Forming a pact with the Liberal Democrats to form a ‘Progressive Alliance’ would make electoral sense in England – but Keir Starmer does not see it as a risk worth taking.
First published: Sept 2022.
“We can’t work with them. We won’t work with them. No deal under any circumstances.” So said Labour leader Keir Starmer of the Scottish National Party during his 2022 party conference speech.
Starmer was nixing any suggestion that his party could join forces with the SNP in an electoral alliance to defeat the Conservatives at the next election. Speculation on the matter stems from the electoral maths following the Conservative Party’s huge victory in 2019. To win in the next election, Labour needs a 10.52% swing – higher than Tony Blair achieved in 1997. Even then it would have a thin majority. There are any number of other scenarios in which Labour ends up the largest party but fails to win enough seats to govern alone.
The SNP holds many seats in Scotland so the deal in its case would be some kind of post-election government pact. But this would necessarily involve Labour promising a second independence referendum and Starmer insists he will not be dictated to by Nicola Sturgeon.
With that possibility off the table, thoughts might therefore turn to England, where a pre-electoral alliance with the Liberal Democrats seems the most obvious solution. The only sure-fire kind of formal electoral alliance is one where a political party decides not to stand a candidate to clear the path for another candidate from a different party.
Politics since 1918 has been dominated by the Conservatives, in the sense that they have won more general elections than Labour. Maybe the time has come for the left to wise up and put aside the narcissism of small differences to create a new broad coalition. Why should Labour and the Liberal Democrats stand candidates against one another when the result will be a split in the progressive vote that can only benefit the Tories?
Framed in this way, the possibility of a progressive victory seems more achievable. Indeed, Compass, the political think-tank, has been calling for a rainbow alliance. Labour needs the Liberal Democrats to take some Tory seats in England that it will never be able to take by itself.
Labour owes its very existence as a major player to an electoral pact with the Liberals that allowed it to take 29 seats in the 1906 election. That, however, does not mean it is particularly open to the idea now, for quite a few reasons.
Bad blood collides with first past the post
A serious objection to the idea of a progressive alliance is that it reduces democratic choice. If a Liberal Democrat living in an area likely to be taken by Labour wishes to vote for Ed Davey’s party, he or she should have the right to do so. It is perfectly respectable to say that a vote should be a declaration of one’s personal beliefs rather than an instrumental gesture designed to secure a particular kind of government.
Another objection is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are not the same. If they were, they would have merged a long time ago. There is a lot of bad blood between the two parties. Memories of the latter’s time in coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015 are still fresh. Labour activists do not forget that Davey was a minister in a Tory-dominated government that introduced austerity measures.
There have always been Liberal Democrats (like the former party leader Nick Clegg) who have seemed more attuned to working with Tories. I have been struck over the years by the number of people in the Labour Party who will be perfectly polite when conversing with Tories (though disagreeing with them) but will refuse to give Liberal Democrats the time of day because of the alleged dirty tricks they pull in electioneering.
Liberal Democrats would argue that many Labour people do not understand their focus on the importance of freedom and liberty. They would also point to the disaster of the Iraq War when Labour was in power. Certainly, the Liberal Democrats have always been divided between those who lean towards Labour and those who do not.
Then there is the question of proportional representation. In exchange for agreeing to an alliance, the Liberal Democrats would almost certainly insist that the electoral system is reformed to break the dominance of the two biggest political parties, both of whom benefit from a first-past-the-post system in which the candidate with the most number of votes takes the parliamentary seat, regardless of whether those votes amount to a majority of the overall total.
Labour party members voted at their 2022 conference in favour of such reform. Starmer, however, says it is “not a priority” and looks set to ignore the will of his party on the matter.
Labour has, by and large, backed first past the post because it seems the best route to ensuring that the party can get into office and implement its programme without compromise or trade-offs. And while recent research showed a majority of the public now support electoral reform, the fact remains that it is low down on the list of priorities even for those who feel positively about it. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, Starmer does not see it as a risk worth taking.
The prospect of a pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats therefore appears vanishingly thin. But those hoping for a less formal mutually beneficial relationship should not despair. Such an alliance is already happening among an electorate that has, over time, become more sophisticated when it comes to tactical voting.
In the 1997 election, Labour and the Liberal Democrats succeeded in creating a pincer movement around the Tories, delivering a landslide for Labour. While recent attempts have been less successful, the wider electoral picture has been less favourable than it is now. Since 1997, a wealth of websites have sprung up to help people vote tactically without any formal assistance from their parties.
At the next election, the left’s best bet is some kind of informal form of tactical voting to gain traction. Don’t expect Labour and the Liberal Democrats to make any overt statements to that effect, but look out for them discretely abandoning routine attacks on each other, except on a token basis.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Rohan McWilliam, Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University and co-director of the Labour History Research Unit.
- Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 30 September 2022. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Instagram/UK Parliament. - Sir Keir Starmer. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)