Why a progressive alliance just doesn’t work in British politics

Tim Farron seeks distance from Labour in a key London constituency. PA/Stefan Rousseau

The election campaign is underway, but with the Conservatives 20 points ahead of Labour, things are already looking grim for those on the left of British politics. Labour’s prospects of winning outright look hopeless. Attention is turning towards an idea that has been repeatedly proposed in recent years – a “progressive alliance” of anti-Conservative parties.

The idea is beguilingly simple. The centre-left vote is split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. Under the UK’s winner-takes-all electoral system, those divisions enable the Conservatives to win seats they might otherwise have lost to a single “progressive” candidate. Therefore, the centre-left parties could win more seats if they explicitly encouraged anti-Conservative tactical voting for whoever had the best chance of defeating the Tory candidate in a given constituency.

This could even entail electoral pacts in some constituencies. Parties that had no chance of winning would stand down to give another progressive party a clear run against the Conservatives. The Greens did this to help the Liberal Democrats in a 2016 by-election and some Labour figures wanted to do the same.

The big problem

However, calls for a progressive alliance fail to comprehend the contrasting electoral scenarios in Labour-Conservative and Lib Dem-Conservative constituencies. And they overlook the differences voters perceive between the progressive parties.

To see the dangers for progressive parties of electoral pacts, it’s vital to understand that, in the British political system, voters are not only voting for constituency MPs; they are also voting directly for governments. The main option is either a Conservative-led government or a Labour-led government.

Smaller parties must work within these parameters. They might do that by opposing a government led by either major party, or waiting to strike a deal with whichever side offered the best post-election deal. The Liberal Democrats tried doing that in 2010 and ended up alienating their centre-left supporters by unexpectedly entering a coalition with the Conservatives. The result was almost total annihilation in the next election five years later.

Alternatively, smaller parties may pick a side. For the Greens and the nationalist parties, that means the left. But this raises its own problems. If voters strongly associate a small party with one of the major parties – and an electoral pact or formal call for tactical voting would be a clear signal – they will believe a vote for the small party is effectively a vote for a government led by its proximate major party. Most Green and SNP voters probably prefer a Labour-led government to a Conservative-led one, and that is why those two left-leaning parties have been at the forefront of calls for a “progressive alliance” (particularly in the form of a post-election deal, as far as the SNP is concerned).

Not what many other parties are looking for in a partner. PA

The more centrist Liberal Democrats face a harder calculation. An electoral pact could encourage Labour and Green supporters to vote tactically for the party in Conservative-Lib Dem marginals in the south of England, boosting its prospects. On the other hand, centrist voters in those constituencies would believe – and the Conservatives would ram home the message – that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote for a Labour-led government. That might not be disastrous if Labour were itself centrist and popular, but under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is neither of those two things.

As there are many more centrist voters than left-leaning ones in Tory-Lib Dem marginals, any formal arrangement involving Labour could put these votes at risk for the Liberal Democrats. So while Tim Farron would be delighted to receive tactical votes from Labour supporters in marginal seats, he wants nothing to do with any electoral pact or “progressive alliance” that formally associates his party with Corbyn. The Liberal Democrats prefer instead to remain aloof of both major parties, offering voters the chance to vote for a pro-EU party to oppose the policies of a Conservative government but which will not promise to put Corbyn in Downing Street.

Remember what happened to Ed

For Labour, the main danger of a progressive alliance is the SNP. A pact with the nationalists would, for a start, kill off any chance of a Labour revival in Scotland. What more would left-wing voters gain by voting for Labour? It would also risk alienating swing voters in Labour-Conservative English marginal constituencies who dislike the strident separatism of the SNP.

In this case, centrist voters might fear that a vote for Labour would be a vote for Nicola Sturgeon as the puppet-master of a weak Labour government. That was precisely the argument made by the Conservatives in the 2015 election. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader at the time, was depicted in a famous poster as being in the pocket of the former SNP first minister, Alex Salmond.

Interestingly, the poster was deployed in Conservative-Liberal Democrat English marginal seats such as Colchester in the 2015 election. That was despite Labour not having any chance of winning such seats and the SNP not standing candidates. It made strategic sense because centrist voters were being told that a vote for the Liberal Democrats risked becoming a vote for the broader “progressive alliance”. A daisy-chain of negative images thereby linked the Lib Dems to a weak Labour party and the latter to a belligerent SNP. From this perspective, the only alternative was a majority Conservative government. The Conservatives subsequently won Colchester from the Liberal Democrats, one of 26 English seats they took from the party and which were crucial in delivering their slim overall majority.

The general ideological proximity of progressive parties doesn’t mean they are seen as perfect substitutes by swing voters. Theresa May understands that. Instead of what she called “a coalition of chaos” involving the centre-left parties, she offers the clarity of a majority Conservative government. If the Conservative prime minister is keen to talk up a “progressive alliance”, that should be warning enough of its inherent dangers for progressive parties.