Progressive alliances are more than formal pacts: this is a culture shift

Number of seats the Green Party will stand aside in to help unseat the Conservatives: 24. Number of seats other progressive parties will stand aside in to help others: 1.

The final tally for the ‘progressive alliance’ is out, and on the face it, it looks (perhaps fittingly) more like unilateral disarmament than any real pact. It turns out there’s more to it than that though. 

Only the Liberal Democrats have stood aside for anyone – the Greens in Caroline Lucas’ Brighton Pavilion, in exchange for the Greens standing down in neighbouring Tory-held Kemptown.

Green targets elsewhere have seen no such détentes. Bristol West, currently held by Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire, remains a three way Labour-Green-Lib Dem battle, with MEP Molly Scott Cato contesting it for the Green Party.

And in the Isle of Wight, where Green candidate Vix Lowthion came third last time after the Conservatives and UKIP, now appears to be the main challenge to the Tories. Given UKIP’s fall in support – and the fact the Greens came second in the local elections last week – Labour and the Lib Dems have come under pressure to back one progressive candidate. They have not succumbed.

But there’s a bigger picture here. Elections under First Past the Post are of course about where parties choose to target: which seats they bother putting resources in.

Progressive Alliance, the cross-party group set up by the think tank Compass, say the Liberal Democrats and Labour have privately agreed not to actively campaign in marginal constituencies against one another other, where they have the clearest opportunity to unseat the Conservatives.

One source told me that Labour are only putting serious resources into seats with majorities between 7,000 and 25,000. While that one may have to be taken with a pinch of salt, given the latest polling it would not prove a huge surprise.

Even where parties have stood candidates, it’s not all hand-to-hand combat. Yesterday, a quite startling announcement went unreported: the Lib Dem candidate for Bury North asked voters to back the Labour candidate – surely a move unprecedented in recent election history.

There, just 378 votes separate Labour and the Tories. So with the Greens choosing to step aside, Lib Dem Richard Baum’s decision to urge his Lib Dem voters to back Labour’s James Frith is quite something.

And of course, elections are about where activists go. Groups like Progressive Alliance are not alone in mobilising party activists to campaign for other parties in battleground constituencies. Best for Britain, Gina Miller’s pro-European campaign (which crowdfunded nearly £400,000 recently) and More United (which did the same – and raised similar amounts) are both putting their substantial resources into getting activists into key ‘progressive’ seats.

Finally, voters go off ‘signals’ from parties. We saw that in Richmond Park last year, when the Greens stood down, giving de facto backing to Lib Dem Sarah Olney’s bid to unseat Zac Goldsmith.

Despite Labour refusing to stand down there, voters took their signal off the Greens anyway – Labour voters got behind Olney too in order to take down the pro-Brexit Goldsmith.

The effect of the Greens standing down in 25 seats can’t be understated. This isn’t just about deals – clearly party leaderships never wanted them to happen officially. But it is about priorities – picking battles, being smart and, for the three main progressive parties, focusing on unseating Conservatives or keeping marginal Labour/Lib Dem MPs. The Scottish Greens standing in only 10 seats this election is another sign of that kind of pragmatic and principled strategising.

With a wide range of groups pushing this kind of informal working together, the effect is much larger than the headline stats. Kudos has to be given to the Greens for leading the way (although of course, it’s only a broken voting system that means parties feel obliged to stand aside in the first place…).

Over the next few days we will see several more official announcements on this front. Whatever the final tally of deals, or (less-measurable) targeting decisions, something has already changed this election.

There is a new pluralism – new relationships being built, and a sea-change among many progressive party activists and voters. We’ll only know the true impact of that long after June 8th.

4 Responses to “Progressive alliances are more than formal pacts: this is a culture shift”

  1. Patrick Cosgrove

    Despite my pessimism about the prospects of a progressive alliance against the Tories, more local agreements are emerging than I’d expected – and this article suggests the same. So far so good, but in other places the fear of losing a deposit may be the reason for one or other local party holding back. So here’s an answer to that problem for those parties. Test the appetite of supporters by crowdfunding – maybe £10 each – and when the sum of money pledged covers a lost deposit, go for it by fielding a paper candidate.

  2. Michael

    Hi there
    The Pavilion Lib Dems were the very first to stand down in this election cycle and did so unilaterally–nothing at all to do with what the Greens did in Kemptown, which was in favour of Labour not the Lib Dems. There’s a lot of misinformation about this because the Greens stood down for Labour later on the same day. Please do correct your article as it’s misleading. //liberalbrighton.org/en/article/2017/1210384/libdems-opt-not-to-oppose-caroline-lucas-in-brighton-pavilion-to-support-opposition-to-hard-brexit

  3. Tony

    I do not agree with this obsession with changing the voting system. This article, and others like it, clearly show that the Green Party is achieving influence under the present electoral system.
    In fact, for some time now, it has been evident that the Labour Party has noticed the Green Party and has realised that it has to take its voters into account.

  4. uglyfatbloke

    …and in the meantime Scottish Labour is trying to get tories elected; what’s progressive about that?

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