Wales. Labour and the Greens are essentially fishing in the same voter pool, at least in general elections. Why the SNP would want any kind of seat deal with Labour is a complete mystery.
There is, however, a much broader and more important political point. Even if it is true that the four parties have more in common ideologically and programmatically than their leaders (and activists) acknowledge, strategically they are locked into fierce competition. The SNP could only triumph by challenging, then dislodging Labour as the dominant left-of-centre party. Plaid are seeking to do the same. The SNP may well be a ‘mainstream European social democratic party’ (p. 23), but it is also the carrier of a nationalist project that puts social justice behind manufactured grievances with ‘Westminster,’ whilst passing on massive cuts to local councils. There may well be issues on which Labour and the SNP can cooperate, but in Scotland, Labour must challenge the nationalist agenda or die. Gilbert argues that the progressive alliance strategy is for a Labour-led arrangement in which the Party is ‘able to say to Greens and Liberal Democrats and progressive nationalists ‘join our coalition, accept our leadership, but retain your identity as Green or Lib Dem or nationalist’..’ (p. 17). The Greens might just about consider it, but it would be utter and complete anathema to the nationalists and Lib Dems. Even when Labour was in a stronger position it would have been a non-starter, but the idea of Corbyn and co making this offer is likely to produce the response ‘how about showing you can lead your own party first?’
Nor is the idea of a progressive alliance particularly helpful to Labour. Gilbert’s view that ‘going it alone’ will result in ‘always either losing or disappointing’ (p. 25) is too pessimistic. To make his case He rewrites recent history. Apparently the 1997 landslide victory came at a price of no radical change because Labour acted alone and had to please the Sun and the City. If New Labour failed to make good the initial promise of radical transformation it was because of its own flawed strategic choices, not because of who it did or didn’t act with. The Party is in a dismal place at the moment, but it needs to find a modern post-Brexit identity not subsume it in a wider, impossibilist project.
Gilbert is realistic enough to know that ‘Unless it is accompanied by a mass mobilisation of street-level campaigners’ (p. 24), the progressive alliance will be written off as elite manoeuvring. Given the deeply impractical and politically implausible nature of the project, no matter how many Compass meetings take place, with respect to renewing Labour as a credible, radical political force, this is essentially displacement activity.
Paul Thompson is a member of the Open Labour National Committee