By Richard Price (Leyton and Wanstead CLP, and CLPD Executive)
Before the 2017 General Election, supporters of a Progressive Alliance argued that the eclipse of two-party politics was irreversible. Having leaked votes to UKIP, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and having to balance post-EU Referendum between leave and remain supporters, Labour, it was claimed, faced an existential crisis. Georgina Hayes in the Huffington Post declared that 'the path to a majority government for Labour is paved with insurmountable obstacles'.
What happened in June was the opposite of such doom-laden predictions. Labour and the Tories shared 82.3% of the polls, as two-party politics reasserted itself with a vengeance. Labour needs a swing of 1.6% (34 seats) to become the largest party and 3.6% to win an overall majority.
Progressive Alliance supporters nevertheless claim that 15 non-Tory candidates were successful because of tactical voting. Tactical voting is nothing new, and has been with us since the Liberal revival of the early 70s. The rise of Labour owed something to the (secret) Gladstone-MacDonald agreement of 1903, which resulted in the Liberals not putting up candidates in 31 seats where the Labour Representation Committee was standing in the 1906 General Election.
Electoral alliances do not have to be non-aggression pacts, but the logic of a first-past-the-post electoral system tends to force them in that direction. For an alliance to be progressive, it must be something more than an anti-Tory pact. So what would be the basis of a Labour-Lib Dem-Green-SNP-Plaid Cymru electoral alliance and how would it work?
Some have proposed a pro-Remain pact, but this would be at the expense of Labour's anti-austerity agenda, risk alienating the very northern voters Labour won back from UKIP and actually help the Tories. Others have suggested an anti-austerity pact, but while Labour might be able to reach some level of agreement with the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, what credibility would such an agreement have if it included the Lib Dems? Clegg, Laws and Alexander acted as the enablers of austerity in 2010, endlessly repeating the lie that the crash of 2008 was caused by Labour overspending on public services, and were punished at the two general elections since.
But even an electoral pact with no bigger project has serious obstacles. If the basis of the pact were that each party committed to withdrawing in favour of the best placed non-Tory candidate, this would mean Labour strangling its own revival in Scotland, where four of its top 10 target seats across Britain are SNP-Labour marginals. With just 1.6% of the vote in 2017, and not finishing second anywhere, the Greens bring little to the table. In Wales, Labour out-performed expectations. Of Plaid's four seats, none is a Plaid-Tory marginal, one is Plaid-Labour marginal and another was gained from the Lib Dems.
Which leaves us with the Lib Dems as the only viable electoral partner across England but also the least attractive. It is entirely possible to imagine an agreement, for instance, in Tory-held seats in the South West. The downside would be the implication of a return to discredited centre-ground politics, and there is no guarantee that electors would obey an agreement concluded without their agreement or involvement. The absence of a Lib Dem revival in its traditional heartlands suggests that we should be fighting instead for many more Labour victories in the South West, boosted by our large increases in membership.
Expect this year's party conference to see more attempts to promote the Progressive Alliance, with a recent lengthy Compass position paper and a book launch on the subject. The irony is that the original motivation – that a Labour majority government is impossible – lies in tatters and a Labour victory is within touching distance.