Can a progressive alliance ever win in the UK?

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens could one day field unity candidates to defeat the Tories and form a majority. But it won’t happen next election

January 04, 2022
Could Ed Davey and Keir Starmer ever make a formal electoral pact? Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Could Ed Davey and Keir Starmer ever make a formal electoral pact? Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Here is a conundrum for the year ahead. What can be done to fight the anti-progressive bias that distorts British politics?

At the last general election, just under 15m people voted for parties on the right that wanted to “get Brexit done,” while almost 17m people voted for parties on the left and centre that wanted it stopped. Yet, as we all know, we ended up with a House of Commons with a big pro-Brexit majority.

How come? Well, that’s the way our first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system works when one side of a major national argument is dominated by a single party and the other is represented by a variety of parties, each with significant support.

Consider Finchley and Golders Green. It voted more than two-to-one for Remain in the Brexit referendum. Almost 31,000 voted for an anti-Brexit party two years ago, while 24,000 voted for a pro-Brexit party. But a Tory MP was elected, because he won all the pro-Brexit votes, while the anti-Brexit majority was divided between the Liberal Democrats (almost 18,000) and Labour (around 13,000).

Altogether, 52 Conservative MPs were elected in constituencies where the total number of votes for anti-Brexit parties exceeded the number for pro-Brexit parties. If all of those constituencies had elected Labour or Lib Dem MPs, the Tories would have lost their majority in the House of Commons.

What can be done about this? The most obvious answer is to change the voting system so that it is more proportional. There are arguments for and against different reforms, but that’s a dispute for another day. The next election, which could come within 18 months, will be fought under our present system. If the Conservatives are to be defeated, it must be done via FPTP.

The campaign group Best for Britain wants Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to come together in the key Conservative marginals and field just one “unity” candidate between them. It recently commissioned some intriguing polling which showed that the Tories could be badly damaged by such a plan. Following the North Shropshire by-election, with its clear evidence that many Labour supporters made the tactical decision to vote Lib Dem in order to defeat the Tories, the campaign repeated its call:

“Agreeing stand-asides in less than a quarter of all seats, will be enough to turf the Tories out of Number 10… By not working together, they will be leaving Britons at the mercy of a government that has damaged our health, our economy, our democracy and our global reputation.”

Best for Britain’s polling suggests that voters would be up for this, with the overwhelming majority of Labour, Lib Dem and Green supporters saying they would opt? for a unity candidate. This would cost the Tories dozens of seats and relegate their MPs to the opposition benches.

A progressive alliance is a great idea. I would love it to happen. I would also love to see world government, an end to nuclear weapons and Arsenal winning the Champions League. All are worthy dreams, but their advocates must prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. The chances of a progressive alliance before the next election are close to zero.

Here’s why.

First, Labour will insist that it is fighting for an overall majority. To agree a formal pact would be to admit implicitly that it can’t do this without the help of other parties. It will make no such admission.

Second, even if Keir Starmer and Ed Davey were to agree privately that they have enough in common to approve an electoral pact, they would face trouble with their respective parties. Labour and the Lib Dems are both formally committed to fighting every seat on Britain’s mainland. Two years ago, the Lib Dems eventually agreed to stand aside in favour of the Greens in 17 seats. Any proposal next time to stand back in Labour’s favour in dozens more would be far more painful. It would need a vote at the Lib Dem party conference. A quiet debate followed by a nem con endorsement: do you think that’s likely? Me neither. A similar debate at Labour’s conference would be at least as fractious.

Third, even if such a pact were approved by both party conferences, and all local activists came to heel (and that’s by no means certain), alternative anti-Conservative candidates are certain to pop up—“true” socialists and/or “true” liberals. None are likely to win, but they could syphon off enough votes to save a number of local Tory MPs.

Fourth, the Conservatives would make hay attacking any electoral pact, proclaiming it to be a cynical marriage of convenience, not a partnership of principle. The Tories and their media allies would dig out numerous examples of past differences—attacks that would become even more virulent if the Greens were also in the mix. The Tories would allege that by depriving voters of real choice, Labour and the Lib Dems were revealing their true authoritarian instincts.

Best for Britain’s polling does not replicate the impact of all these things. No polling can. What it can—and does—show is that many voters like the general idea of a progressive partnership that replaces our excessively tribal political culture. That is an important truth about Britain today. But the lesson for our centre and centre-left parties is that if they are to collaborate wholeheartedly, they should start by developing an agreed political project that leads, in time, to an electoral arrangement, not the other way round.

As it happens, the conditions might be right for this—after the next election. A minority Labour government, depending on the acquiescence of other anti-Conservative MPs, is far more likely than an outright Labour victory. Perhaps this will lead to a shared agenda on the economy, taxation, public services, constitution, Europe and climate change. Perhaps the Lib Dems’ prospects will be enhanced by their association with this, in contrast to their unhappy coalition with the Conservatives a decade ago that cost the party four-fifths of its MPs at the 2015 election.

Meanwhile, we are left with tactical voting, bolstered by informal local pacts that help parties decide where to direct their campaigning resources. This may be imperfect, but it is the best hope of ousting the Conservatives in the short-term. After that, all sorts of other futures are possible, especially if a minority Labour government lasts, achieves success and secures a common approach among the anti-Tory parties to tackling Britain’s problems.

So, Best for Britain, hang in there. Your day may come. I hope it does. But it won’t be before the next election.