It’s all very simple, really. By the time the next election comes around in 2023 or 2024, a range of parties will have agreed to bury years worth of grudges and disagreements to agree an electoral alliance. That alliance will ensure that only a single candidate stands against the Tories in each constituency, they’ll all romp to victory on the united votes of the progressive majority of voters, and we’ll have a new government that will be able to pass the Make The Bad Things Stop Bill in its first few days in office.
It’s a simple vision, and one that’s pretty easy to deliver. All it would take is for everyone across the progressive parties and movements to sit down together and agree with me about everything. Or maybe we could all agree with you about everything. Whatever it is, everyone will set aside their differences once we all find we actually agree with each other on everything, not just getting the Tories out.
Or then again, we might find we live in the real world where things are a lot more complicated than that.
There is a certain attraction to any simple political narrative where all the problems can be solved by someone doing the one thing that solves all the problems and gets them the applause. (This is why so many politicos love The West Wing — it’s the ultimate in “if I could just make that one big speech then everything will be fine and they’ll all realise I’m right” political fanfiction) A progressive alliance of some sort can seem like a solution to everything, and it might well be — but only once you’ve got past all the steps you’d need to establish one.
The problem is, a lot of people are jumping right past all those steps and then deciding that an electoral pact has to be the solution, and in some cases already working out who should stand down for who and where. They’re rushing to decide the tactics before anyone’s even ascertained if there’s a common strategy, a problem that befell all the sites promoting tactical voting at the 2019 election:
Is there any point to tactical voting at the 2019 election?
Tactical voting sites for December 12th are already up and running — but is there any point to them in the current…
Even with a lot of the complexities of the 2019 election removed, there are still plenty of problems that anyone who wants a progressive alliance of any sort at the next election has to find a solution to. There’s two main ones that really need considering above others, though.
First is the attitude of the party leaderships towards it. They heyday of tactical voting in the 1990s was driven by a pretty remarkable level of agreement between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown that they wanted to work together and were willing to bring their parties along with them, kicking and screaming if needs be. They met regularly, talked frequently and set up things like the Cook-Maclennan agreement on constitutional reform to show what they wanted to achieve together. Have Keir Starmer and Ed Davey even had a Zoom call together in the last year? Green co-leader Jon Bartley is offering talks to Keir Starmer but admits “the first step is to talk. We have not even reached that stage yet.” There’s never going to be any sort of progressive alliance at any forthcoming election if the leaders of the different parties aren’t even talking to each other.
The second key point is that everything now is a lot more complicated than it was in 1997, and even then they could only agree a formal electoral pact in the unique circumstances of backing Martin Bell to defeat Neil Hamilton in Tatton. In Conservative-held seats, the question was which of Labour or the Liberal Democrats were the best placed to defeat them. Both parties had official and unofficial lists of targeted and untargeted seats with activists in the untargeted seats encouraged to put their effort into target seats and give the other party an easier contest. This didn’t work everywhere — I live in a constituency that became a three-way fight with Labour and Liberal Democrats arguing over who was best placed to beat the Tories — but it worked enough for there to be clear and simple pro-tactical voting messages in friendly media. This was all made much easier by the Tories being very electorally weak and a large chunk of the electorate being willing to vote for whoever would get them out. The combined vote share of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1997 was almost double that of the Tories.
In the here and now, we’re talking about an alliance that, at a bare minimum, would involve three parties going up against a party that’s polling considerably higher than John Major’s 30%. Both Blair and Ashdown had to face challenges on multiple fronts in getting their parties to partially work together. Those issues haven’t gone away, there’s a lot more distrust just between those two parties, and every other party or movement or semi-organised group you want to add to a progressive alliance is going to add more complexity to the negotiations, and more potential for everyone to find new reasons to disagree.
In that sort of situation is “right, who’s standing down for who at the next election?” really the best starting point for discussions?
I think there are ways in which a progressive alliance could work, because I think there are a range of issues on which the different parties can find common ground and share common ideas. I think there are a lot of members and activists in all the progressive parties who would be happy to work together to defeat this government. I also think that having some sort of agreement or alliance that’s beyond just the parties is a way to bring in a lot of people who are alienated from party politics and give them a chance to have a say and find a role. But I also think I don’t know the details of any of how any of these things will work because they have to emerge from the process of people and parties talking to each other and working together, finding out what works best.
We’re talking about a range of political parties doing something that, even in its most basic form, has barely been tried in this country before, and it’s foolish to prejudge the results of that process and insist that it must take a certain form. Given the usually adversarial and zero-sum nature of the British political system, it’s almost baked in to all parties that the way they should see other parties is as adversaries and competitors. Any progressive alliance, of whatever form, has to acknowledge this and deal with it, not pretend it can simply be ignored. The best thing people who want a progressive alliance can do right now is to get people talking about the idea, and get their party leaderships to the table to discuss it. Right now, just getting them all talking and agreeing they have a common enemy would feel like a victory.