The only way to win? Jeremy Corbyn and a Progressive Alliance
by Ian Sinclair
29 September 2016
With Jeremy Corbyn winning his second leadership election with an even bigger mandate than the first, it’s time to look ahead to the next General Election.
Unfortunately a number of factors make a victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party unlikely. First the scale of the Labour defeat in 2015 means Corbyn needs to gain more than 94 seats to win a majority. Second, the upcoming constituency review “will hit Labour hard”, according to analysis done by Tory peer Robert Hayward, with the possibility 30 Labour seats will disappear altogether. In addition, the government’s changes to the electoral register, requiring people to sign up as individuals rather than as households, will likely reduce the number of students and young people – two of Labour’s natural constituencies – eligible to vote.
One way of overcoming this depressing electoral math would be to set up a Progressive Alliance with some or all of the following: the Green Party, Plaid Cmyru, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. The proposition has gained traction in recent months, with the Green Party formally writing to Labour, Plaid Cmyru and the Liberal Democrats in June, inviting them to a cross-party meeting to explore the idea. Neal Lawson’s Compass think tank also supports an alliance, and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Lisa Nandy and Lib Dem Chris Bowers have just co-edited a book on the topic called The Alternative. Furthermore, a recent YouGov poll found Corbyn supporters would be happy to go into coalition with the Greens (91 percent of supporters), the SNP (73 percent) or Plaid Cymru (71 percent).
A Progressive Alliance could blossom in several different ways. At a minimum it could simply be a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in parliament, with members of the Progressive Alliance supporting Labour in motions of confidence and votes on spending. Alternatively, electoral deals could be negotiated whereby the chances of beating the Tory candidate is maximised – by not campaigning or standing candidates in certain constituencies, or by appealing to supporters to vote tactically, for example. In a recent report from the Greenhouse think tank the Green Party’s Rupert Read notes a couple of historical precedents for this: in 1906 the Liberal Party did not run anyone against the Labour candidate in several seats, and in 1997 there was an unofficial ‘non-aggression pact’ between Labour and the Lib Dems.
More radical still would be for the parties in the Progressive Alliance to hold primaries in local constituencies to decide on a single candidate to stand against the Tories – a suggestion made by Lucas.
Frustratingly, Corbyn has repeatedly ruled out the idea of a Progressive Alliance, saying he opposes a pact with Lucas’s Greens in Brighton and the SNP in Scotland. However, Lucas remains hopeful, telling the Guardian in August that Corbyn’s office have indicated they are open to talks about cross-party electoral alliances (she suggests Corbyn’s public statements should be read in the context of the Labour leadership election).
There are a number of reasons the Labour leadership and leftists everywhere should seriously consider a Progressive Alliance. As I mention above, it will be extremely difficult for Labour to win on its own. Second, it could be the catalyst for fixing our creaking First Past The Post system, with an alliance likely to throw up a number of forward-looking policies, including proportional representation, which is supported by the Greens and senior Labour figures including John McDonnell. For Corbyn’s leadership, support for an alliance would likely be transformative, a decisive taking of the political wheel away from the press and Labour politicians out to get him. It would, in short, be an example of the kind of leadership that would leave many commentators and politicians trailing in his wake, desperately playing catch up. An alliance led by Corbyn would also mean the leaderships and memberships of the Green Party, Plaid Cmyru, the SNP and Lib Dems would have a strong interest in supporting Corbyn’s leadership, creating much needed buy in at a time when a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposes him.
A successful alliance “requires some imagination, some breaking out of the old patterns of thinking, and a willingness to engage with people beyond the Westminster bubble”, argues ex-Green Party London Assembly Member Victor Anderson. With listening, negotiation and compromise surely also central to making any electoral pact work, Corbyn is arguably the perfect Labour politician to lead on this.
As the old political tribalism fades away, especially among younger voters, Corbyn and Labour have a choice: they can either move forward into the future or get stuck in the mud of old politics.
“It is time to take the bold step of considering such a pact, for the greater good”, Read urges. “The prize is democracy itself, not to mention getting rid of the Tories.”