The recent parliamentary by-election turned out to be something of a game changer. Not only did the Lib Dems defeat Tory-turned-‘independent’ Zac Goldsmith, but the Greens, by deciding to stand aside, demonstrated how a Progressive Alliance might work in practice. The idea is that parties with a broadly progressive policy agenda set aside their differences to strategically unite behind the candidate best placed to unseat the Conservatives. Following the result of the Richmond parliamentary by-election, I can picture officials from various parties, up and down the country, pouring over Excel tables and calculating whose candidates should Do The Right Thing and make way for someone else’s.
Given the current state of play, it’s likely that many of those encouraged to step aside will be Greens. But to be honest, it’s a big ask. So what do we need to bear in mind, and what are the potential risks?
In spite of the electoral system, the Greens have enjoyed sustained growth in support and membership. One of the reasons people vote for and join the Greens is of course the party’s distinct and cohesive policies, which are rooted in a comprehensive philosophical basis. But people might see fewer reasons to do so if the Greens’ short-term function appears to be making up numbers without making an impact. So it’s vital to draw some lines in the sand: establish the basic policies and positions that can’t be traded away. These would embrace both national issues (safeguarding a free, sustainable and public NHS, for example, energy policy and guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK) and local issues (e.g. air pollution, transport, public services). Naturally, other parties will do the same. If no consensus is achieved on these core issues, then local Greens will need to think very carefully indeed about potential fallout from conceding their basic positions, and the risk of overestimating willingness to vote on purely tactical grounds. Because policies do matter.
A while ago, my local Tory council decided to outsource a chunk of its services. The Labour group was fiercely critical of what it correctly described as a rotten deal, but at a public meeting stopped short of confirming its own principled commitment to maintaining public control of services come what may. So if the Greens had decided not to contest the subsequent local elections (at that time there was pressure from Labour to stand aside), would I have switched to Labour as the party most likely to unseat the Tories? On the basis of what I’d heard, not very likely.
Furthermore, some parties come with too much baggage. Richmond’s Lib Dem MP is a relative newcomer to her party, but have people really forgotten (let alone forgiven) the track record of the ConDem coalition? Personally, despite the change in leadership (for now), I still find it hard to imagine voting for Labour, the party that was not only in thrall to marketisation, but led Britain into an illegal war. I doubt I’m alone in finding it really difficult to ‘move on’ from that.
Let’s suppose there is a General Election. After extensive discussions at constituency level with other progressive parties — the Lib Dems and Labour, say (assuming the latter are on board) — and a series of intensive policy debates at local hustings, Greens and others feel able to unite behind the Lib Dem candidate. Thanks to similar strategic decisions across the country, the Lib Dems gain a number of seats. Elsewhere, Labour also benefit from alliances, but at the same time suffer at the hands of UKIP* and the SNP. As a result, the Conservatives remain the strongest party but, like Cameron in 2010, May lacks a majority and is forced to build a coalition: ConDem#2. My real concern in such a scenario is that Green voters who, probably against their better judgement, ‘held their noses’ and supported another candidate unopposed (even endorsed) by the Greens, would feel a terrible sense of betrayal. Post-election tactics is therefore something for an alliance to address (another line in the sand), but as the 2010 coalition demonstrated very swiftly, promises are made to be broken.
In addition to policy, there’s something else that draws people to the Greens: how the party does politics. Membership-driven democracy and local, grassroots activism are the essence of Green politics. It’s because of this that local parties are free to decide whether or not to support a Progressive Alliance — it’s not some top-down diktat. Nevertheless, the strategy’s implications reach far and wide; especially for a General Election, but also for local and by-elections. The pro-Remain Lib-Dem candidate captured the mood of her Richmond constituency, but the political climate will be quite different in other, Brexit-voting parts of the country. If another by-election is held, will local Greens feel obliged to follow the example of their colleagues in Richmond?
With so much at stake, there’s real need for a dialogue involving all branches of the party. Having this dialogue can not only provide valuable guidance, clarification and reassurance, but also ensure we uphold our commitment to democracy, both within and beyond the party.
‘no’ to a progressive alliance?
Despite the concerns outlined in this blog, I’m not actually opposed to a Progressive Alliance in principle. In fact I honestly believe that in a first-past-the-post electoral system, and in a time of such uncertainty and distrust, it can be a constructive, cooperative step towards restoring some balance (and civility) in politics. But just not at any price. So we should keep in mind two basic questions: does a proposed alliance genuinely stand up for the Green principles we believe in, those lines in the sand? And second, does it genuinely widen democratic choice? And that’s the big conversation we still need to have.
* Here I flag a warning from recent German elections, where the populist, anti-immigration AfD has displaced two centre-left parties (the Social Democrats and the Left Party) to become the largest party among working class voters.