The Progressive Alliance- a Debate

Today’s article is a debate between our regular contributor Dan Oliver of Stockport Young Labour and newcomer Benj Eckford. Benj has lived in North West Durham constituency all his life. He comes from a family of coal miners and teachers. He joined the party at the 2012 Durham Miners’ Gala when he was 16 after seeing Ed Miliband and Tom Watson speak to the Gala. He is on North West Durham CLP exec, Secretary of Newcastle University Labour Society, on the executive of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and is a Labour council candidate on 4 May. Benj will argue in favour of a progressive alliance and Dan against.

Benj– In 2015, the Tories got 36.9% of the vote, 51% of the seats and 100% of the power. That led to Brexit and goodness knows what else. In 1979, 1983 and 1987 more people voted against Thatcher than voted for her. From the Liberal landslide in 1906, it was 39 years before another majority anti-Tory government was formed. First past the post allowed the Tories to rule Britain for longer in the 20th century than the Communists ruled Russia. The only argument against first past the post within the Labour movement is that proportional representation would always result in a hung parliament, meaning Labour would never form a majority again. I make no apology for preferring a Labour-Liberal coalition to a Tory majority. I urge you to read ‘Realignment of the left? A history of the relationship between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties’ by Peter Joyce, detailing how our two parties can and should work together. All it would take in 2020 is a one-off alliance. A pro-PR majority in the Commons can change the voting system, give us a fresh election in which alliances and tactical voting are no longer necessary. All indications are that this would lead to a near-permanent Labour-Liberal coalition, which I would prefer to a Tory majority.

Dan– Whilst I understand the sound rationale behind using a progressive alliance as a vehicle for electoral reform, I strongly believe that this is more theoretical than practical. For me, such an alliance would only work in the form of a coalition that was negotiated in the case of a hung Parliament – not where an agreement is made prior to a General Election. As we saw in 2015 with the marketed threat of an SNP ‘kingmaker’ situation, there can be a public hesitance around handing power to smaller organisations who seek to benefit from such situations – a progressive alliance has far more benefits for smaller parties than it does for the Labour Party.

In my opinion a progressive alliance would not only limit our chances of electoral success but it would also actively harm those chances and our reputation. The logistics of such an alliance are not as simple as adding up all non-Tory votes to find an outcome, for example in Stockport I know many Labour voters who would not vote Lib Dem, and vice versa. Whilst I am in favour of electoral reform, I would much rather see a Labour Party fighting for an outright victory in a general election with a manifesto built on our own strengths – rather than marketing various hypothetical policies that a progressive alliance or coalition would implement.

Benj- Dan is certainly right that the SNP are a bogeyman for English voters, and I would not include the SNP or Scottish Greens in an alliance. Labour only needs to work with the Liberals, once, to get electoral reform. Something that any advocate of the progressive alliance should always emphasise is that it is not an excuse for Labour to be lackadaisical. We must still be the strongest party in the minds of the British people and gain their trust. A progressive alliance is not a substitute for winning the arguments. Strong leadership, the best policies, organisation on the ground by our thousands of activists, and a convincing narrative of the future to win hearts and minds are still absolutely necessary. It is simply common sense to say that we can help ourselves by not splitting our resources. Let the Liberals take on the Tories in their heartlands (the West Country, the rural areas with no Labour traditions where we always come third), and in return the Liberals will not stand in our safe seats or in Labour/Tory marginals. While not all Liberal/Labour voters are transferable, I believe enough are to deny the Tories a majority and give us electoral reform.

Dan- Whilst I would not look to include the SNP in any alliance, the chances of Labour winning a general election without regaining seats in Scotland are extremely slim. From the results of the 2015 election it is clear that Labour would not have won many more seats if the Liberal Democrats hadn’t stood, or vice versa. The chances of working with the Liberals are subjective at best in terms of local Parties, as there are areas where members of both sides will not contemplate defeat to enable victory for the other Party. I think we should also be wary of disenfranchising the members and activists that we have in areas where we wouldn’t field a candidate – we would be pretty much telling those people that they can’t campaign for their own Party. We also need to remember what the perception of a progressive alliance would be from an ordinary member of the public, rather than from our informed and politically-biased position. For me we have a choice here, between standing on an electoral platform of our own strengths and gaining our own mandate, or opening ourselves up to the risks involved in working with other Parties who do not share our values and interests.

Benj Eckford and Dan Oliver

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