Is the Progressive Alliance an idea whose time has come? GERRY LAVERY thinks so, after reading a new Compass pamphlet on the election initiative.
The call for a Progressive Alliance starts from the idea that our electoral system gives the Conservatives a built-in advantage and enables them to govern nationally even though most people do not vote for them.
Many Tory-held seats in the House of Commons are in areas where the majority of voters opted for other candidates. With some co-operation between ‘progressive’ parties, the argument goes, we could counter this injustice and ensure a candidate from a non-Tory party takes the seat.
In his recent pamphlet for Compass, the writer and academic, Jeremy Gilbert, broadly defines the term ‘progressive’ in terms of policies: ‘I mean policies which actually shift the balance of power in British society away from the wealthy elite and towards the people.’
He points out that Labour would not lose any seats by standing aside for another party that’s more likely to win, nor would it waste the party’s resources by contesting unwinnable ones. He argues that party members should have maximum autonomy to use their knowledge of local conditions to decide whether to run candidates in unwinnable seats.
The ultimate aim is to get proportional representation to prevent Tory electoral dominance and to advance the progressive cause more generally.
For Gilbert, the argument for a Progressive Alliance starts from recognising the deep difficulties Labour faces. Its position in the polls is the worst it’s been since the party became an electoral force in the 1920s.
To achieve a majority of just one Labour needs three million extra votes under the present system. But it has lost Scotland, and the Tories are dominant elsewhere. What’s more, their proposed boundary changes mean Labour could lose a further 40 seats. In addition, UKIP has undermined some of Labour’s traditional vote, which in the wake of Brexit could well transfer to a UKIP-ised Tory party.
New Labour’s record is critical to understanding Labour’s current crisis, Gilbert says. In office, it failed to challenge key powerful interests such as the City of London and the media; too readily accepted the narrative of neoliberal globalisation and market deregulation; and did little to reverse inequality and the resentment that generated. Nor did it do anything substantial to rebuild the UK’s manufacturing base in old industrial areas, let alone to reverse the Thatcherite attacks on trade unions.
For Gilbert, a new version of New Labour would mean Scotland is lost to Labour for good, while elsewhere Labour would lose voters to other parties, especially UKIP and the Greens.
What about the Liberal Democrats?
Clearly, there is understandable hostility in the Labour Party towards an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, but Gilbert asks us to think more carefully before dismissing the idea. We should be motivated more by political realities than by seeking revenge for the Coalition, he says.
Gilbert deals with six common arguments against Labour’s co-operation with the Liberal Democrats.
1. The Liberal Democrats are neither progressive nor trustworthy
Such a view misses the point of a Progressive Alliance, suggests Gilbert, which is to defeat the Tories and prevent Labour moving rightwards. It is in Labour’s interests, he says, to divide the Tories and Liberal Democrats.
2. The Liberal Democrats are as bad as the Tories
Gilbert argues that the Liberal Democrats differ from the Tories and should be variously described as ‘centrist liberals, mild social democrats and social liberals’.
3. The Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Tories
Gilbert argues that if the Tories had been left to their own devices in 2010, the general political outcome could have been far worse. Although the Liberals were also in coalition with the Conservatives in 1930s, they did support minority Labour governments in the 1920s and the 1970s.
Gilbert adds that in 2010, Labour made no viable coalition offer to the Liberal Democrats, leaving tham “at the altar with only one possible alternative suitor”. Of course, they might go into coalition with the Tories again but only if the Tories win more seats and Labour walks away from them a second time.
Gilbert notes that Labour only became an electoral force itself because there was an electoral pact in 1906 when Labour candidates and Liberals stood down in key seats to maximise opposition to the Tories. He also notes that Liberals such as Keynes and Beveridge were progressive contributors to building the post-war welfare state.
4. The Liberal Democrats are hostile to a radical Labour Party programme
While this may be the case to some degree, it is not of itself an argument against the Progressive Alliance, says Gilbert. An alliance is not easy to achieve, but politics is about building coalitions.
The question for Labour is whether it can lead social groups outside its traditional base in a broad coalition of interests. Such a coalition would not involve absorbing other political identities into Labour. Each party should keep its own. Labour will have a enough to do mobilising poorer citizens who tend not to vote without also trying to recruit middle-class voters from other progressive parties.
5. There is no natural anti-Tory majority and some Liberal Democrats are anti-Labour
Gilbert concedes that in some areas a Progressive Alliance may only work with progressive candidates. But it may not need an alliance in every seat to change the parliamentary arithmetic and dent Tory electoral dominance.
6. An electoral deal with the Liberal Democrats would involve crossing class lines
For Gilbert the idea that Labour is ideologically pure is ‘ludicrous’. It has often had ties to the interests of capital, such as the link between Blairites and the finance and PR industries.
The Liberal Democrats, unlike the Tories, do not have the backing of any significant section of the capitalist class, GIlbert points out. Rather, they tend to be made of middle-class professionals and more progressive elements of the commercial middle classes. Moreover, a weak, disorganised and demoralised working class needs all the progressive allies it can muster.
What about other parties?
The question of co-operation with the SNP also raises objections, but Gilbert does not explicitly consider an electoral pact with the Scottish Nationalists, presumably because Scotland currently only has one Tory MP.
It is highly unlikely that tensions between Labour and the SNP can be overcome in the short-term, although Gilbert regards the SNP as a mainstream European social democratic party with whom Labour should promote good relations. He recognises that Scotland might choose independence in the future, although a deal on home rule within a federal UK would be his preferred option.
Given that Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour now exist in their own right, he also argues that it’s time to create English Labour, a move that might help boost Labour votes in both England and Scotland.
As for Plaid Cymru, Gilbert argues that its programme would make any 21st century socialist proud and points out that they tend to be strong in what would otherwise be Conservative seats. Therefore, he sees no problem in Plaid and Labour standing down for one another where appropriate.
Gilbert adopts a sensitive and pluralist approach to the Greens too. While he recognises the libertarian socialist views of the Greens’ co-leader and only Westminster MP, Caroline Lucas, he also respects the autonomy of the Green Party, and the comparatively high priority it gives to climate change. As he notes, their cultural and philosophical differences are distinct and should be preserved rather than absorbed into Labour.
Gilbert recognises that a Progressive Alliance is not sufficient on its own to defeat the Tories, it also requires a mass mobilisation of campaigners to counter the right wing press which will dismiss it as a coalition of losers, a series of shady deals between professional politicians. He is not confident, however, that such a mobilisation can occur without other changes in British political culture. Mass membership, valuable as it is, is insufficient on its own.
A re-balance of forces?
In a different political era, the Italian communist and political theorist, Antonio Gramsci, wrote of the need to take account of what he called the relations of force, or balance of forces, in society. Although his aims were revolutionary, many of his insights are relevant to Labour’s current predicament.
In explaining relations of force, Gramsci refers to the idea that a subordinate class can only prevail if it enlists wider support. To lead – rather than simply dominate – it has to go beyond its own base, economically, politically and ideologically. The need to make the interests of those other social forces its own is what he calls ‘hegemony’ (Simon, 1991, pp. 30-37).
While the prospect of working class hegemony today is more remote, the defence and development of its interests in alliance with others remains pressing. A Gramscian reading of Gilbert’s work – and his work is implicitly Gramscian – suggests that the balance of forces is not remotely in Labour’s favour, and nor is it likely to be so any time soon. In the circumstances, Labour should embrace the Progressive Alliance.
Gilbert does not acknowledge, however, that even if Labour had full co-operation with other progressive parties, the electoral arithmetic would still not be completely favourable. This is not to say it is not worth doing. Indeed, it can still reduce the extent of Tory electoral dominance.
Gilbert discusses the need to encourage people in poorer, alienated working class communities to vote Labour, while progressive young people who don’t currently vote are another potential source of support.
I think it is also important to think more widely in considering ways in which Labour’s fortunes and the progressive cause might be advanced. This could, for example, involve the idea of community organising in post-industrial areas where Labour support and related institutions are waning. To my mind, this means working alongside and in dialogue with communities to support them materially, develop their confidence and promote their cultural identity and interests.
It is interesting to note that Labour is making efforts now to train its supporters as community organisers while groups such as Take Back Control have their own versions of community organising. I believe these moves could help to overcome the apparent cultural divide between the left and those working class communities that are drifting away from Labour. Like Syriza in Greece, Labour members need to stand alongside and become part of such communities.
Neither the Labour nor Liberal Democrat leaderships have accepted the arguments for an alliance. Labour argues that electors should be able to choose Labour in every constituency. However, some members at grassroots level are beginning take their own action in pursuit of a Progressive Alliance.
Compass reports that 34 local deals have now been completed. For example, the Greens have agreed to step aside in Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls’ old constituency) where the Tories have a majority of just 422, and in Pudsey where they have a majority of 4,501. In exchange, the Labour candidates have agreed to co-operate on issues such as Trident and electoral reform.
Local deals are being struck because it makes sense to do so, while Compass hopes to mobilise the largest ever number of cross-party volunteers to encourage tactical voting.
There have also been set-backs, however. In West Surrey, for example, where health minister Jeremy Hunt is MP, three senior Labour members have been expelled for supporting the NHS Action party candidate (a local doctor). In protest, Caroline Lucas has backed off from support for a formal Progressive Alliance.
The Progressive Alliance is a new initiative and must be viewed over the longer-term. Hopefully, support for it will grow. What is required is what Gramsci called a ‘war of position’, so that support builds across society over time.
It is an initiative whose time has come and Gilbert’s well-argued pamphlet deserves to be widely read. The alternative is an eternity of Tory dominance. By itself, the Progressive Alliance may not be sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary.
Gerry Lavery is a member of Unite Community and an ILP Friend. He says: “I am extremely indebted to Barry Winter of the ILP for his comments and invaluable editorial advice on an earlier version of this review.”
The Progressive Alliance: Why Labour Needs It, by Jeremy Gilbert, was published by Compass earlier this year.
Simon, R. (1991) Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction. London, Lawrence & Wishart.
See also: ‘Common Sense’ and Benefit Sanctions, by Gerry Lavery.
Note: These are the author’s views and do not necessarily represent the views of the ILP.