Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
A year ago, Keir Starmer was reeling from Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election. Boris Johnson was King in the North — and all set to capture the remaining parts of the Red Wall. Despite more than a decade in power, the Conservatives were stronger than ever and increasingly looking like a party of permanent government.
For some on the Left, there was one last hope: a “progressive alliance” between the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens (plus Plaid Cymru in Wales). Not splitting the anti-Tory vote was the only way of holding back the blue tide. There were a few hints from Starmer that he was entertaining the idea; but, in the event, nothing actually happened — at least not at a national level.
A year on from Hartlepool, Starmer’s caution appears to be justified. Indeed, he hasn’t had to do anything much. With a self-sabotaging government in power, the main opposition party can just sit back and passively absorb the benefits.
As long as he avoids a Beergate fine, the Labour leader can continue taking it easy — because things can only get more difficult for his opponents. The Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections loom, threatening to sow panic among northern and southern Tories alike. We also await the conclusion of three Partygate investigations — by the Metropolitan Police, Sue Gray and the Commons Privileges Committee. And after a long hot summer, there’s the threat of a “Winter of Disconnect” in which millions of households struggle to pay escalating fuel bills.
With all of that coming, does Labour still need a progressive alliance?
Absolutely it does. Just look at the local election results. In England, the Tories lost 342 seats, but Labour made a net gain of just 29. That’s compared to net gains of 61 for the Greens and 191 for the Lib Dems. Unlike New Labour in the run-up to the 1997, Starmer’s Labour is clearly not positioned for a landslide victory at the next general election. On current trends, we’re heading towards another hung Parliament or something quite close to one.
In this range of scenarios between a narrow Conservative majority and a narrow Labour majority, every seat matters. The outcome of a handful of contests could radically alter the nature of the next government. For instance, it could make all the difference between the Tories just about clinging on to power or spending years in opposition. Alternatively, the knife-edge might be between a comparatively cosy Lib-Lab coalition or a Labour-led government held to ransom by the SNP.
Therefore, there’s an overwhelming case for Labour to co-operate with the other centre-left parties in England and Wales. Indeed, there’s already been talk of secret deals between Labour and the Lib Dems.
However, it’s important to draw a distinction between a full-on progressive alliance and a mere agreement not to butt heads unnecessarily. The latter really won’t make much difference. Con-Lab and Con-Lib marginals tend to be in different parts of the country anyway so run-of-the-mill targeting already does most of the work of a deliberate deal. Much the same goes for tactical voting initiatives. If the fury of the Remainiacs wasn’t enough to unite the anti-Tory vote in 2019, then it’s hard to see why it would make an appreciably bigger difference in 2024.
British voters aren’t easily corralled, but there is one way to make them vote for the candidate most likely to beat the Tory — and that is leave them with no other choice. The only progressive alliance worth the name is one whose members agree to unite behind one candidate in each constituency.
A precedent was established in 2019 when the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru agreed to stand aside for one another in sixty seats across England and Wales. The deal worked after a fashion, but because Labour did not take part, its scope was limited.
But what about the alleged co-operation between Labour and the Lib Dems in last week’s local elections? Given the lowish number of Labour candidates in the South West and Lib Dem candidates in the North East, the Conservative Party Chairman, Oliver Dowden, suggested that a deal may have been made.
Of course, this wouldn’t be against the rules so one might ask why the Tory Chairman took the trouble to write to the Labour leader about the matter. Dowden’s goal may be to disrupt any any move towards a similar deal at the next general election. Indeed, the more that negotiations are forced out into the open, the harder it will be to conduct them at all.
While a progressive alliance would benefit its members, the path to any such agreement is a difficult one. For a start, it would have to involve more than two parties. An exclusive agreement between Labour and the Lib Dems could be taken advantage of by the Greens. So to stop the latter from free-riding, they’d have to be cut into the deal. However, that would mean offering them more than just a free run for Caroline Lucas — and I’m not sure that Labour would want the Greens escaping their Brighton playpen.
In fact, I doubt that Labour would want to step aside for the Lib Dems either, not in a Westminster election. Even in the kind of constituency where the reds have no chance, making way for David Cameron’s coalition partners would stick in socialist throats.
There’s also the matter of status. Labour is a major national party. It stands in every mainland constituency apart from the Speaker’s seat. A progressive alliance would most likely require it to stand down in dozens of seats. In doing so, it would become somewhat less than national — and not quite as major as the Conservatives. Could it ever bring itself to make that sacrifice — even for the greater good?
I’s here that we must note a certain irony. On paper, a progressive alliance makes perfect sense; but in practice, the British left is too selfish and short-sighted to make it happen.
Of course, this might just be the wishful thinking of a despairing Tory. But, if so, prove me wrong.