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Hard on the ‘Progressive Alliance’, hard on the causes of the ‘Progressive Alliance’

SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon

SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon

In recent months the question of whether Labour ought to consider a “progressive alliance” with other anti-Tory parties has become a major talking point on the left. Clive Lewis, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has come out in favour of the position as has influential pro-Corbyn journalist Paul Mason. The exact formation of what a progressive alliance entails or who would be involved in one remain unclear.

The basic premise – that Labour should do all in its power to build a united front of “progressive” centre-left parties against the most vicious Tory government in living memory – seem difficult to dispute. However, once these lofty ideals are boiled down to concrete proposals, the details become vague, less plausible and far more conflicting for those of us who want to campaign for a socialist Labour government. The central problem is twofold: first, the practical likelihood of realising a meaningful pact; second, whether the political dynamics this entails are desirable.

A recent article in the New Statesman gives an indication as to the proposed players in such an alliance: it is imagined that it would be Labour-led with the support of the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The political perspective that underpins this offering is not one driven by traditional Labour movement politics: in place of an emphasis on material interests and redistributing wealth and power, its predominant worldview is based on ‘progressive’ values which pivot on the Brexit culture war.

It appears to be the brainchild of those who favour a toothless, consensual style of politics characterised by cross-party cooperation and a shared commitment to proportional representation, while being entirely divorced from notions of a struggle or class conflict. Ironically, for a project that aims to take back the ‘Brexit heartlands’ its rhetoric is a weak echo of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign and will only alienate them further. This squanders the potential offered by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to define a programme for government based on economically empowering workers and communities and radical political reform.

Moreover, the proposed composition of the alliance is motivated by the fallacy that there are shared aims and political interests between Labour, the SNP, the Greens and the Liberals. Being united in opposition to a Conservative government may seem like a reasonable basis for such an alliance, but it is difficult to envision how the conflicting interests of the participants would allow it to function in practice. It seems implausible that, perhaps with the exception of the Greens, any party could be convinced to withdraw candidates in return for being granted a free run elsewhere.

The idea that Labour could work cooperatively with the SNP in particular is not borne out by the political landscape north of the border: it would put Scottish Labour in an invidious position whereby it opposes the Nationalists at Holyrood while being allied with them at Westminster. Fundamentally, the SNP would delight in the complete destruction of Labour in Scotland, making for an uneasy alliance in the House of Commons at best while angering large sections of the Scottish Labour membership. These concerns would bleed into the programme and direction of government too. It seems unlikely, given their previous political record, that either the Liberals or the nominally ‘anti-austerity’ SNP would support a government programme committed to measures such as public ownership of rail and utilities, a trade union freedom bill or significant taxation and wealth redistribution.

Furthermore, given their widely discredited status, it seems unlikely that forming an electoral pact with the Liberals would provide a winning political strategy for Labour. Controversy over the SNP dogged Labour throughout the 2015 general election campaign and was in all likelihood responsible for granting the Tories a majority if not victory itself. It permitted the Conservatives to point to the possibility of SNP participation in a Labour-led government, an unappealing prospect for many English voters who might otherwise have been tempted to vote Labour.

Parliamentary mathematics further suggests that such an alliance is not particularly viable: there are now few constituencies which would be considered safe Lib Dem seats in which Labour could reasonably agree not to stand candidates. Even more significantly, it would require complete capitulation to the SNP in nearly every Scottish constituency and the further denigration of Scottish Labour to a moribund, defeated institution. If the alliance wasn’t based on such an arrangement it would be no more likely to deliver a Labour government than simply presenting a Queen’s speech to parliament and calling on all those MPs who support it to vote for it.

Ultimately, the progressive alliance project is well-meaning but misguided and fatally flawed. Those in Labour who champion the idea are perhaps naive about the outlook of the SNP, believing them to be just another centre-left party who will fall in line at Westminster if necessitated by the ‘greater good’ of a broad anti-Tory coalition. The only ‘progressive alliance’ worthy of the name is the labour movement which represents the shared interests of all those worst affected by the Tory government and disaffected by the current political establishment. We will succeed or fail based on the extent to which we can build it inside parliament, but more so on our streets and within our workplaces.

10 Comments

  1. jeffrey davies says:

    they might have to if the tories change the boundaries to suit them selves

  2. Richard MacKinnon says:

    If there is to be any alliance of the left in UK politics JC and the Labour Party HQ need to sort out the Scottish branch office and quickly.
    Kezia Dugdale and her ‘team’ Baillie, Kelly, Sarwar in particular have a pathological hatred of the SNP. It is their reason to exist. They will be the immovable object that will wreck even talk of an alliance.

  3. David Pavett says:

    To have been a positive contribution this article would have had to make an attempt to deal with the best arguments for a progressive alliance. I makes no attempt to do that.

    1. First it is agreed that the proposal for progressive alliance “seems difficult to dispute”.

    2. This is immediately followed by the claim that when the “lofty ideals” (note the sarcasm) are “boiled down” they are in conflict with campaigning for a left Labour government. None of these “lofty ideals” are quoted or referenced and no “boiling down” is done.

    3. The promoters of the idea are then rubbished without every referring to any of them by name or dealing with anything they have said. All we get is a link to a New Statesman article by India Bourke. It is asserted that the idea “appears to be the brainchild of those who favour a toothless, consensual style of politics characterised by cross-party cooperation and a shared commitment to proportional representation, while being entirely divorced from notions of a struggle or class conflict”. No justification is offered for this amalgam of claims and neither for the initial judgement of “toothless” which conditions the conclusion even before presenting the argument. It should also be said that wrapping up proportional representation in such an allegedly “toothless” package will not make the arguments about electoral reform go away. They will have to be dealt with on their merits and by recognising the best arguments offered by left supporters of PR. Rubbishing its advocates won’t pass muster.

    4. The idea that there could be shared aims and political interests with other parties (or indeed parts of parties, since all parties are coalitions) is dismissed out of hand with no information and no analysis.

    5. The idea of cooperating with the SNP is dismissed in horror perhaps because Labour’s appalling performance in Scotland is seen as a result of their wicked machinations rather than the fact that Labour took the Scots for granted and failed to maintain its political profile in Scotland. The authors seem not to understand that alliances always involve differences and that they do not exclude each component of the alliance continuing to campaign for its views and policies. Labour’s appalling performance made it possible for the SNP to look as if it was outflanking Labour from the left. However phoney that stance might be it clearly had a lot of success. What if Labour came back with a genuine left offer while at the same time exposing the SNP’s weaknesses and hypocrisy? That is not considered.

    6. There is an underlying theme that alliances would get in the way of socialist policies. The problem for this view is that Labour is not offering socialist policies. Even in its most left-wing moments its current policies don’t even come up to the level of left-Keynesian policies of the post war period. Labour is not proposing an assault on the power of global capital. It is proposing a more humane form of capitalism and does so without any debate of what the difficulties and limitations of such a policy might be.

    7. “Parliamentary mathematics” is used to argue that that there are only a few constituencies which could provide a basis for electoral pacts. Maybe, maybe not but this begs the question as to whether the opposition to alliances is a matter of principle or a matter of calculation. Much can change in three years including party standing, constituency boundaries and governmental difficulties. Such alliances “would require complete capitulation to the SNP in nearly every Scottish constituency and the further denigration of Scottish Labour to a moribund, defeated institution” only if Scottish Labour remains in fact a moribund and defeated institution.

    8. The conclusion is that “Ultimately, the progressive alliance project is well-meaning but misguided and fatally flawed”. This is reached with no quotes and only one link (which is not to anything written or said by a main player) and no examination of the actual arguments that proponents of an alliance are using. Clive Lewis and Paul Mason are mentioned in passing but their specific arguments do not feature.

    I believe that this style of “debate” is unhelpful. An number of recent contributions to Left Futures seem to be of this nature. Mere opinion is asserted. Little or no attempt is made to engage with the arguments of those whose views are rejected. Worst of all there is trend to misrepresent those views and even to rubbish those who hold them. Is this really the new way of doing politics that was promised through the election of Jeremy Corbyn? It seems to me like a very old way of doing politics. I sincerely hope this is not a trend because I would want no part in such an approach and I guess that I am not the only one who feels that way.

    1. Jeffrey Lucas says:

      A very sensible response. A progressive alliance need only be a temporary arrangement to effect PR. And without this, I fear that Labour will never see power again. How many years will it take Labour to realise it? So what if we had an AV referendum a couple of years ago. Keep trying.

    2. Shan Morgain says:

      David Pavett – excellent post – saves me the trouble as it’s often me painstakingly analysing detail. Thanks.

      I too saw a lot of waffly theory and generalisations with very little content.
      I am also increasingly concerned at the output of Left Futures from the day Corbyn won the 2nd election as leader.

      We had wiffle about Conference and very little else of substance alongsid or since.

      Those that come here have all the wiffle and waffle of gossipfests on the mainstream news. We don’t come here for more opinionated emptiness.

      Facts, evidence, and logic please.

  4. James Martin says:

    I agree with the article, the ‘progressive alliance’ idea is pants and would end any hope of rebuilding Labour in Scotland. The SNP are a reactionary bunch of nationalists that seek to divide British workers, why would anyone want to support that?

    And what socialist wants to have an alliance with the Lib-Dims, who most of the time I despise far more than the Tories, at least the average Tory when pushed will be honest enough to admit to being a barsteward to the poor and the unions, the Dims just continue to lie and pretend that they are ‘nice’ despite born again evangelical scumbag Tim Farron enthusiastically supporting dropping RAF bombs called ‘brimstone’ on lots of brown people. As for the Greens, well I quite like Caroline Lucas, but really she needs to cross the benches and join Labour to support Corbyn (particularly after our mistaken and misguided support on banning fracking) and where she would be more use than in her current position, but I have no wish to be in an alliance with her party as they are neither based on the unions nor are they socialists.

  5. Bazza says:

    Left wing democratic socialists should fight for left wing democratic socialist policies.
    If others want to support us now and again then that’s fine.

  6. C MacMackin says:

    A lot is made in this article of the fact that other parties are not interested in a progressive alliance. This may be true, but then again it may not. We really don’t know because it hasn’t been discussed with them.

    Yes, I doubt that many of these parties would support radical left or socialist policies (although they could probably be convinced to support rail renationalisation). The Greens probably could be convinced (Caroline Lucas describes herself as a socialist) and possibly Plaid. The SNP may be convinced on the odd policy here and there. Once again, we won’t know for certain until we start this discussion with them. More importantly, as David said, there is no sign that Corbyn is going to run on a radical socialist manifesto. Even modest measures like utility nationalisation appear to be off the table. (At this point I’m not even sure he’ll be running on a decent Keynesian platform, given the absence of any well-developed policy emanating from the party.)

    In any case, this would likely be a short-lived caretaker government, lasting just long enough to stabilise things a little and implement proportional representation. (Incidentally, I suspect that the latter might be a sticking point for the SNP, given that it would likely reduce their number of MPs.) After that Labour could run on a properly socialist manifesto (although I have my doubts that the leadership is capable of producing one of these).

    Furthermore, it is quite possible that Labour would not be able to win the next election to implement a radical socialist program anyway. Given a choice between a Tory government and a popular front against them (assuming it could avoid doing anything actually reactionary), I certainly know which one I’d prefer.

    Finally, on the subject of the SNP, if things remain as they are then even if Labour doesn’t actually make a deal with them in Scotland they would likely win most of the seats there anyway. In that situation, it is quite likely that their support would be necessary to form a government. Are you seriously proposing that forming a government in this way is rejected out of hand?

  7. Craig Stephen says:

    There has been an unwritten ‘alliance’ with the LibDems for decades: it’s called tactical voting. There’s never been any official confirmation of this, of course, but in various seats Labour has thrown its candidate under the bus to allow the Libs to beat the Tories. All that has been for nothing as Clegg’s mob ganged up with the Tories to begin the process of battering the working class.
    The SNP: I think the writers and responders have got it right: never the twain.
    But Plaid might be more forthcoming and could aid the winning of a couple of seats.
    Greens: What’s the point? Lucas will hold on to her seat, but there’s nowhere else any Red-Green alliance could unseat a Tory.
    Here is a novel idea: Labour should form a new party in Northern Ireland, taking support away from the decaying SDLP and the DUP, which has the strongest hold on the Unionist working class. This would be on a pre-Good Friday basis so nullifying the all-or-nothing nationalists and the hardline unionists. It may be only worth a few seats but this could be pivotal in a close race.

  8. Alan Tait says:

    This article seems narrow and sectarian to me. Alliances are by their nature with people who have different views, in order to achieve a goal that they can all help define and advance. Alliances are used inside every organisation, e.g. The
    Labour Party, and so it makes no sense to me to dismiss the approach outside the Party. We might through an alliance stop some Tory initiatives that we would otherwise not be able to do. Surely good?

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