Earlier today it was reported that the Labour party expelled three long time members over their plans to ‘vote against Labour’ in order to unseat deeply unpopular health secretary Jeremy Hunt, by backing a local doctor running for the National Health Action party, who got 8% of the vote in 2015. South West Surrey, the constituency in question, has returned a Tory MP in every general election since it was created in 1983, and the Labour party has never gotten into double digit vote share, peaking at a mere 9.4% of the vote in 1997. So any Labour party candidate in the constituency is going to be more interested in honing their campaigning abilities and showing off what they can do to the party’s National Executive Council (NEC) than in anything else. Given that context, it makes sense why the local party would decline to run a candidate, except instead of doing that, the local party leaders who were expelled announced they would not be supporting the Labour candidate previously chosen to run for the seat. It is understandable that, given Labour’s rules, these three members would be kicked out, but it speaks to the absurdity of the Labour party that it managed to generate negative press for itself and now looks like it is sabotaging an attempt to unseat one of the most unpopular politicians in the country (possibly the only MP less popular than Jeremy Corbyn), who also belongs to a rival party.
There are several issues at play in the ‘progressive alliance’. The first is what exactly is progressive about it? It is absurd to consider the Liberal Democrats to be ‘progressive’ party, particularly given their record in the coalition government. Sure, their MPs voted for equal marriage, but so did much of the Conservative party, and while I appreciate that if anyone ever stands up in parliament to defend the right of adults to, say, get stoned and watch porn it will be a Lib Dem, that is more reflective of the backwardness of other parties than anything else. A progressive alliance in the UK will likely be akin to the US Democratic party in the 2016 election. The progressive alliance’s main message is ‘Tories suck, we’re not Tories, vote for us’, just as the Democrat campaign seemed to be variations on ‘Republicans sucks, we’re not Republicans, vote for us’. And we know how well that worked out [yes, I know Clinton won the popular vote but the popular vote doesn’t count]. While those statements may both be true, voters for whom anti-Toryism is a significant driver of their politics would already be voting strategically against the Conservative party.
The second issue is the larger barrier to a progressive alliance, that of the power of the party’s central executive. One of the few advantages of the first-past-the-post system is it provides opportunities for local democracy, representation and accountability. In theory, local party members can select their own candidates, depose incumbent MPs if they lose confidence in them, and expect to decide whether or not to even bother nominating anyone. Party politics is all about coalition building, and that can include with other parties. Instead, both Labour and the Conservatives run highly centralised operations, which results in things like the anti-EU (and anti-cycling, pro-foxhunting, UKIP-backed) Kate Hoey being the MP for one of the most pro-EU constituencies in the country. The fact that she has held to her job as an MP, despite being at odds with that vast majority of her constituents on the most important political cleavage in UK politics at the moment, is testament to the abject failure of constituency democracy within the Labour party.
Support for progressive alliance from within Labour is a failure of imagination. Of course both the Greens and the Lib Dems want a progressive alliance, they have the most to gain, especially if it is in a one-time pact to secure a more representative electoral system. Any proper progressive alliance would involve Labour declining to run in seats it has a not unreasonable chance in. And they should do that. Given how badly this election is going for the party, what else can Labour do but embrace failure? But the progressive alliance is not a useful way to advance any real political goal aside from (maybe) electoral reform. Anti-Toryism may be a big deal for much of the British Left, but as politics it is at best useless, and at worst prevents the Left from even attempting to win support away from the Right. But Labour has never won an election on its own merits and won’t win this one, so what other choice do they have?