The last thing the job needs is a “progressive alliance”
Last night Labor won dismal 1.6% support in the Chesham and Amersham by-elections – down 11.2% from 2019. The party’s meager 622 votes were a humiliation for Keir Starmer, even a fatal blow to its management in difficulty. In truth, Labor has never done well in this siege; the Liberal Democrats were always going to be the Conservatives’ main challenger, and even that party’s ultimate victory – winning the seat by a 30% swing – had to be seen against the backdrop of its weak nationwide support. The recent Labor defeat at Hartlepool and the risky July 1 by-election in Batley and Spen will surely further help define Starmer’s chances of remaining in the lead.
Still, the Lib Dems’ victory could help fuel a narrative touted by some Labor-aligned commentators in recent months – a “progressive alliance” to outflank the Tories and even change the electoral system. It would help overcome a real injustice: while Boris Johnson’s Conservative polls sit in the low 40% range, the first past the post system rewards them with a massive majority in Parliament; Meanwhile, their various left-wing and centrist opponents (Labor, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, Greens) are losing out despite their higher combined support. If Labor has no chance of winning a seat like Chesham and Amersham, then why split the Progressive vote and risk letting the Conservatives win?
Guardian columnist John Harris argues that the fragmentation of old electoral blocs makes it a necessity: after last night’s result, he predicted a future for English politics where the Lib Dems and the Greens are “parties of suburbs / suburban towns / hipster enclaves”, “Labor the party of cities”, with the “Tories a coalition of shires & post-industrial towns”. The dominance of the Scottish National Party in Scotland, if not independence, can almost be taken for granted. Likewise, after Labor voters apparently chose to back the Lib Dem over the Tory in the Chesham and Amersham sheets, Paul Mason said that the “#ProgressiveAlliance is already happening, whether the Labor bureaucracy likes it or not” – a confirmation of his prognosis that this is Starmer’s only path to power.
So far so convincing. But here we come to a problem: what defines “progressive”? With the Greens having only one seat, Labor’s main partner in this alliance would be the Liberal Democrats. What is their policy and to what extent are they compatible with socialist policies? Overall, we can at least say that most Lib Dems are socially more liberal than most conservatives (although a recent leader has struggled to tell if gay sex is a sin). Yet the Liberal Democrats are also an overtly liberal party with a recent record of austerity measures (as well as voting to triple tuition fees during its coalition with David Cameron). In the 2019 general election, the party proposed more austere spending plans that even the Tories. It seems that supporters of a Progressive Alliance see this party as progressive mainly because it wanted to reverse Brexit.
You don’t have to think highly of the Lib Dems to think they are less bad than the Tories. And claims Jeremy Corbyn got a few thousand votes from government formation in 2017, guess he could have formed a coalition with them (along with Scottish and Welsh nationalists and other small parties). And as Jeremy Gilbert points out on Policy Theory Other, the divide in British politics between those who want to redistribute power and wealth and those who don’t crosses the labor party itself. Labor itself is an interclass alliance comprising pro-austerity and pro-imperialist politicians. Even when the left took over leadership from 2015-2020, it was full of MPs explicitly hostile to Corbyn. Would an electoral pact with the Lib Dems really be that different? For mason, even a government with centrist elements would provide more space for social movements to fight for real change.
Yet such an approach risks seeing only the electoral arithmetic of today while neglecting the dangers of a left embracing a liberal identity. It’s not just about the handful of seats the Lib Dems could win, but the effect of such an alliance on the national Labor project. Since its founding at the turn of the 20th century, Labor has always been a party of socialists, liberals and trade unionists. Until the 1980s, the unions were generally not on its left wing, but surely entrenched it in the organization of the working class and supplied the majority of its MPs. Over the past decades, the Blairite takeover, the withering of union membership and the NGOization of the left have all helped to undermine these ties. Ironically, the introduction of the primaries effectively hoisted Corbyn to the top of the party in 2015. But efforts to rebuild the party’s more deeply-rooted presence in working-class communities have been much more difficult, in part due to the efforts of some seeking instead. à Labor in one party striving to overturn the Brexit referendum.
Already in the Corbyn era, we saw that this rival effort to reshape the party served to weaken Labor’s distinctive (even rhetorical and partial) claim to uphold a broad working class interest that could transcend the Brexit divide. In 2019, calls to form a government that includes Labor, Liberals, Scottish Nationalists and pro-EU Tories have consistently sought to rally Labor MPs behind a government that would cancel Brexit or call a second referendum, possibly led by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow or a Liberal Conservative like Ken Clarke. Like the dubious democratic ownership of the Continuity Remain campaign, such a parliamentary pact would also be a weapon to override Labor’s own internal democracy and its chosen leader. Here, Labor reportedly devoted most of its workforce to an alliance with the rest, while agreeing not to impose its own political agenda. If Corbyn was already coerced by the right wing of the Labor Party, pressure from Lib Dem sought to oust him immediately.
It is precisely the danger of the Progressive Alliance – with Labor forming a lasting or permanent pact with the Lib Dems – that this effect is to unbalance the party towards only one part of its potential electoral coalition, considering “progressivism” rather. than class politics as the unifying force. capable of mobilizing the social majority. Already with the French socialists and ex-communists in Italy, we have seen once powerful parties with significant working class support turn into a mere rump in their failed attempt to dissolve their electorate and replace it with the middle classes. liberal. Rather than providing a galvanizing project for society, this approach reflects the existing divisions between culture and war. Particularly blatant, in this regard, is the way in which left-wing pundits near retirement age are now lecturing us on the supposed obsession of young voters with cultural issues or even “identity politics”. if the under 40s Massively backed Corbyn because of housing and employment policies, ignored the siren song of the ultra-remaining parties, then disengaged from work edited by Starmer.
Advocates of the Progressive Alliance argue that, in the abstract, proportional representation (PR) is fairer than first-party voting. Still, the demand arouses skepticism from much of the Labor left – and with good reason. At a time when the party’s ties to working-class voters are so precarious and its identity in crisis, PR seems to only hasten its dismantling. Worse yet, the proposed means of achieving PR (an electoral pact with the Lib Dems, Greens and others) divides Labor’s own electoral coalition in advance. Given that Labor has about four times as many members as the Lib Dems, it also seems difficult to imagine how it would be decided which seat “belongs” to each party; the Lib Dems are, after all, infamous for distorted bar charts claiming that only they can “beat the Tories” (for other seats, “keep away from Labor”) in such and such a seat.
If Corbyn’s Labor had ever been able to form a government, we would have seen how truly progressive the Lib Dems really are: it would at least have clarified who this party really represents. Many Liberal and Green voters are potential Labor voters, and the fact that Starmer is pouring them votes and failing to train older Labor voters shows how much the party suffers from its bland managerialism. The call for a Progressive Alliance assumes we’re stuck with it – institutionalizing the grip of soggy liberalism over what was once at least supposed to be a workers’ party. This holds for impossible the approach that Corbyn put forward in 2017, centered on the mobilization of the usual non-voters and on overcoming the Brexit divide, and rather presents as avant-garde a strategy already tested until destruction by almost all the center-left parties in Europe.
The idea that pluralism requires an alliance with liberal centrists is particularly damaging at a time when Johnson’s Tories are demagogically posing as the jobs and investment party – including in areas affected by the austerity decreed by the Tory-Lib Dem government in the early 2010s, as well as the deindustrialization of the Thatcher era. The siege won by the Lib Dems last night is, in this sense, a poor indicator of the national image. It’s on the richer end of the spectrum – he ranks 531 out of 533 in England for deprivation – and the Lib Dem campaign has focused heavily on NIMBYism, claiming it has the strongest opposition to the proposed HS2 bullet train through London. While running Labor candidates for seats like Chesham and Amersham may seem like a lost cause, Lib Dems like this will not vote for socialist policies in parliament either.
The Corbyn years, with the often revolting Parliamentary Labor Party, the pressure to engage the party in a suicidal second-referendum policy and the constant attacks on even moderate Social Democratic policies, show that Labor is already too similar the Progressive Alliance. For decades, the balance of power has shifted from its residual working-class base to its liberal MPs; the last few years have shown, at least, that we can fight against this. This does not offer any guarantee of success; throughout history, even the major workers’ parties have been excluded from power for decades. But at least they have given working class people a political voice of ours, rather than telling us that there is nothing beyond the culture war.