The Last Thing Labour Needs Is a “Progressive Alliance”

The Liberal Democrats’ by-election victory in a seat long held by the Tories has fed talk of an electoral pact between Labour and the Lib Dems. But Labour needs to be rebuilt as a party of the working class — not just another brand of vaguely defined progressives.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer leaves a polling station after casting his vote in local elections in London on May 6, 2021. (Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images)

Last night, Labour won a dismal 1.6 percent support in the Chesham and Amersham by-election — down 11.2 percent from 2019. The party’s paltry 622 votes were a humiliation for Keir Starmer, if not a fatal blow to his ailing leadership. In truth, Labour has never done well in this seat; the Liberal Democrats were always going to be the Tories’ main challenger, and even this party’s ultimate victory — winning the seat on a 30 percent swing — ought to be seen against the backdrop of its low nationwide support. Labour’s recent defeat in Hartlepool and the risky July 1 by-election in Batley and Spen will surely do more to define Starmer’s chances of remaining leader.

Yet the Liberal Democrats’ victory could help fuel one narrative touted by some Labour-aligned commentators in recent months — a “progressive alliance” to outflank the Tories and even change the electoral system. This would help overcome a real injustice: while Boris Johnson’s Conservatives poll in the low 40 percent range, the first-past-the-post system rewards them with a massive majority in Parliament; meanwhile, their various left and centrist opponents (Labour, Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, Greens) lose out despite their higher combined support. If Labour has no chance of winning a seat like Chesham and Amersham, then why split the progressive vote and risk letting the Tories win?

Guardian columnist John Harris argues that the fragmentation of old electoral blocs makes this a necessity: after last night’s result, he predicted a future for English politics where Lib Dems and Greens are “parties of the suburbs/commuter towns/hipster enclaves,” “Labour the party of cities,” with the “Tories a coalition of shires & post-industrial towns.” Scottish National Party dominance in Scotland, or even independence, can almost be taken for granted. Similarly, after Labour voters apparently choosing to back the Lib Dem over the Tory in leafy Chesham and Amersham, Paul Mason declared that the “#ProgressiveAlliance is already happening, whether the Labour bureaucracy likes it or not” — a confirmation of his prognosis that this is Starmer’s only path to power.

Progressive, but Anti-Socialist

So far, so convincing. But here we get to a problem: what defines “progressive”? Since the Greens only hold one seat, the main partner for Labour in this alliance would be the Liberal Democrats. What are their politics, and how compatible are they with socialist ones? Overall, we can at least say that most Lib Dems are more socially liberal than most Tories (though one recent leader had trouble telling if gay sex is a sin). Yet the Liberal Democrats are also an obviously free-marketeer party with a recent record pushing through austerity measures (as well as voting to triple tuition fees during its coalition with David Cameron). In the 2019 general election, the party proposed more austere spending plans than even the Tories. It seems that partisans of a Progressive Alliance see this party as progressive mainly because it wanted to overturn Brexit.

One need not have a high opinion of the Lib Dems to think they are less bad than the Tories. And claims that Jeremy Corbyn came within a few thousand votes of forming a government in 2017 assume that he could have formed a coalition with them (as well as Scottish and Welsh nationalists and other small parties). And as Jeremy Gilbert points out on Politics Theory Other, the divide in British politics between those who want to redistribute power and wealth and those who don’t runs through the Labour Party itself. Labour is itself a cross-class alliance including pro-austerity, pro-imperialist politicians. Even when the Left captured the leadership of the party from 2015 to 2020, it was full of MPs explicitly hostile to Corbyn. Would an electoral pact with Lib Dems really be so different? For Mason, even a government including centrist elements would provide more space for social movements to fight for real change.

Yet such an approach risks seeing only today’s electoral arithmetic while overlooking the dangers of the Left embracing a liberal identity. This isn’t just a matter of the handful of seats where Lib Dems could win but the effect of such an alliance on Labour’s national project. Since its foundation at the turn of the twentieth century, Labour has always been a party of socialists, liberals, and trade unionists. Up until the 1980s, the trade unions were usually not on its left wing, but surely did entrench it in working-class organizing and provide the majority of its MPs. In more recent decades, the Blairite takeover, the withering of trade union membership, and the NGOization of the Left have all helped undermine these ties. Ironically, the introduction of primaries did lift Corbyn to the top of the party in 2015. But efforts to rebuild the party’s more deeply rooted presence in working-class communities were much more difficult, in part because of the efforts of some instead seeking to turn Labour into a party of people striving to overturn the Brexit referendum.

Already in the Corbyn era, we saw that this rival effort to reshape the party served to weaken Labour’s distinctive claim (however rhetorical and partial) to stand for a broad working-class interest that could transcend the Brexit divide. In 2019, calls to form a government including Labour, Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, and pro-EU Conservatives consistently sought to rally Labour MPs behind a government that would cancel Brexit or call a second referendum, perhaps led by Commons speaker John Bercow or a liberal Tory like Ken Clarke. Like the Continuity Remain campaign’s dubious democratic propriety, such a parliamentary pact would also be a weapon for overriding Labour’s own internal democracy and its chosen leader. Here, Labour would have devoted its bulk of numbers to a Remain alliance, while agreeing not to impose its own political agenda. If Corbyn was already constrained by the right wing of the Labour Party, Lib Dem pressure sought to oust him immediately.

Precisely the danger of the Progressive Alliance — with Labour forming an enduring or permanent pact with the Lib Dems — is this effect in unbalancing the party toward just one part of its potential electoral coalition, seeing “progressivism” rather than class politics as the unifying force able to mobilize the social majority. Already with the French Socialists and ex-Communists in Italy, we have seen once-mighty parties with sizeable working-class support turn into a mere rump in their failed bid to dissolve their electorate and replace it with the liberal middle classes. Rather than provide a galvanizing project for society, this approach mirrors existing culture-war divides. Especially glaring, in this regard, is the way in which leftish pundits nearing retirement age today lecture us on young voters’ supposed obsession with cultural issues or “identity politics,” even though under 40s massively backed Corbyn because of policies on housing and jobs, ignored the siren song of ultra-Remain parties, and then disengaged from Labour under Starmer’s leadership.

Proportional Representation

The Progressive Alliance supporters have a point that, in the abstract, proportional representation (PR) is fairer than first past the post. Yet the demand raises skepticism on much of the Labour left — and with good reason. At a time when the party’s connection to working-class voters is so precarious and its identity in crisis, PR seems likely to only hasten its unraveling. Worse, the proposed means of arriving at PR (an electoral pact with the Lib Dems, Greens, and others) splits Labour’s own electoral coalition in advance. Since Labour has around four times more members than the Lib Dems, it also seems difficult to imagine how it would be decided which seat “belongs” to each party; the Lib Dems are, after all, infamous for distorted bar charts claiming that only they can “beat the Tories” (for other seats, “keep out Labour”) in this or that seat.

Had Corbyn’s Labour ever been in a position to form a government, we’d have seen how progressive the Lib Dems really are: this would, at least, have been clarifying about who this party actually represents. Many Lib Dem and Green voters are potential Labour voters, and the fact that Starmer is shedding votes to them as well as failing to turn out older Labour voters shows how much the party is suffering from its bland managerialism. The call for a Progressive Alliance assumes we’re stuck with this — institutionalizing the grip of soggy liberalism over what was once at least supposed to be a workers’ party. It takes for impossible the approach that Corbyn advanced in 2017, focused on mobilizing usual nonvoters and overcoming the Brexit divide, and instead presents as forward-thinking a strategy already tested to destruction by almost every center-left party in Europe.

The idea that pluralism demands an alliance with liberal centrists is especially damaging at a time when Johnson’s Tories are demagogically posing as the party of jobs and investment — including in areas hit by the austerity enacted by the Tory–Lib Dem government of the early 2010s, as well as Thatcher-era deindustrialization. The seat won by the Lib Dems last night is, in this sense, a poor guide to the national picture. It is on the wealthier end of the spectrum — it ranks 531 out of 533 in England for deprivation — and the Lib Dem campaign heavily focused on NIMBYism, claiming that it presented the sharpest opposition to the HS2 high-speed rail project crossing through London. While running Labour candidates in seats like Chesham and Amersham may seem a lost cause, Lib Dems like this aren’t going to be voting for socialist policies in Parliament either.

The Corbyn years, with the oft-revolting Parliamentary Labour Party, the push to commit the party to a suicidal second-referendum policy, and the constant attacks on even mild social-democratic policies, show that Labour is already too much like the Progressive Alliance. For decades, the balance of power has tipped away from its residual working-class base toward its liberal MPs; the last few years showed, at least, that we can push back against this. This offers no guarantee of success; throughout history, even great workers’ parties have been shut out of power for decades. But at least they gave working-class people a political voice of our own, rather than tell us that there is nothing beyond the culture war.