It has been a long time since British politics was in such a confusing state. The old certainties have collapsed and there is doubt whether Labour really represents working people or that the Conservatives represent traditional shire interests. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the most hotly contested political events in recent years have been the Scottish and EU referendums with their simple straightforward choice, Yes or No, In or Out. But with the ascendancy of right-wing libertarianism allied to an aggressive alt-right populism, it is understandable that opposition parties should rethink their strategy.
The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election was an event which I warmly welcomed. The argument that he should be supported as a man of integrity in triggering the by-election seemed small compensation set against a London Mayoral campaign where Goldsmith at times mounted deeply unpleasant racist attacks which helped feed a growing climate of intolerance. But the issue I have is with the use of the term Progressive Alliance to describe the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Green and Women’s Equality Party which triumphed in Richmond. Progressive Alliance can only serve to add to the fog of confusion regarding the platform on which the candidates are standing. Missing from the coalition was the Labour Party, apparently divided as to the strategic advantage of entering into pacts with other parties.
The Danger: Ineffective Liberalism and a Discredited Centre-Ground
So what is the problem with Progressive Alliance? To be a progressive you must advocate improvement or reform, as opposed to working to maintain the status quo. But improvement or reform can take many different paths and even when limited to the anti-Zac parties there will be a multitude of approaches as implied by the use of ‘Alliance’. In Richmond the Progressive Alliance very effectively mobilized a strong anti-Brexit feeling on the part of the electorate. But remaining in the EU currently represents the status quo and even arguing the case that remain represents a progressive position leaves the problem of how to deal with the broader disaffection with institutions such as the EU. It is argued (such as in this letter by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas) that the core principle of a Progressive Alliance is the election of as many candidates as possible who support a change in the voting system to Proportional Representation. PR really does represent a progressive position which aims to end a deeply unrepresentative system which gives enormous power to a single party agenda based on the wishes of a minority of voters (37% voted Conservative in 2015). But in fact PR is also the aim of UKIP, a major player in the pro-Zac (no pun intended) coalition.
It seems attaching a pro-Brexit label to the Progressive Alliance was a local tactical device. This raises the issue of short term expediency against long term aims leaving the Alliance partners open to the criticism of opportunism. Unfortunately the biggest problem in this coalition is the largest player, the Liberal Democrats. While acknowledging they have made some reforms since their coalition with the Conservatives, leader Tim Farron has made clear references to occupying the centre ground and reinstating liberal values. Setting aside a continuing suspicion amongst non-Tory voters that the LibDems would repeat their sell-out of core principles, Farron’s goals are deeply problematic. Foremost is the fact that since the 2008 financial disaster the collapse of support for the centre ground is far more profound than a lack of suitable leaders and liberalism as an ideology is proving unable to resolve the ongoing difficulties. But more to the point, the centre ground represents a return to a form of politics which can in no way be regarded as progressive.
A Great Title, But What About the Policies?
Progressive Alliance is a very attractive umbrella term, but problems come into clear view at the level of policy goals. Needless to say, the Richmond Progressive Alliance parties adhere to core principles such as support for human rights, justice, social and gender equality, sustainability and international solidarity. But it is at the level of concrete proposals where progressive credentials are revealed. For example the policy clause PA600 of the Green Party to finally end inherited privilege in politics and public administration has no LibDem equivalent. Supporters of a Progressive Alliance such as those in this John Harries article talk enthusiastically about also involving Plaid Cymru and the SNP around a ‘narrow set of commonly agreed policies’. Just how narrow that policy set would be and whether it would be broad enough to support a positive electoral agenda is problematic. This is without considering whether the policies would be radical enough to effect real urgent change or merely be a lowest common denominator which, once again, kicks desperately needed radical reform into the long grass. As Zoe Williams points out in this newspaper article:
Alliances that claim to be about the love of humankind, between people who find nothing more energising than the hatred of one another’s small differences, are even messier, slower and more difficult.
The difficulty with Williams’ remark is the fact that meaningful progressive reform in the past has not involved too much love! It is sometimes forgotten that handing power to one group involves removing it from another group with inevitable conflict.
I agree that stemming the tide of right wing authoritarianism is the urgent priority before we can make genuine progress. Maybe the political grouping which opposed Zac Goldsmith would be better termed an anti-Conservative alliance or more accurately a pro-PR alliance. But as a fog of confusion (including ‘post-truth’) has become a standard trick of neo-liberal and alt-right politics, maybe the use of Progressive Alliance is a good strategic move. But only in the short term!