The political landscape of the UK is in a state of flux. The unexpected general election and European referendum results have radically altered the makeup of the two main parties in the UK, the Conservatives and Labour. The general election of 2015 threw Labour into a period of soul-searching, and current leader Jeremy Corbyn has now moved Labour further to the left. The referendum result prematurely ended the Cameron government, and the new government, led by Theresa May, appears to be operating further to the right. Neither of the party leaders seems particularly interested in capturing the ‘centre-ground’ of British politics, a common preoccupation of their predecessors.
As such, these political parties wedded to old ways and traditions have begun to overhaul their previous strategies. The Conservative conference in Birmingham demonstrated this, with Theresa May’s new government attempting to colonise the right, far-right and even parts of the left simultaneously, all with a renewed statist rhetoric which definitively represented a break from the more free-market, liberal tenor of the Cameron government.
The left, on the other hand, has begun to discuss the prospect of a ‘progressive alliance’. The idea is that the left-leaning parties of the UK – some combination of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Scottish/Welsh nationalists – should consider the idea of forming a pre-election pact. This could come in the form of tactical arrangements. Such as, not standing in seats where another progressive party has a better chance of beating the Conservative candidate, or perhaps in the form of a full, pre-election, coalition agreement.
The proposal is mainly being discussed within think tanks, and the smaller political parties, but is slowly gaining sympathy from leading figures within the party integral to the strategy, the Labour Party. One of those was Shadow Business Secretary, Clive Lewis. That sympathy has now broken out into the open with Lewis, and two other Labour colleagues, openly calling (to no avail) for Labour not to field a candidate at the Richmond by-election triggered by Zac Goldsmith’s resignation. This would allow the Liberal Democrat candidate a clear path to victory. Lewis has also spoken more generally about his enthusiasm for the progressive alliance idea.
There are various reasons for a progressive alliance now becoming a viable proposal, but undoubtedly the mainly stems from a practical analysis of the current electoral landscape. The prospects of the Labour Party forming a majority government at the next election look slim. Even when one disregards the party’s current bad poll ratings, it’s still a hard ask. Labour are currently 98 seats behind the Conservatives. This gap is bound to be compounded by the recent boundary review, which will probably make Labour’s seat deficit even larger as most constituencies will have increased numbers of suburban and rural voters – not your typical Labour voters.
All this means that the British centre and left have to confront the idea that the Conservative Party could be in power for many years to come – with some even warning that the UK is at risk of becoming a ‘one-party state’ – unless there is a dramatic shift on the left. There is a lot that divides left-leaning parties, but one thing that does unite them is a disdain for the Conservatives. Thus, the idea of coming together to force the Tories out of office has been floated.
However, the prospect of a never-ending Tory government isn’t the only uniting thread in the progressive alliance project. There are politicians across all the progressive parties that share more than just a common enmity of the Tories. For some, they see the fragmentation of the British political landscape as an opportunity to temper their own parties’ more old-fashioned instincts, and to craft a new political settlement which could deliver radical change to the UK.
For instance, throughout the left-leaning parties, there is increasing consensus that the UK is desperate for root and branch political reform. Making the electoral system more proportional is a key priority for many. But as well as this, there is a desire to finally abolish the undemocratic House of Lords and perhaps even try to keep Scotland in the union, and hold the UK together, by embracing full federalism. Many see a coalition of progressive parties as a way to lock in key demands such as these, which have usually fallen to the wayside when just one party has been in power.
Whether one looks at this project from a purely practical perspective or a more idealistic one, there can be no doubt that British politics is in transition. The prospect of the Conservative party being in power for the foreseeable future has seemingly forced elements of the left to think outside the box for ways to defeat the Tories. Alongside this, the EU referendum result also seems to have galvanised these same elements into thinking about using this state of flux to reshape the constitutional settlement of the UK. Increasingly it seems as if the prospect of a progressive alliance in the UK could be inevitable and even desirable for the British left.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Social Jungle.