A Progressive Alliance is a win for the left

Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice

April 29, 2017
5 min read

Although the Labour Party has existed for over a century, only once have we actually come from opposition to win a convincing parliamentary majority.

No, it was not in 1945, when Labour had been part of the wartime coalition government for 5 years already.

The only time we have won a convincing mandate from opposition was in 1997.

In order to secure that victory, we had to win over the press and many powerful corporate allies, by promising to implement a programme which would never fundamentally challenge their interests.

And so once in government, we did just that.

Yes, it’s great that we introduced the minimum wage, Sure Start and built new schools. But we did it largely through PFI deals that handed power and profit to the private sector where once we had enjoyed universal public services.

In the meantime we let the inequality gap grow while the industrial regions rusted, because anything else would have been too expensive, and would have challenged the agenda of the City.

Now we can see where that has led: Brexit, and a 20-point poll lead for the Tories.

Let’s be clear what that means today. We have lost Scotland. The Tories are dominant and UKIP or a successor organisation pins us back in a swathe of seats.

The boundary review is going to deprive Labour of another 40 seats. There is simply no hope of a parliamentary majority for Labour under these circumstances.

Those of us advocating a progressive alliance strategy for Labour are responding to this stark reality.

The progressive proposition

The initial proposition of the progressive alliance strategy is simple.

There are literally dozens of Tory-held parliamentary seats wherein the combined vote for Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat and Plaid is significantly larger than the Conservative vote.

There are many key target seats for Labour where the Lib Dem/Green/Plaid vote is significantly higher than the Tory majority.

There are also many constituencies where Labour has no hope of ever taking the seat.

In many of those, the Labour vote is higher than the Tory majority over one of those other parties.

Under these circumstances, it makes sense to try to work towards local agreements which would see Labour and other parties of the left and centre stand down in each other’s favour.

This would only be in situations where those standing down have no hope of winning. It would only be in places where local party members supported the idea.

What Have the Liberal Democrats ever done for us?

The most common objection to this proposal is that it would mean co-operating with the Liberal Democrats, who are “are not progressive” or are “no different from the Tories”.

These kind of claims simply miss the point. The issue is not whether the Liberal Democrats are cool enough to be our best friends. The question is only whether we can work with them to beat the Tories.

The Liberal Democrats are what they are. They are not conservatives or socialists but centrist liberals, mild social democrats and social-liberals.

The Liberal party and the Liberal Democrats formed coalitions with the Tories in the 1930s and the 2010s, but they also supported minority Labour governments in the 1920s and the 1970s.

Indeed, the Labour Party only came into existence as an effective force in British electoral politics as a result of the anti-conservative alliance and pact of 1906, which saw Labour and Liberal candidates stand down in each other’s favour in key seats.

So what we are proposing is nothing new, but in fact the most normal way for Labour to achieve progressive goals.

Class lines

An objection which one often hears to the idea of a progressive alliance is that doing deals with Liberals or even Greens amounts to “crossing class lines”.

Even in strict Marxian terms, this is daft.

The Labour Party is hardly a pure workers party, but includes significant elements which are closely tied to key sections of capital (finance, defence, energy etc).

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats and Greens do not represent or have the backing of any significant section of the capitalist class, having their main social base among well-paid professionals and the more socially liberal and egalitarian sections of the commercial middle classes.

In strictly Marxian terms, it must be clear that the British working class is currently too weak, disorganised and demoralised to have any hope of mobilising autonomously against its enemies for the foreseeable future.

Without some form of coalition with the more progressive sections of the middle classes at least, there is no hope of defending what remains of the social democratic settlement or challenging the right’s desire to turn Britain into the world’s biggest offshore tax haven.

Supporters of the progressive alliance idea want Labour to retain a clear identity as the party of organised labour and the public sector.

But we are also realistic about the fact that in Britain in 2017, a party with a strong radical identity has no hope of winning an election without co-operating with other potentially sympathetic parties.

Our aim is not to drag Labour to the right, but to allow it to lead a progressive coalition from the left.

In fact this has almost always been the only way that Labour has been able to operate as a successful, reforming electoral force.

The sooner we remember that fact, the better.

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and
 Political Theory at the University of East London 
and a member of the Compass Management Committee. @jemgilbert

The Progressive Alliance: Why Labour need it can be viewed here.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace


68