One of the most controversial debates surrounding last year’s General Election was whether the centre-left parties in British politics, should have worked together to form a ‘progressive alliance’, in order to defeat the incumbent Conservative government. Such calls seemed pertinent when Labour was polling around 20 points behind the government, and heading for a 1983 style defeat.
Once the polls started to close and Labour’s position improved, such calls were deafened by the popular enthusiasm on the left, for the most radical Labour manifesto in a generation. Indeed there have been some furious debates around what a progressive alliance would be like, but what do we actually mean when we talk about a progressive alliance?
Firstly it is not, as some critics claim, parties standing on a joint manifesto or, even more dramatically, centre left parties joining forces and merging as the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as the Liberal Party did in the 1980s. Nor is it, as Owen Jones suggested recently, Labour and the Greens either merging or standing on a joint ticket at elections.
It is, as The Daily Telegraph has suggested, a non-aggression pact between centre left parties, presumably including Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, the SNP, and Plaid Cymru.
As there are few candidates from the main UK parties in Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t be extended there, although a separate argument could be made for the SDLP and Sinn Fein not standing candidates against each other (although this would be fraught with complexities).
In practical terms, this would involve one only one candidate from this ‘alliance’ standing against an incumbent Tory candidate, in order to prevent the centre left vote being split. In other areas, where a ‘progressive’ candidate was the incumbent with a small majority, other parties would avoid putting up a candidate, again, in order to prevent the centre left vote being split.
So, in which constituencies could this plan be effective (presuming of course that the Conservative government is unable, or unwilling, to push through boundary changes abolishing around 50 constituencies, and changing the electoral geography)?
The Green Party
Brighton Pavilion has in the past been raised in this context. However, this was before Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP, captured the former Labour seat in 2010 with a majority of 1,252. This majority was increased to 7,967 in 2015, and 14,699 last year. In this sense it can now be considered a safe Green seat, and not a key component of a progressive alliance.
In the same way, areas such as Norwich South in 2015, and Bristol West in 2017, both of which the Greens previously hoped to take, now have Labour MPs, with very substantial majorities. We can therefore presume Green voters have embraced the Corbyn agenda.
Therefore, with the Greens clearly a declining political force, and with their inability to gain significant support (outside middle class graduates in urban areas like Brighton, Bristol and Norwich), perhaps their role in a potential progressive alliance would be limited.
Many on the left understandably have issues with the role the Lib Dems played in the Tory led coalition. But, most Lib Dem MPs represent yellow/blue battle grounds, where a Lib Dem defeat will probably lead to a Tory victory. Tom Brake in Carshalton and Wallington represents one such area, with a majority of 1,300 over the Tories. Ed Davey in Kingston and Surbiton, Norman Lamb in North Norfolk, Stephen Lloyd in Eastbourne, Layla Moran in Oxford West, and Tim Farron in Westmorland, are all in similar positions, with fairly small majorities. Majorities, that the Tories could potentially gain.
However, there are some exceptions north of the border. Christine Jardine in Edinburgh West, Jo Swinson in Dunbartonshire, Alistair Carmichael in Orkney and Shetland, and Jamie Stone in Caithness have the SNP as their main competitors. Given the demographics of these areas, how likely is it that Labour will be able to take any of these seats at the next election? Could a pact with the Lib Dems at least prevent Tory gains in these areas?
The SNP and Plaid Cymru
In Scotland, Labour was decimated in 2015, when voters supposedly punished them for getting too close to the Tory led ‘no’ campaign, during the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. A number of English seat posters appeared, showing Ed Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond, the then SNP leader, implying that Labour would do a deal with the SNP.
However, after years of decline, Scottish Labour, under left leaning leader Richard Leonard, now look like a force to be reckoned with. Leonard and Corbyn currently appear to be attacking the SNP, in the hope of gaining seats from them at the next election. Alternatively, they could form a pact with the SNP, in order to minimise the number of Scottish Tory seats which allegedly helped Theresa May stay at Number 10.
According to election polling, the current Labour target seats include a number of SNP held seats, such as Glasgow South West, Glasgow East, Airdrie and Shotts, Larnack and Hamilton East, Motherwell and Wishaw, and Inverclyde. Labour therefore needs to get its tactics right.
In the Welsh Assembly, Labour currently dominates the ruling administration. However, although Plaid Cymru is a much smaller force, with only 4 Westminster seats, a number of those seats are Labour targets (such as Arfon, where Plaid have a tiny majority of 92, and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, with a majority of 3,908). Plaid in recent years have identified themselves as a socialist party of the left, particularly under Leanne Wood’s leadership. Would a Corbyn led Labour party be better off joining forces to fight Toryism in Wales too?
In conclusion, there is much to consider, with arguments on both sides of the debate. But, research by The Daily Telegraph showed that a 2015 alliance would have deprived David Cameron of his majority, while some have even argued that had it been in place last year, Corbyn could now have the keys to Downing Street.