The left won’t win by gaming the system.

By Mark Connolly

The British left has suffered a stunning reversal in fortunes. Within the space of two years, the Labour Party went from a politically competitive force, within sniffing distance of forming a government, to a divided party in its weakest electoral position in nearly a century. Mark Drakeford’s premiership in Wales will do little to heal the wounds of the 2019 General Election, and the Tory majority it ushered in. The Liberal Democrats, too, have suffered heavily, with a shattering 2015 defeat relegating the party to the political hinterlands; its representation in parliament is down 80% compared to a decade ago, and they are onto their fourth new leader since the coalition years. Perhaps the only exception to this trend of decline has been the SNP, now entering its fourth term in government, and growing its base of support where the English left is receding. Yet with the Conservatives consistently polling high despite a decade in government only makes matters worse.

Consequently, many commentators, activists and even elected officials have called for some sort of political alliance between Britain’s ‘progressive’ parties (though it must be noted, the term is used loosely). This alliance would see parties generally left of centre – Labour, Liberal, SNP, Green and Plaid – tactically campaigning for maximum effectiveness within the realities of First Past the Post, prioritising resources to the candidates most likely to beat their Conservative opponent. Some have even suggested standing candidates down in certain extremely close-run contests. Hypothetically, this alliance would prevent results like that seen in Wimbledon, where a combined vote of more than 32,000 votes was split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, allowing the Conservative candidate Stephen Hammond to claim victory with only 20,000 votes.

This idea, certainly attractive in theory, has been proposed by many so-called progressives from all ends of the spectrum. Supposedly moderate centrists such as Wera Hobhouse MP and the academic A. C. Grayling, as well as those on the left flank of parliamentary politics like Clive Lewis MP, Paul Sweeney MSP (both Labour) and former leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood. And the logic behind this position is clear: in a political landscape where right-leaning votes have consolidated almost exclusively behind Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, while the progressive vote is split between as many as five options, only a strategic approach to the electoral system will be sufficient to get the Tories out of office.

Nor is this line of thought merely fantastical theorising, as research from the Constitution Society found that an electoral pact, on the same vote share of the 2019 General Election, would see Labour gain an additional thirty-six seats, the Liberal Democrats fourteen, and eight for the Green Party: a combined change of fifty-eight seats, and enough to eliminate a Tory majority.

But this is precisely where proponents of a progressive alliance are going wrong. Aside from the purely moral problem with attempts to ‘game the system’, one cannot even be certain that this alliance would work in practice.

The fundamental assumptions upon which the proposal rests are that Britain’s left-of-centre parties have more in common with each other than they do with the Conservatives, making a power-sharing agreement not only possible but likely. However, there is no indication that this would be the case. Whatever the expressed desires of Nicola Sturgeon MSP or Ed Davey MP, no alliance is viable or effective without Labour, still Britain’s largest left-wing party. In a blow to the progressive alliance supporters, Sir Keir Starmer MP has been quick to extinguish any rumours of an electoral pact either before or after the next General Election.

Furthermore, it is far from clear that these parties could realistically work together. Perhaps the only overriding common goal prior to 2019 was EU membership – a ship that has now undoubtedly sailed. What else could unite these political movements and their supporters? The Liberal Democrat support for Tory austerity policies from 2010-2015 would likely perturb many on the left of Labour and the SNP, while the unionist stance of both Starmer and Davey, almost identical to that of the Conservatives, would likely be a deal-breaker for the separatist movements in both Wales and Scotland.

Indeed, the question of Scotland complicates the picture even further, with voters north of the border motivated by altogether different concerns. Even if an agreement could be reached between Starmer and Sturgeon, many unionist voters who may typically consider themselves ‘progressive’ could be put off by a Labour party allied to the SNP, and flock to the Tories to prevent another referendum on Scottish independence.

And what of the political optics of all this? Even when there was no talk of a formal alliance, Boris Johnson was still able to smear progressive parties as an incoming “coalition of chaos” – a rhetorical cudgel he would likely use to beat down his opponents. If the 2015 election is anything to go by, where fears of Scottish nationalists entering government was exploited by the Conservative Party undermined both Labour and the Liberals, then it is entirely plausible that similar scaremongering could see a progressive alliance actually helping the right, rather than the left.

But perhaps most of all, a progressive alliance not only wouldn’t work; it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. Those proposing it are asking the wrong questions.

Simply put, left-of-centre parties shouldn’t have to work this hard. The UK is, broadly speaking, a country sympathetic to progressive ideas. Excluding those without an opinion on the matter, more than 80% support railway renationalisation; almost two-thirds believe the wealthy are taxed too lightly; and radical policies like Universal Basic Income (once considered extremist) are gaining widespread momentum, with those against a UBI pilot outnumbered by those in favour three-to-one. 

Nor are these attitudes strictly limited to matters of formal economic policy. Social attitudes, too, are more liberal than they ever have been. Abortion rights (an unresolved issue in other countries) have 85% public support, and while only a slim majority of Britons support and respect the right of transgender individuals to self-identification, trans acceptance is nonetheless much more widespread in the UK than elsewhere in continental Europe.

The simple fact is that none of this data would suggest Britain is a particularly right-wing country. Therefore, instead of asking “What must be done to defeat the Conservatives?”, British progressives should be wondering why a public broadly sympathetic to left-wing values continues to elect a party that doesn’t share them. The British public should by all accounts be fertile ground for a left-wing message to cut through and take root, and this simply isn’t happening.

The answer to this conundrum is a far more complicated picture and would require a great deal more thought than a single article has space for. The left could try to re-prioritise the economy and ownership of resources in public discourse, sidestepping the Conservatives’ focus on culture altogether; a focus on the climate crisis and the new industries of green energy could also provide a way forward. 

What we can be sure of is this: there is indeed a latent progressive majority in this country, contrary to what the current makeup of parliament would suggest. But the notion that this bloc of voters can simply be taken for granted and rearranged like pieces on a chessboard is wrong-headed and unlikely to produce a desirable outcome for the left. Electoral strategy must be in favour of something, rather than against a common enemy. So long as the vain hope of a progressive alliance continues to dominate the conversation, the left will be missing the point entirely.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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