We’ll be sneered at, but a progressive alliance can win
After the summer referendum lunacy, there was a back-to-school feel travelling up to the Green party’s conference last September. Is progressive alliance the best name for us, my fellow travellers and I were wondering. I use the term “fellow travellers” not in its pejorative, 50s American sense of closet communists but in its original Bolshevik meaning, people who are on the same path but not all necessarily members of the same organisation.
Labour, Greens, Liberal Democrats, SNP, SDLP, the Women’s Equality party, all of these are on the same path. Those of us who bounce between them, sometimes joining, sometimes lapsing, are on the same path. Apparently intractable constitutional disagreements – membership of the EU, Scottish independence – sound important in the mouths of people who talk about national destiny, but are not important set against core political beliefs: that climate change is real, but human ingenuity can stop it; that pooling resources for world-class education and heathcare for everybody is not a drag or even a duty, but an honour; that if you can’t afford food and shelter on a full-time wage, you’re not the problem; that everybody will spend some part of their lives economically unproductive, and it’s better to support rather than blame each other.
All progressives believe these things; the Conservatives and Ukip believe the opposite. Last decade, when I heard a Lib Dem and a Labour politician fighting about a policy that was exactly the same, just costed differently in their hypothetical manifestos, I accepted it as the nature of the British political system. Now it makes me laugh out loud; it is so unbelievably silly.
Anyway, back to the name: I thought “progressive alliance” sounded too wholemeal and preferred rebel alliance. Someone else thought that sounded too Star Wars, whereas I don’t think the political language of this extreme era can ever sound Star Wars enough. A work experience kid travelling with me suggested Coalition of the Losers (Theresa May has gone with the inferior “coalition of chaos”).
It was decided, in the end, that we’d already come too far to change the name; that just because everybody was ignoring it didn’t mean the ideas weren’t real, and real people weren’t already trying to make it happen.
Channelling Gandhi, first they ignore you, then they sneer at you; and part of you is heartened, because they wouldn’t bother sneering if they didn’t glimpse a possibility that you were on the right side of history and they on the wrong. Then they fight you – and the very progressives with whom you want to ally start talking about betrayal and expulsions and the necessity of lining up behind one party if you’re serious about beating Theresa May. Note that all the fight comes from our own side: the Conservatives are still in the ignore phase.
The fact that Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron have explicitly rejected any deals or alliances is commonly presented as insuperable to the enterprise: in fact, it is the opposite. This won’t work if it’s handed down from above, if distant people in unknown rooms make deals about which region is whose heartland, then hand the voters a choice of one. It has to come from below: it has to be local parties, in open meetings, making transparent decisions about who’s most likely to win, and who will push a collaborative agenda when they get to parliament.
Candidates elected on this basis will put an irresistible upward pressure on their party leaders. It’s also better, for the time being, that Caroline Lucas is the only leader openly to push the idea. At a grassroots level, the progressive alliance needs everyone it can get: at the level of the political establishment, not so much. It needs spokespeople one associates with modernity, not failure.
It has to be reciprocal. Now that the Greens have agreed to campaign for Labour’s Rupa Huq in Ealing, Labour needs to do the same for the Greens on the Isle of Wight. Lib Dems and Labour stand poised on the brink of cooperation, especially in the south-west, and need to jump. If you find yourself enjoined to vote for a candidate you violently disagree with – as I am, in Vauxhall – get on a vote swap website (actually, these are still a work in progress, but in fairness, so are most manifestos).
There are now 49 identified seats where the progressive votes combined could unseat the Tory, and a further 48 where a shaky Labour majority could be solidified. That kind of number crunching is always an underestimate of anything that works, since it doesn’t allow for any contagion; when one seat shows itself capable of reaching agreement, it stirs up its neighbours, and voters who previously wouldn’t have bothered casting a progressive vote at all.
I forgot the final footfall of Gandhi’s mantra: then you win. This election cannot be about grabbing on to any fragile sapling you see, as you hurtle into a Tory landslide. It cannot be about throwing your lot in with the diehard tribalists, and voting Labour in the hope that one day in the future, Labour will become a united and dominant force again, by changing utterly into something you can’t imagine. It has to be about changing the way we do politics – which might well, indeed, probably will involve voting Labour, but in the spirit not of resignation but of radicalism and renewal.