Last Friday evening, when most people were spending quality time with their families or sucking up to the boss in a pub, delegates at the Green party conference in Birmingham were thrashing out the possibility of a “progressive alliance” of left-wing groups.
The party’s new co-leader, Caroline Lucas, is adamant that a cross-party electoral alliance with other left wing groups to defeat the Tories is an idea whose time is approaching. And it is not only the Green leadership which is pushing the proposal. Labour’s shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis has also called for activists on the left to unite, stating it is “the only way we can beat the Tories”. But his boss, Jeremy Corbyn, is lukewarm about a formal alliance.
Lucas insists he has not closed the door on the idea. Team Jezza may or may not be talking to Team Green, but at a grassroots level the conversation appears to be one-sided. In Brighton and Hove, where Lucas is the Green’s sole MP, the activists are upbeat, while Labour members are less enthused.
Davy Jones stood as the Green party candidate in Brighton Kemptown at the general election. His Labour opponent was Nancy Platts, who now works in Corbyn’s Westminster office. The Conservative candidate, Simon Kirby, narrowly held the seat, and Jones believes the result would have been very different if votes had been given the choice of only one left-of-centre candidate. He argues that the result has lessons for other areas.
He said: “The Brighton Kemptown seat is totemic. It was a very close result and it was interesting to see that Nancy and I were very close in our thinking. I had to keep reminding her during the campaign that what she was saying was not the view of the national Labour Party at that time. Some Labour members wrote angry emails to me after the result to say I had lost the seat for Nancy. I don’t think I did, but I do think it is a constituency where one left of centre candidate could win.
“A progressive alliance has to be looked at seriously. It’s a very delicate issue. It is very difficult for Labour party members to speak honestly at the moment.
“The Green party has got a lot of support that is not translating into seats. If people did not take silly short term views on this, then we could persuade people the old way of doing things has to go. I like the idea of open primaries, events where people discuss their views on a progressive alliance and afterwards the politicians may have to take a hard look at themselves and decide not stand if the alternative is another ten years of Tory government.”
Rob Shepherd, a Green party activist who stood unsuccessfully in Brighton’s 2015 council elections, cites research from Sussex Progressives which suggests that that an alliance could have snapped up 48 seats won by the Tories in 2015.
He said: “The key to all this is that Theresa May will not call a general election before the proposed boundary changes are in place. Those changes could see Labour lose 30 seats. A progressive alliance, with proportional representation at its heart, offers the chance of kicking the Tories off their perch. All the parties, other than Labour, can see the sense in this.”
This view gets short shrift through from Caroline Penn, who is an Owen Smith supporter and Labour councillor in Brighton and Hove. She summed up the idea of a progressive alliance in one word: “Pointless.”
She said that a progressive alliance around the promise of proportional representation was not attractive.
She said: “I don’t think it would offer any advantage to Labour. It is arrogant to assume that if there is no Labour candidate voters will just switch to the Green party. At a time of economic and political uncertainty, I’d be concerned about a political system that has been seen to give a platform for extreme fringe groups.”
Corbyn-supporter Greg Hadfield was elected secretary of the Brighton and Hove District Labour Party on July 9, only to see the vote annulled five days later pending an investigation into alleged irregularities with the ballot.
The former editor of Brighton and Hove Independent, Hadfield has been a harsh critic of Labour’s “moderate” element locally, but he too pours cold water on the idea of an alliance with the Greens.
He said: “It’s just not discussed in the Labour Party. There’s enough going on in the alliance that is the Labour Party never mind anything else. It throws up more questions than answers.”
Brighton has a deserved reputation as a place where the most off-the-wall ideas can receive a fair hearing. If Corbyn supporters in this most free-thinking of cities regard the progressive alliance as untenable, the project may well find itself in the same bin as Cameron’s Big Society and Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse – vanity projects which enthused the big cheeses, but simply failed to fly.