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.