Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?

We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

March 21, 2017
4 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


  share     tweet  

The idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ – tactical electoral agreements between broadly centre-left and left-nationalist forces – has been widely trumpeted recently within and beyond the ranks of the Labour Party. In one sense this is an understandable outcome of the growing convergence of political platforms involving Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, the Greens, the nationalist parties and – more controversially – the chastened and diminished Lib Dems under Tim Farron.

The areas of disagreement, the argument runs, are less significant than the ground we share in opposing the Tories (or UKIP). Many in the Labour Party would instinctively feel closer to, say, Mhairi Black of the SNP than to their ‘own’ Liz Kendall. Why would we reinforce exaggerated tribal hostilities when it is in our mutual interests to make accommodations with each other to maximise the anti-Tory vote? To that extent the argument appears compelling.

However, how are we to understand what constitutes the boundaries of what is considered ‘progressive’, and which social demographic is being targeted? The Richmond Park by-election as a test case revealed a more problematic aspect to the ‘progressive alliance’ agenda. Forces around the left think-tank Compass and the Greens’ national leadership argued for turning the by-election into a mini-referendum on the issue of leaving the EU, by swinging behind the Liberal Democrats as best placed to beat former Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.

We might question whether it was ‘progressive’ to take the heat off Theresa May on the issue of Heathrow expansion by insisting that the politics of Brexit was a more important issue. Equally, we might argue that in effectively reducing the choice on offer to the Tories or their former coalition partners, the ‘progressive alliance’ approach would have meant taking an anti-austerity alternative off the ballot paper and giving misplaced credibility to the idea that the post-Clegg Lib Dems are worthy of support. This amnesia is surely easier for the denizens of leafy Richmond Park than for those who suffered directly from the bedroom tax or punitive benefit sanctions that Tim Farron’s party facilitated.

And where does this logic end? Would it be ‘progressive’ to support a pro-European Tory against a pro-Brexit Labour candidate? Would it be progressive to support a Tory advocate of a soft Brexit against a UKIP candidate?

What often lies behind the appeal to a form a ‘progressive bloc’ is an implicit belief that it is no longer possible – or desirable – to build an electorally significant force at the same time as representing working-class interests. The predominantly white working class in the former industrial heartlands is especially liable to be treated as though it no longer represents a constituency worth appealing to. The anger and alienation of these communities finds no reflection in a smug, professional liberal elite that barely conceals its disinterest or contempt for people it condemns as inherently racist, reactionary or stupid.

In place of Labour’s founding aspiration to represent working-class people and build a wider, electorally successful project around their interests has grown a desire to realign the middle class with socially liberal public sector workers, city dwellers and students. The effect is to push huge sections of communities who traditionally voted Labour – in places like Sunderland or Burnley – into the arms of the right, and sometimes far right.

The Brexit result and the victory of Trump are both reactions to this colonisation of ‘progressive’ politics by forces with neither experience of, nor interest in, the lives of people outside their own liberal bubble. Any alliance that simply represents a realignment of these forces across party boundaries would only at best forestall the pace at which sections of the working class desert their ‘progressive’ assumptions.

For Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, any political alliance should be judged by how far it corresponds to the interests of working-class communities. To be sure, any such project will need to reach out and solidify a bloc of support with other social strata, including liberal professionals. But without this base, it is surely destined to be destroyed.

What we need is not an alliance around amorphous ‘progressive’ values – especially if that means continuing to ignore the wider electorate that voted for Brexit. Instead, we need an anti-austerity alliance, in which the precondition for any agreement is a commitment to standing up to the bosses and bankers to deliver a significant boost to living standards.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power


26