Why a “progressive alliance” isn’t going to happen, won’t work and is a silly idea

Note that for the purposes of this piece, a “progressive alliance” involves Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru coming to an agreement to stand down in seats where one of them is deemed to have more of a chance to win it than any of the others. I’m excluding the SNP from this for reasons I’ll go into below.

Won’t happen

  • Labour has no incentive to do it — The entire structure, constitution and belief system of the Labour Party is predicated upon the idea that it should win majorities to make policy to help workers. Labour is thus vanishingly unlikely to endorse the idea that people should vote for the Greens, the Liberal Democrats or Plaid, because it does nothing to help Labour win a majority but a lot to help those three minor parties. It will also absolutely never endorse the idea of voting SNP for a variety of reasons, ideological and political, which is why Scotland is essentially disregarded in this piece. Labour will tell people that if they want a Labour government they should vote Labour and that will be the end of it. You can dislike this all you like, but it is true, they are legitimately entitled to hold this stance, and arguably they have something of a point.

(UPDATE 20th September 2021: One thing I missed is that the Liberal Democrats have no incentive to do it either because they are committed to the idea that they are the national third party and a putative party of government. And indeed, their federal conference has decided that the Liberal Democrats will stand a candidate in every seat at the next general election. Assuming that holds, a progressive alliance is completely, 100% not going to happen in any form that will achieve anything, which it wouldn’t have done anyway because it’s a stupid idea that won’t work — see below.)

  • Without Labour it won’t matter— Labour’s full co-operation is axiomatically, fundamentally required for a “progressive alliance” to succeed, for the simple reason that it is the UK’s second largest political party and even at its lowest ebb still obtained north of 30% of the vote and 200 MPs. We have to assume from this point on that Labour are participating though, because otherwise this article would just end here, since the lack of their participation is simply crippling to the whole endeavour. You can see how this worked out with the “Unite To Remain” pact in 2019, which excluded Labour and had a net effect of essentially zero.
  • “Progressive parties” are not fungible — there are vast ideological gulfs and differences in belief and desired outcomes between the Greens, the Lib Dems, Labour and Plaid Cymru which would either preclude any meaningful co-operation or mean that they wind up coming to such a barebones consensus that they wind up settling upon a uniquely uninspiring platform that nobody will want to vote for. In particular, a lot of people seem to want an “alliance” in order to get proportional representation passed, rather missing that (see first and second points) Labour will never countenance this as PR is not their policy and FPTP disproportionately benefits them.¹
  • These parties despise each other bitterly—broadly speaking, the Liberal Democrats consider Labour to be a bunch of mad crypto-Trotskyites, Labour consider the Liberal Democrats to be a bunch of milquetoast sellouts, both of them consider the Greens to be complete moonbats and none of them really think anything much about Plaid Cymru at all. All of them would probably take issue with the others being described as “progressive” in some way. They are not going to drop all objections to each other and their respective platforms, and there will be a lot of members (as, again, with Unite To Remain) who are not willing to vote or campaign for a party that they dislike. This is especially relevant in the case of the Liberal Democrats — many Labourites would simply rather stay at home than campaign for a Lib Dem, and vice versa.

Won’t work

  • A non-negligible number of voters will not vote for who they are directed to — a fundamental point of the “progressive alliance” concept is that, supposedly, because LAB+GRN+LIB+PLD > CON, if you eliminated (e.g.) GRN+LIB+PLD then all of their voters would transfer to LAB and therefore LAB would beat CON, that you can replicate this across the country mutans mutandis and thus utopia emerges. But its proponents have failed to account for — or deliberately ignored — the fact that most people do not approach voting as a mathematical exercise, or a means of maximising their outcomes in a game theory sense. Instead, for many — I’d argue almost all — people, voting is an emotional and ideological act and an expression of their personal beliefs, hopes, fears and prejudices. As such, a lot of people would simply not follow the direction they are given; either because they object to the whole enterprise on a philosophical basis (more on this soon) or to the party that has been chosen for them. It’s not inconceivable that a Lib Dem presented with a choice between Labour and the Tories votes Tory, or that a habitual Labour voter presented with the choice of voting Green might also vote Tory.
  • Voting isn’t compulsory — if someone doesn’t want to make a binary choice between the Tories and the Lib Dems (for example), they don’t have to and you can’t make them. They can just stay at home. A lot of people almost certainly would. In a first past the post system such as the Westminster elections, every vote that is not cast for the most likely non-Tory candidate reduces the amount of votes that the Tory has to surpass to win — so abstention in this case would work against the “alliance” almost as much as would an active flip to the Tories.
  • A non-negligible number of party members will not campaign for candidates belonging to another party — the corollary of the above is that not only does the success of an alliance hinge on supporters of parties turning out to vote for candidates of other parties if told to do so, it also relies on members of those parties actually campaigning for other parties. Again, there are plenty of Labour members who would rather drink paint than campaign for a Liberal Democrat, or vice versa.
  • In most cases it will just involve Lib Dem, Greens and Plaid voters voting Labour, which they could just do anyway without all this rigmarole —the desire to “get the Tories out” in many cases does not and demonstrably has not resulted in supporters of minor parties compromising with their vote and voting tactically, so all a “progressive alliance” is is an attempt to compel this. But you could just do that anyway without any of the other drawbacks to this idea. Indeed, many people do.²
  • There isn’t good enough information available about how individual constituencies will vote to make a good judgment as to who is most likely to win — constituency-level polling is incredibly expensive and time-consuming, so nobody really does it. There’s the much-vaunted MRP predictions of vote share, but these aren’t polls in and of themselves, and any defect in either polling or the models themselves can make them wildly wrong (see: 2019, when the Lib Dems decided to go all in on a bunch of MRP polls, or took the European Parliament elections as indicative of a general election, and… well, we know how that ended.) There is as such no accurate way to decide who should be the beneficiary of this enforced tactical voting, and this could wind up being wrong.
  • Polling changes during campaigns and therefore so will the optimal choices—in 2017, say, any prediction or decision on which candidates would stand based on polling when the election was called would have been wildly wrong compared to the actual result, largely because of the unforeseen impacts of Tory self-immolation, the Lib Dems flaming out and Labour having better cut-through than was expected. What if that happens again? Or what about the converse — what if there’s a massive scandal involving Labour and you’ve left large swathes of people with a choice between a deeply compromised party and the Tories?³
  • Not everyone who votes for a “progressive party” is progressive and there is no plausible voter coalition that includes the voters of all “progressive” parties — as Simon Wren-Lewis has pointed out, Labour’s support base is (and has historically been) broadly an alliance between those on the economic left who have a mixture of social views, as well as those on the economic centre/right with liberal social views — and it needs socially conservative voters to some degree in order to win an election. Additionally, the Lib Dems have their own mixture of economic left/social liberal voters and economic right/social liberal voters. Any alliance would need to appeal to all of these groups, habitual voters of all parties, at once, and you’d have to subsequently persuade (e.g.) a “Blue Labour”-ish voter to instead vote Green or Lib Dem instead of either sitting at home or actively voting Tory, which while not impossible would likely be incredibly difficult — particularly with a depleted, unenthusiastic ground force (see above) and incoherent/non-existent/niche policy offering (see below). Advocates of an alliance are quick to parrot things like “Labour can’t win under FPTP as it doesn’t have a sufficient electoral coalition to do so, so it needs to do a progressive alliance or die” — but ignore the fact that this putative alliance wouldn’t have an electoral coalition either, and that parties’ lack of ability to win under FPTP has not stopped them from fielding candidates previously, including these “progressive” ones.⁴

Silly idea

  • It absolves and prevents any of the parties involved from actually trying to offer decent policy — as noted, the “progressive” parties are not actually the same and have vast ideological gulfs between them. They will essentially all be straitjacketed by the other parties and any policy platform that results will be such a watered-down compromise that it will have no form of coherent retail policy offer and therefore offer limited reason to vote for it. Or they would still all offer their own platforms, but have arbitrarily decided that certain numbers of people cannot vote for them, leading to the question of “what if I like the Green platform but the only choice available to me is Labour, who won’t implement it?” (or vice versa). Either way, none will be motivated to offer anything particularly bold or eye-catching, since they will have effectively — at least in their own minds — already got their voters sorted and just need to wait for the results to roll in. This also leaves the “alliance” vulnerable to attack from the Tories, who have proven many times over that they’re willing to at least appear radical in order to win votes, and would find this very easy to do against a disparate coalition of people who don’t agree and won’t have a coherent platform. Speaking of which……
  • Good luck maintaining a rainbow coalition! — people seem to forget that the point of an election is to form a parliament and therefore a government which can then pass policy. The likely outcome of a progressive alliance, were it to succeed (and it won’t) would be a fractious, bitterly divided and most likely short-lived coalition between parties that hate each other, don’t agree on much and will wind up needing to deliver some kind of governing agenda which they all mutually disagree about the aims for.⁵
  • Even if you somehow convinced Labour to join one and commit to getting proportional representation, not everyone wants PR and most people don’t care — Quite a few people simply don’t want PR, and want to keep First Past The Post for a variety of reasons (outside of the simple self-interest of the two main parties), or would prefer something like the Alternative Vote system. If, through some miracle, you did manage to get Labour to join such an alliance with the promise of obtaining PR, you’d then have to contend with the fact that PR is a relatively niche constitutional question, of little importance to most people, and that lots of people who are interested in it may well not want it. This, too, would be exploited by the Tories, who would also be the only — the default, even— party for anyone who doesn’t want PR. There are some Tories who want PR, of course, but good luck getting them to vote in a Lab/Lib/Green coalition to get it.⁶
  • Not all non-Tory voters are actually hostile to the Conservative Party — there are plenty of people (the so-called “swing voters”) who actually do make a decision each election between Labour and the Tories, or are equally comfortable with voting Liberal Democrat or Tory, or are just fine with a Conservative government even if they might really prefer another one. A “progressive alliance” ignores that all these people exist; it assumes that anyone who doesn’t habitually vote Conservative is a “progressive” that actively wants to vote to keep the Tories out, which is a rather dubious assumption at best.⁷
  • One of the parties that would be involved was literally in government in coalition with the Conservative Party in the last decade and made noises about considering one acceptable in the last general election while also being fanatically obsessed with attacking Labour — it blunts the impact and message of a supposed “anti-Tory” alliance if one of its participants is apparently fine with the Tories being in government so long as they can be too alongside them. If you think that the Conservative Party are really so deleterious that we all need to pull together to stop them, why didn’t you think so the last time there was an opportunity? And conversely, why should anyone trust you to be sincere about this when you’ve made it clear that you don’t actually mind the Conservatives all that much?
  • What if people just… want to elect the Conservative Party? — obviously, I don’t agree with these people or this aim, but there’s a very large unspoken assumption in the “progressive alliance” idea that nobody actually wants the Tory party in power. The problem however is that for a party that nobody supposedly likes, people keep electing it, to the extent that it is the western world’s most consistently successful political party. So, the question must be asked— what if we pursue this hare-brained scheme but none of the problems I’ve mentioned occur… and the Tories win? What if we somehow get perfect information on each and every seat, all the parties fully co-operate, they all come up with an amazing consensus platform and so on and so forth, and yet… the Tories still get a majority? What then? There is as far as I can tell no attempt to answer this, possibly because then you’d have to confront that the assumptions underpinning it were wrong, that the Conservative Party is actually popular and/or has structural advantages that cannot be overcome with what is essentially grassroots-driven gerrymandering, and that maybe a lack of discipline is not all that is preventing progressive and/or leftist politics advancing.
  • It is deeply undemocratic as it seeks to deny peoples’ agency to vote for who they choose

This last bullet is the bit where I go off on a tangent, and explain why I think the “progressive alliance” as is stands is an awful, fundamentally wrongheaded and even offensive concept.

I told anyone who’d listen in 2019 that voting for any party beside Labour in most seats was a stupid, counterproductive idea that only empowered the Conservatives, who would give them absolutely none of what they wanted, and a lot of what they expressly didn’t. A lot of people objected to that. Quite vociferously. I thought and still think they were being stupid, and that perhaps a lot of foreseeable unpleasantness could have been avoided if people got over themselves and whatever misgivings people had about Jeremy Corbyn and voted in a sensible manner to minimise the chances of a Tory win. But whatever. Spilt milk etc.

However. At no point did I think that people should have their vote restricted to the “correct” option as I saw it. They could, and did, vote Lib Dem, or Green, or Plaid, or Loony, or Tory. That was their choice. It was not for me to take their ballot paper and cross out all the options but the Labour one. It’s a fundamental right of every eligible voter in this country to vote for whichever candidate(s) they please in the privacy of the voting booth or as they fill out their postal vote. And if I’d suggested that that should not be the case, that they ought to be forcibly prevented from voting for Jo Swinson’s Revoke Article 50 Stop Brexit Liberal Democrats or whatever because I thought they shouldn’t be able to do so, then I would quite reasonably be told to fuck right off.

My vote belongs to me. It is mine. I will give it to whoever I want. In my case, despite my misgivings about Keir Starmer and the state of the current Labour party, I’ll probably still vote Labour at the next general election. But that is my choice and I am making it. And these putative members of some alliance that I’ll have no say in could fuck right off if they presume that my vote is not mine but instead should — and does — belong to a cartel of different parties who have deigned that they are able to decide it for me, and have as such divvied it up amongst themselves because they know what’s best for me. The sheer entitlement of these, frankly, no-hoper parties pushing this stupid idea actually offends me. How dare they?

And if I — someone who actually understands the basis of this idea and the mechanics behind it — object to it this vociferously, what do you think will be the response of an ordinary voter who has just heard that due to some backroom stitch-up, they can no longer vote for their preferred party? As I say above — some people will just not vote. Others will vote against the “progressive” party chosen for them by voting Tory, protest voting or spoiling their ballot. This collection of parties will have made it plain that they see their voter bases as sheep to be herded into whatever pen they choose, too stupid to make a decision unaided without their guiding wisdom, and I don’t think they quite get just how badly this will go down. The Tory attack lines write themselves, and recent history has proven that there is absolutely no attack more resonant with a population that considers politicians to be basically scum than “they think you are stupid and can’t make your own decisions”.

All told, this whole thing smacks of the “revoke Article 50” discourse from late 2019, and this is not surprising because it frequently comes from the same people — people so sick of consistently losing the game that they want to change the rules so that they always win. The problem then as now is that they don’t seem to clock that other people can see what they are doing and why they are doing it, and that their motives are a lot more transparent than they think they are. People did not like being told that their votes in the 2016 referendum were only advisory and that we could just annul them with the stroke of a pen, and they will absolutely not like the implication that the only reason why the Tories keep winning is because they have been allowed too much independent thought.

So please, for the love of Christ, stop pushing this snake oil. If you want to advocate for tactical voting, or for people to vote for whatever party you would like them to even if not the most optimal choice, go right ahead. Or you could consider interrogating and investigating the many structural and political reasons why people vote the way that they do, and think of ways in which these can be overcome. But do not presume to tell them that they should have that choice taken away from them, because they will most forthrightly, and very correctly, tell you en masse to fuck right off.

  1. Of course, you could potentially have a Labour Party that wants both PR and a progressive alliance, but the only route you’re getting to that is basically just having Clive Lewis as leader. And if you think the Lib Dems would stand down for Clive Lewis, one of the earliest and most enthusiastic left-wing Corbyn-supporting MPs, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
  2. It’s also worth noting that the parties and people most gung-ho for a “progressive alliance” don’t seem to notice that they could in most cases achieve a similar end by just standing down their own parties unilaterally in any seats they don’t already hold and making every seat a true two-horse race. Oddly, they seem reticent to do this, which rather raises questions as to their true motivations.
  3. Remember that if people were willing to compromise their own beliefs and moral codes in order to prevent the Tories winning elections, this entire concept would be unnecessary.
  4. This was added following Wren-Lewis’ tweet on the 25th November 2021. I think this speaks to one of the real ideological voids at the heart of the progressive alliance — the assumption that voters themselves have no internal agency and instead vote with a single-minded zeal against another party, whereas in reality peoples’ reasons for voting for or not voting for a particular party are likely to be complex and somewhat arbitrary, if not entirely inscrutable.
  5. Those who see such an alliance as an opportunity to get Lib Dem (or Green) policies through Parliament would be wise to consider what last happened when such a thing was in the offing.
  6. I added this on the 14th October 2021 as it comes up a lot. I do appreciate that this isn’t an argument against an alliance per se, but the people who want an alliance frequently specify obtaining PR as one of their goals for one, so it is worth dealing with.
  7. This was added on the 16th October 2021 following this rather astonishing tweet from an actual pollster who has apparently forgotten that voters are not like toy soldiers you can scoop up and move to wherever you want at your convenience, but are instead independent agents whose belief systems are frequently incoherent, syncretic messes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.