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24 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:30am

Why a progressive alliance pact would be a disaster for the left

Voters aren’t transferable blocks for party leaders to arrogantly move around like pieces on a chessboard. 

By Tim Farron

As we sit in between the by-elections of Chesham and Amersham last week (17 June) and Batley and Spen next week (1 July), there has been an abundance of talk about the potential of a so-called progressive alliance – an agreement between the centre-left parties not to field rival candidates, in order to consolidate the progressive vote and maximise the chances of defeating the Tories.

An important thing to note before we start is that no one outside the political bubble has the foggiest idea about what “progressive” means. It is exclusive, meaningless insider jargon.

Moreover, while most of the talk on progressive alliances is well intentioned (at least it is if you think that defeating Conservatives is a good intention), it is based on fundamentally flawed understandings of how voters think and behave.

So, from an unofficial Liberal Democrat perspective, here is why I think formal pacts do more harm than good.

First, voters do not do what “their” parties tell them to.  They aren’t transferable blocks for their leaders to arrogantly move around like pieces on a chessboard. People have this peculiar habit of thinking for themselves. For instance, the leader of the Conservative Party in 2016 told his voters to vote Remain – but they didn’t, did they?

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If the Lib Dems stood down in Batley and Spen, as some on the left are suggesting, it would be both foolish and arrogant to think that we could simply command our supporters to vote Labour. Many would actually vote Conservative. The Liberal Democrats are unique among centre-left parties at the moment, in that we seem to be able to attract voters from the Tories (essential if anyone is to ever defeat them), rather than just cannibalising other “progressive” votes. That means there are many people who would stop voting Conservative to support us who wouldn’t support another centre-left party. If we stood aside, those voters would simply revert to the Tories.

Second, there are many reasons why people vote Conservative – and one of them is disdain for the Labour Party. What do we think would happen to a Liberal Democrat candidate for whom the Labour Party formally made way? They would be tainted as the “Labour-backed Lib Dem” (which would be repeated on every Conservative leaflet), thus frightening all those moderate Conservatives back into the fold.

A formal pact between Labour and the Lib Dems would simply make us less than the sum of our parts, and reduce our chances of defeating the Conservatives. It’s a nice idea, but a counterproductive one.

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A third factor to consider is the role of the Greens. They have a problem: if you look at their strength in parliamentary seats, there is no serious prospect of them gaining any MPs without taking a seat off Labour. There are no genuine prospects of them defeating Conservatives.

I don’t point this out to criticise the Greens, just to say that their role in any kind of electoral understanding will be asymmetrical, and will seem unfair to them. When Greens stand in Tory seats – as they did energetically in Chesham and Amersham – they mostly take votes from whichever of the Lib Dems or Labour have the best chance of defeating the Conservatives. So when they stand down – as they generously did in my seat (Westmorland and Lonsdale) last time – they have a positive impact. The problem is that under the first-past-the-post system, there really isn’t anything to give them in return – other than helping those of us who can beat Tories and who believe in electoral reform to win and thus help change the system to help them.

We should also not be so naive as to ignore the fact that centre-left parties think quite different things. The moderate wings of Labour and the Greens have much in common with the Liberal Democrats for example, but their Marxist wings certainly don’t. As for the SNP, it may be broadly centre-left but its single overriding aim is to take Scotland out of the UK. Presenting the UK as an irretrievable disaster is its ambition, not rescuing it as part of some benign progressive love-in.

So, what’s the answer? We don’t need to look too far to see it – as far as 1997 to be precise. 

The Blair-Ashdown entente was not a formal pact. It was instead an understanding. Labour would minimise activity in Lib Dem-Conservative marginals, and Lib Dems would do the same in Labour-Conservative ones. Our messages critiquing the Conservative government were complementary.  You only need to look at the results of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections to see how effective that tacit strategy was.

Conversely, in 2019, Labour invested huge amounts of financial and human resources in seats where only the Liberal Democrats could beat the Conservatives – it even did so in my seat, where the party lost its deposit. In next-door Barrow and Furness, meanwhile, Labour lost a seat to the Conservatives. This approach led to more Tory MPs, not fewer. It was the opposite of the Blair-Ashdown strategy, and it was a disaster.

Progressives need to be much more intelligent and non-tribal in our targeting. Labour’s decision to send 40+ of its MPs to help its candidate in Chesham and Amersham shows it has so far failed to learn this lesson.

One final caveat is this: in 1997, 2001 and 2005 Labour was led by Tony Blair and was able to appeal to millions of voters who might otherwise vote Conservative.

The current Labour Party is in a different place. Keir Starmer has many qualities and I wish him well, but he and his allies must understand that their task is not to “do a Blair” but instead to “do a Kinnock” and transform the party in the eyes of the electorate. We Lib Dems have many difficulties to overcome, but they are broadly related to credibility and relevance (hugely helped by last Thursday’s result). Labour’s big problem is having a brand that is repellent to so many. This toxicity infects other progressive parties in England and drives voters back into the arms of the Conservatives. A Labour Party that desires to understand the British people rather than to rebuke them is the essential ingredient in making any “progressive” collaboration bear fruit.

In short, progressive parties need to work together, but they should do so informally, intelligently and effectively – not in a ham-fisted, formal and counterproductive way.