On balance, Labour should reject a progressive alliance
Had Labour stood aside in some key marginal seats in the recent UK general election, it is likely that Corbyn would be PM. Think Tank Compass has suggested that the Tories would have lost up to 62 seats, pointing to constituencies like Richmond Park, where the Lib Dems missed out to Zac Goldsmith thanks to a few thousand Labour loyalists who refused to switch. Writing in today's Independent, Andrew Grice is sold on the idea of a future progressive alliance between the opposition parties:
"There are good reasons why Corbyn should reach out to other progressive parties. Although the divided Tories are in a terrible state, their hunger for power will ensure they unite behind a new leader for the next election. Their campaign then cannot possibly be as bad as Theresa May’s. Labour’s claim to be a government-in-waiting will be tested in a way that it was not at this month’s election – notably, on the economy and on Brexit (where its policy remains very sketchy)."
"Although Corbyn turned the tables on his Blairite critics by increasing Labour’s support among the middle class, the Tories made dangerous inroads among working class voters Labour needs to win back. It would be ironic if 2017 proves to be “peak Corbyn” and the Blairites then accused him of losing Labour’s traditional supporters – the left’s charge against New Labour."
While there might well be some merit to the idea, a progressive alliance is not guaranteed to work. For a start, the working class voters for whom Grice refers seldom vote Liberal Democrat. And for every Richmond Park there was an unexpected Labour surge in a random area. With a volatile and unpredictable electorate, prioritising tactical voting implies we are darn sure which party is on its way up and which is on its way down. Everyone knows the answer in hindsight. All that we do know is that uniqueness is trumping blandness. Corbyn represents the former; a rag-tag of MOR Lib Dems the latter.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Reigate, a safe Conservative seat, where Labour has come from nowhere to finish second, helped no doubt by the activation of younger voters who liked what Labour had to offer. Had the party candidate stood aside to back the Lib Dems, who finished second in 2015, would those students have been as motivated to turn out, and to lend their support to a party that acquiesced over higher uni fees? Would the Labour Party have gained a foothold, a potential to win a hitherto unwinnable seat, with an army of committed volunteers, traipsing the streets of, yes, Surrey of all places? What seemed illogical a few weeks ago – that the Labour Party should even consider standing in such a place as Reigate – now appears incredibly smart.
There is also the problem with campaign style. An alliance to oust a common enemy invariably results in a negative campaign, and for all the scepticism surrounding the intelligence of voters, I am unconvinced that general elections are won out of hate. Fear, yes; hope, sometimes... if there is a politician daring enough to invoke it. Yet if all that is offered up is a promise to boot the buggers out, then voters are entitled to ask 'for what alternative?’ Labour made inroads in this last election precisely because it had, after long years of vacuity, an answer to that question. In doing so, it showed another potential route to power – inspiration rather than amalgamation.
Indeed, rather than support non-radical parties such as the Liberal Democrats, Labour should instead continue to support radical ideas. One such idea is adopting PR for Westminster elections, so that, without fear of letting in the candidate they dislike, everyone could vote for who they want.