Opinion Articles

The elephant in the room: the benefits of a progressive alliance

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It comes up in political commentary from time to time, but never seems to get much traction with our current political leaders: the most significant feature of recent British politics is that the much-trumpeted success of the Conservative Party in winning general elections is based on a long-standing tendency for their opponents’ votes to be divided. If we consider the figures for the percentages of the UK national vote in the forty years between Margaret Thatcher’s historic victory in 1979 and Boris Johnson’s unexpected repeat of that in 2019, we can readily see that, even when they do their ‘world-beating’ best, the Conservatives can only bring in 44% of the vote.

                 Conservative       Labour/Liberal


1979                  44%                   51%

1983                  42%                   53%

1987                  42%                   53%

1992                 42%                   52%

1997                 31%                   60%

2001                 32%                   59%

2005                 32%                   57%

2010                 36%                   52%

2015                 37%                   38%

2017                 42%                   47%

2019                 44%                   44%



It is very exciting for a progressive party when it can win such decisive victories as in 1997 and 2001, but it is not really an ambition they need to keep in mind. For, while it is often observed that the Conservatives have an inbuilt majority in England, the simple electoral statistics show that since 1945 it is the two major non-Conservative parties that have had an inbuilt majority in the UK as a whole. Even when the Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto could be called the ‘longest suicide note in history’, Labour and the Liberals together still won 53% of the vote. Even with Labour weighed down by the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbin in 2019, the two opposition parties together were still able to hold their own against Johnson’s supposed magic touch. Of course, there is an additional lesson in this: that Labour has had its worst election results with its most left-wing leaders and programmes. But, even in those situations, and even under their own most charismatic leaders, the Conservatives have not been able to win a clear majority of the popular vote since the 1930s. In these circumstances it seems almost perverse that Labour’s priority should so often be to win over Conservative voters rather than to build a progressive alliance.

There is much talk at the moment of Keir Starmer upping his game and developing a clearer narrative of what Labour stands for but, even if he is able to do so, it is already abundantly clear that he will not consider any collaborations or alliances with other parties. The figures above suggest that this is unfortunate, but it is also deeply ironic: for the Labour Party’s origins in the early years of the twentieth century were closely tied up with its relationship with the then much larger and more experienced Liberal Party. The romantic mythology of Labour sees it as emerging out of working-class struggle and the growing popularity of a socialist alternative, but the real story could hardly be more different.

It is true that in the first years after its formation in 1900 what was initially known as the ‘Labour Representation Committee’ (LRC) was very heavily dependent on trade unions for both electoral finances and campaigning organisation. However, most of the union leaders concerned were committed Liberals, and the MPs they succeeded in getting elected worked closely in the House of Commons with other trade unionists who sat there as official members of the Liberal Party. Indeed, the LRC was set up as a small pressure group to work under the Liberal umbrella for a specific purpose: to secure changes in the law to protect the freedom of action of trade unions in industrial disputes. Most of those involved on the union side would have preferred to do this as an integral part of the Liberal Party whose support they clearly needed anyway, as they had only 5 MPs and the Liberals had over 180. And a surprising number among the socialist minority in the LRC were also originally active Liberals, including Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first secretary and later first prime minister. Indeed, it was MacDonald who pointedly remarked: ‘We didn’t leave the Liberals. They kicked us out and slammed the door in our faces.’

The problem was that at the constituency level Liberals were unwilling to select trade unionists as parliamentary candidates because, in an era before MPs were paid salaries, they would have to cover not only the cost of their campaigns but also their living expenses if they were successful in getting elected. As the unions grew stronger from the 1890s, they were increasingly able to afford all this themselves and began to put up more rival candidates. Increasingly concerned about this growing split in the progressive vote, the Liberal chief whip, Herbert Gladstone, came to a sensible strategic agreement with MacDonald in 1903 to give Labour a free run in up to 30 seats in the next general election in return for reducing the number of its own rival candidates elsewhere. As a result, the LRC was able to benefit from a major swing against the Conservatives in 1906, came back to Westminster with 29 MPs and changed its name to the Labour Party in recognition of its much-enhanced position. But while this was a new start in organisational terms it was not a new departure in ideological terms: it was far from a victory for socialism and hardly even an advance for social reform. As Herbert Gladstone put it: "The LRC people know quite well how much support was given them by Liberals, and this should have a steadying influence upon them. I am sure they will be a good influence." Ironically enough, then, the Labour Party’s emergence as a significant parliamentary force was the result of an electoral pact with the Liberals based on a long-standing convergence of political principles.

The recent local election results have given the Conservatives a remarkably low projected national vote share of only 26% … but not because of any overall surge of enthusiasm for Labour, rather because of an informal coalition of anti-Tory tactical voters. Why not make this a more formal, strategic alliance: thus reducing unecessary electioneering rivalry and guaranteeing the people the result they so obviously want?  There were signs of some of this happening quietly between the parties at a local level, and It’s not clear why Labour’s national leadership is still so committed to fighting elections and hoping to form a government all on its own. Perhaps it’s partly because they have a strong loyalty to a false sense of their party’s origins. In that case, if Labour’s leaders and members had a better understanding of their past, they might become better at seeing that there are other politicians they have enough in common with to make it sensible to cooperate with them in charting the way towards a progressive future: a future which would clearly be welcomed by a majority of the British electorate.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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