Saturday, 10 September 2016

Could a 'progressive alliance' save the Left?

There's been some recent talk about a 'progressive alliance' that might save the British Left: Corbynite Shadow Cabinet member Clive Lewis, and newly re-elected joint Green Party leader Caroline Lucas (above) have both recently floated the idea. Although the details are usually fairly opaque, the concept seems to involve some form of electoral and campaigning co-operation between Labour and the Greens, as well as perhaps the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Given that to achieve even a tiny absolute Commons majority on its own Labour would have to pull off near-miraculous wins in seats like Canterbury (where the party trailed in nearly 10,000 votes behind the Conservatives last time), these calls have a superficial attractiveness. But could the whole idea fly?

Let's start with the electoral battleground. Here the stark fact is that, by allying with the Greens, Labour could hope to win at the very most eleven seats from the Conservatives on the existing boundaries that are likely to remain in force until 2018/19 - even if every single voter from that party moved over to its side. That's enough in theory to rob the Conservatives of their overall majority, but they'd undoubtedly just continue to govern as a minority with some help from the Democratic and Ulster Unionists. And if we get a bit more realistic - we assume that only half of the ex-Green voters move over to Labour - then we go down to a gain of just eight seats. Adding Plaid to the mix gives you just another two seats on top - Vale of Clywd  and Cardiff North - but Theresa May would still be in No. 10.

That's a puny reward for a lot of effort, and no doubt a great long round of negotiations that will probably do more to confuse voters about Labour's core principles than it will fire them up at the sight of Labour's big-tent ecumenicalism. It's no wonder that Green activists, in particular, are signalling that this is an idea that's at best still at the incubation stage, and why many Green thinkers are more than clear that the whole idea would require an ideological rejig that might take some time - not a quick list of electoral deals conjured up out of nowhere.

Bear this point in mind also: the two seats that the Greens look like they have even a hope of winning, Norwich South and Bristol West, are Labour fortresses that the local Constituency Labour Parties will surely not, under any circumstances, give up. What, then, can Labour offer the Greens in return for a free run at maybe ten to fifteen sitting Conservatives? A bye on the Isle of Wight, and in Portsmouth South as well as Truro and Falmouth, all seats where the Greens might therefore be granted the high-but-not-particularly-productive honour of finishing a creditable second? It doesn't seem like much of a carrot, really. And what could Labour offer Plaid? A free tilt at their first Conservative target of Clywd West, where they've pretty much got no change and where Labour came second last time anyway? We doubt that local Labour activists would hear of it.

What about the situation in Scotland? Well, there the idea of some sort of pact just seems like a fantasy, as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale as well as ex-Scottish Secretary (and last remaining Scots Labour MP) Ian Murray recently made clear. First point: the near-ancestral loathing between the SNP and Labour would make any deal almost impossible. Second point: what on earth does Labour have to give the SNP that they don't already have? Standing aside to take the heat out of not-entirely-plausible Scots Conservative runs at Berwickshire (where Labour got under 3,000 votes last time), Dumfries and Galloway, and Aberdeenshire West? When those last two seats would need a six per cent swing for the Conservatives to oust the SNP? Big deal. Third point: Scots politics doesn't rotate around the 'left' to 'right' axis that English 'progressives' who don't actually spend that much time in Scotland think it does. It is still (understandably) centred around the constitutional question - a fact that might in time allow Labour to bring some unionist voters back into its camp, as experience in Edinburgh South as one of the only bright spots in its dire performance at the 2016 Holyrood elections suggests. It's a thin hope, but it's probably all they've got. In this situation Labour throwing in its lot with the SNP would be the embrace of the graveyard - because what, then, could it possibly stand for in terms of the great question of independence or the Union? Voters who favour separation from the rest of the UK are already long gone. If they're going to help the SNP, they might as well ring up Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and say 'we're giving up, have most of our votes. Would you like the buildings and all the canvassing data as well?'

So the answer to our original question is this: no, there can and there will be no 'progressive alliance'. Most of the parties supposed to get involved wouldn't want it. It wouldn't deliver many - if any - gains to the widely (and erroneously) defined 'Left' even if it did take hold. Voters probably wouldn't like it, and they might well take umbrage at being told what to do by party elites denying them a full choice of candidates in each individual seat.

What this long-running hare is really about is distracting people on the left from the realities of electoral life. Like its closely-allied bedfellows, the mythical progressive 'non-voter' and the 'disillusioned Ukipper', both conjured up in the last year or so as lifelines for Britain's left, this is a refuge from an ideological and demographic map that anyone with a bit of basic maths and some sociology can read. The road to any sort of non-Conservative government is long. It runs not along the broad-but-error-strewn path towards this supposed 'progressive alliance', but on a much narrower, rockier, harder and steeper track: via England's small and medium-sized towns, where most people drive to work, through provincial English cities and the working class districts of big conurbations, around and about suburbs and exurbs mostly free of political enthusiasts and rallies, and it takes in big slices of the West and East Midlands along the way. Places where voters want to see a coherent plan, a plausible leader, a language that chimes with how real people actually talk, a bit of consistency, a scarlet thread of patriotism, a little dash of competence, understanding, humility and the self-confidence that's displayed by actually listening to what people are telling you. Right now? Labour is showing off none of these things. Quite the opposite. Why teaming up with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens would change that seems a bit of a mystery.

Victory runs through Nuneaton, Plymouth Moor View, Telford, Loughborough and the like - a wall of blue that should have gone or stayed red in 2015's 'hidden landslip', a contest in which the Conservatives strengthened their hold on ex-Labour areas - and even gained a few ex-Labour seats themselves. In none of those constituencies would adding the Green vote to the Labour pile mean that the MP changed his or her party colours (though they'd get pretty close in Plymouth). In all of those seats, any high-falutin' pact between national leaders might also lose voters as quickly as the fear of an SNP-Labour alliance did in 2015: because voters don't like to think they are being taken for fools; because they think that party manifestos should be more than the first draft of a bargaining round; and because English voters, rightly or wrongly, would resent being dictated by by Scots or Welsh MPs when those nations have their own versions of self-government.

If you don't like Britain's government, you can campaign to change it. What you can't do from Opposition is circumvent the system by changing the electorate, altering voters' roster of choices, or tinkering with the system. If you want to do those things, you have to get into power first - an act of imagination, will and daring that a 'progressive alliance' would do nothing to foster.