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4 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 3:57pm

The dangerous dream: How a progressive alliance could split Labour’s left

A divide is developing between Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters regarding the idea of making pacts with the Greens, SNP and Lib Dems.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Support for a progressive alliance with other left-wing parties is going to be the next “big battle” in the Labour party, according to a source close to the leadership. But rather than widen the gulf between Jeremy Corbyn and his critics, this battle is set to split the party’s left.

Corbyn has dismissed the idea of electoral pacts, and insists that he is “committed to a Labour cause and position”. He is thought by some in the party and within Momentum to be less sceptical about working with other parties than “the people around him”, but he has so far been against such plans.

Such loyalty to a party is starting to appear old-fashioned – at odds with the fresh take on politics, and lack of tribalism, among some of his newest supporters. It also sets him against some influential Momentum insiders, his close ally in the parliamentary party Clive Lewis, and others who are committed to his project, such as the strategic adviser to the Jeremy For Labour campaign Jeremy Gilbert.

Building a progressive alliance is inextricably linked to campaigning for proportional representation. As traditional party allegiances fragment, and Labour looks increasingly less likely to win a majority, some on the left are keen to give voters a plural, “radical alternative” to vote for – without the hindrance of First Past the Post.

A lot of Corbyn supporters who I have spoken to since his first election – mainly young people who haven’t been party members before – see the Corbyn phenomenon as the required disruptive force to change the structure of British politics. Rather than a choice between a right-wing party, and what they see as a Labour party with diluted values, they want a left-wing force that doesn’t have to compromise.

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This is backed up by polling. YouGov found that a majority of Corbyn voters within the Labour selectorate are in favour of Labour working with the Greens (91 per cent), the SNP (73 per cent) and Plaid Cymru (71 per cent) in government, and 46 per cent would be happy to go into coalition with the Lib Dems:

Screengrab from YouGov. Click to enlarge. Original article here.

A number of the most active (and youngest, least politically-weathered) Momentum activists also have this view. Many see Corbyn as a symptom of a new shift on the left, rather than a cause – or even the desired leader they end up with.

Clive Lewis, shadow defence secretary and a Corbyn loyalist, is on the vanguard of Labourites in favour of a progressive alliance, and proportional representation. He echoes many of the new supporters’ views. “As a democratic socialist, one of the things about what’s happened in my party in the last year or so, it’s so often focused on Jeremy Corbyn,” he tells me. “But actually, he’s the surfer, not the wave. And it’s the wave that’s really important.

“Most people coming in, supporting Jeremy, are not hard left; they want to see politics done in a different way, and want to see the political system engage. They don’t have that tribal approach to politics, which means they’re more accepting to working with [other parties].

“Many of them may have even been in other parties, like the Greens or Lib Dems, and voted for those parties.”

Lewis and the Green MP Caroline Lucas have united on multiple platforms in recent months, calling for their parties and others to work together. This idea is backed by the soft-left think tank Compass, which is currently researching how to make a progressive alliance work electorally.

But many Corbyn allies are against the idea of a progressive alliance. The Labour leader himself doesn’t explicitly oppose scrapping First Past the Post, and has mulled over “top-up lists” to “even things out”, but has stopped short at pledging voting reform. He is always careful to underline the importance of the “constituency link” whenever the subject comes up. (By contrast, his ally and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who used to oppose voting reform, did a U-turn in May, and called on Labour to back PR.)

This caution stems from the view of Corbyn’s mentor, Tony Benn, that coalition, via some form of proportional representation, erases the chance of a strong socialist majority – and requires compromise. Benn argued: “In countries that have proportional representation, the electorate can only stir the mixture of political parties forming the governing coalition, but can rarely get rid of the whole bunch and replace them with others.”

He was also suspicious of voting systems involving lists drawn up by party HQs, once telling Neil Kinnock during an NEC meeting his fear that if Labour were to support such a system, he would be number 599 on the list, and Dennis Skinner 600. (Kinnock reportedly replied: “Would you like that in writing?”).

Some of Corbyn’s most important backroom operators share his concerns, such as Momentum chair Jon Lansman, and Rhea Wolfson, a Momentum-backed Scottish Labour activist on the National Executive Committee. In their eyes, proportional representation spells the end for majority Labour control, and only Labour – born of the trade union movement – can represent the interests of the working class.

Tribes and tribalism

Photo: Getty

Fresher faces in Labour politics like Lewis (pictured above) want to undo this tribalism. He sees a progressive alliance as “the only way you’re ever really going to be able to take on the establishment of this country”, and warns that failing to act on this could lose more voters to parties like Ukip.

“You ask the 3m people who left the Labour party from our working-class heartlands whether they feel how we’ve approached this has benefited them,” he says. “I don’t think they do, they’ve left in droves. And consequently they potentially may well turn to parties who are in many ways anathema to anyone on the progressive side of politics.

“So unless we grip this, unless we begin to understand the way that politics is fragmenting in our country, unless we actually approach this with a realistic, non-tribal kind of approach, then the problems we’re facing at the moment are going to be compounded.”

Is Lewis aware of how this could cause a rift between Corbyn and his supporters? “There are those on both the left and right of the party who find this very difficult,” he replies. “People have said to me, ‘if people can’t join the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn then they’re not progressive’. I think that’s very narrow, very naïve.”

Lewis is particularly frustrated by those in his party trying to monopolise what he sees as an emerging alternative movement. “One of the issues I have is people saying ‘we are going to build a social movement within one party’. Well, that’s a contradiction in terms. If you look at the environmental movement, if you look at the civil rights movement, if you look at any of the kind of great political movements in history, social movements in history – they cross political spectrums.”

He adds: “There will be people in the Labour party who say it’s got to be a Labour-led social movement. Well, it can be Labour-led. We are the biggest progressive political party in Western Europe – let’s lead it. [But] we have to open up that social movement to as many people as possible if we are to be successful . . . We’ve got to be more open, we’ve got to be more tolerant, we’ve got to try and put aside our differences as much as possible.”

Lewis isn’t alone in his frustration at Labour’s tribalism. MPs from across the party’s political spectrum are also putting pressure on Corbyn to back PR. Chuka Umunna and Johnny Reynolds have set up an all-party group on the subject.

Scottish Labour, though, could also put up barriers to cross-party alliances. The Scottish party is understandably horrified by calls from Westminster for an alliance between Labour and the SNP, having been so catastrophically defeated by the nationalists. Such a pact would basically mean writing off Scottish Labour. This partly explains Scottish Labour activist Rhea Wolfson’s scepticism about progressive alliances. Some also question categorising the SNP as a “progressive” party at all.

But progressive alliance advocates are having none of it. “To be quite frank, the SNP, if you’re going to call them some kind of neoliberal stooges, well, for a long time, the Labour party in Scotland was no less,” says one source on the left of the party, exasperated by Corbyn opposing a progressive alliance. “I’m struggling with how people can sit on the fence and say that.”

Other parties: allies or enemies?

Photo: Getty

Green party co-leaders Lucas (pictured above right) and Jonathan Bartley campaigned for the party leadership on a platform of forming progressive alliances with other “like-minded parties”. They won, but there are divisions within their party on the subject too. Lucas and her colleagues are looking at local electoral pacts (ie. agreeing not to split the left-wing vote in constituencies where they could block a Tory win), “non-aggression agreements” about funding for candidates in certain seats, joint candidacies, and running open primaries for selecting a “progressive” candidate.

For example, there was regret within the party that the Brighton area could have returned three non-Tory MPs if the left vote hadn’t split last election. Sources also site the neighbouring seat of Lewes, which the former Lib Dem minister Norman Baker lost to the Conservatives. The Isle of Wight is another area where they would like to try an electoral pact.

The Greens have seen a wave of support for these ideas from what one source calls “the non-tribal left” – people who have long had sympathy with Green values, and may have joined Labour since Corbyn took over. Even the general electorate seems pretty keen on the Greens as a partner; according to YouGov, 39 per cent believe they would be a positive influence in coalition. 

But the party would have to allow its members to vote on some of these changes to its rules, and Lucas admits “it is by no means a consensus position” among the Greens to support a progressive alliance. She would make PR a condition of forming such a partnership – her priority is to get Labour to write voting reform into its manifesto. Lucas calls this “the big prize” and “completely” a red line in negotiations.

She reveals that the Greens have approached Labour and other parties, and says the response from “people’s offices was at least to keep the door open” – but stresses that “we haven’t heard directly back from Jeremy”.

Lucas admits she’s also heard from “councillors who’ve worked together and found it an absolute nightmare, so we’re not underestimating the difficulty of challenging years of tribalism and distrust and so forth – that is very real. What we’re saying very clearly is: what is the alternative?”

The SNP is in favour of working with other parties, and has had conversations about alliances in the past (Nicola Sturgeon has appeared on joint platforms with Green and Plaid leaders in a show of unity against the Tories). It is also in favour of overhauling the voting system.

But its relationship with the Labour leader’s office is a strange one. A well-placed Westminster insider tells me “there is a dichotomy in Corbyn’s office. They are torn. Do they go hell-for-leather for the SNP? Are they allies or are they enemies? It’s a big argument in Corbyn’s ranks. They are reasonably closely aligned. They need the SNP [for winning votes in the Commons]. This is the heart of an internal party handling issue.”

The Lib Dems are a little different. Rather than deals or pacts, they’re open to working with progressives in any party on issues of mutual interest – voting reform, Europe, EU nationals in the Brexit debate, and refugees, for example. They look at delivering a “liberal outcome”, and if they can do that by working with other parties, then they will.

But they have found it more difficult to work with Labour of late. A Lib Dem source explains how they used to deal with the Labour whips’ office, get tip-offs on votes and engage in basic communication, both formally and informally. “Now there are no back channels,” I’m told.

The biggest question about Labour partaking in a progressive alliance is: what’s in it for Labour?

An electoral pact with the Greens may sound appealing to its new supporters, but is there a chance it could benefit Caroline Lucas more than Labour? It’s a way for her to secure her position, and perhaps to give candidates in Green-friendly seats a bit more breathing space to campaign.

Unless the Greens were absorbed into the Labour party, as a Co-op-style wing (a proposal that angered them from the anti-progressive alliance Momentum chair Jon Lansman), Labour purists who want to rule alone don’t see a huge amount to gain.

And that’s before you even consider the fraught idea of working alongside the SNP, and how damaging that would be to the Labour party’s relationship with its Scottish counterparts.

But Lewis believes it’s worth a try. “To do progressive alliance type politics under the First Past the Post system is always going to be a leap of faith,” he admits. “It’s always going to be difficult. [But] it’s not beyond the ken of political parties, politicians, from this side of politics, to be able to work out a system . . .

“I see what people say to me – you’re a traitor, the Labour party’s all we need. Well, we’ve got to get real.”

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