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18 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 4:59am

Why a progressive alliance is an electoral fantasy

Despite what many on the left assume, Lib Dem voters often split evenly between Labour and Conservative candidates when given the choice.

By Ben Walker

The stunning success of the Liberal Democrats in winning Chesham and Amersham from the Conservatives has set minds racing about the feasibility of a progressive alliance under which left-leaning parties would stand down candidates to help another left-leaning party, which would then, unhampered, carry the day. 

Both arithmetically and electorally, this idea is nonsense. It’s one promoted by those among the logged-on commentariat determined to focus on a single objective: beating the Conservatives.

This idea, however, falls at the first hurdle. Its advocates assume that the voters who opt for Britain’s varying progressive forces are enthused enough about this broader, more nebulous cause to obediently line up behind another anti-Tory party. In practice, however, it doesn’t work that way.

The notion of the Conservatives being an unambiguously toxic force might ring true for some left-wing readers but for the majority of the voters, such a feeling is not there and has not been for a great many years.

For instance, according to Ipsos MORI, during a period last year in which progressive parties commanded 56 per cent of public support, just 46 per cent of Britons had an unfavourable view of the Conservative Party.

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The results of recent mayoral elections, where voters can express first and second preferences, are instructive in terms of how likely a progressive alliance would be to get off the ground.

In the fight for the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoralty, 84 per cent of Lib Dem votes made a valid second preference, and of that, an impressive 73 per cent did back Labour. This is the clearest sign yet of the Lib Dems being effective movers of the political scene in a progressive direction. But the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough result was the exception, rather than the rule.

For example, in the election for the Durham Police and Crime Commissioner, 45 per cent of Lib Dem votes went Conservative. In Humberside, the share that went Tory was also 45 per cent. In Nottinghamshire, where 81 per cent of Lib Dem votes backed either the Conservatives or Labour, 38 per cent plumped for the Tories. 

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The net beneficiary in all these instances was Labour, but not by as much as the advocates of a progressive alliance might hope. Lib Dem voter loyalties are not shaped by anti-Tory sentiment but their own, more nuanced views. Simply put, far too many Lib Dems find Labour an unappetising option.

Due to the nature of first-past-the-post, there is also a basic arithmetical problem for a progressive alliance: many constituencies have majorities too big to overturn.

Chesham and Amersham does prove that during a by-election a significant number of Labour voters may back the Lib Dems. But this wasn’t enough, nor was the shift from the Greens to the Lib Dem. What got the Lib Dems over the line was winning unenthused Tory voters. 

There are 70-plus Conservative seats in England where the Lib Dems are in second place but in almost all of those, there are not enough Labour and Green votes to make up the shortfall. Regional differences within the UK also make neat voter exchanges between parties hard to predict.

Head to Scotland and the idea of progressive parties bandying together is all but a redundant one. Local election results show that Scottish Labour voters are just as willing to put the SNP as their second preference as they are the Scottish Tories. A clash between support for the Union and a desire for left-leaning policy makes the second preferences of Scottish Labour voters a messy affair indeed. But most importantly, it makes them unreliable bedfellows in the quest for a progressive alliance.

It’s also worth noting that 25 to 50 per cent of Scottish Tories put Labour candidates down as their second preference in council elections. As long as the Union continues to exist, a progressive alliance in Scotland is simply not viable.

Finally, there is a genuine risk that people simply won’t turn out to vote if the candidate from their preferred party is removed from the ballot paper. The hope that the electorate would turn out in similar numbers to vote for, in effect, their second preference is predicated on the assumption that the logged-off electorate have the same priorities as the logged-on – and they don’t.