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.