A series of British by-elections in secure Tory seats – as in Old Bexley and Sidcup last week – is reviving talk of progressive pacts in Britain politics. At the root of these discussions is the recognition of a historic rift on the left of politics that entails the two main progressive parties competing with each other while the Conservatives are left largely unchallenged on the right. Under Britain’s first-fit post-election system, the split meant long periods of Tory hegemony.
The scale of the recent election defeat has now led many in both Labor and the Liberal Democrats to speak of a “progressive alliance”, a form of non-competition treaty in which parties agree not to oppose each other. the anti-conservative voice. Labor’s defeat in 2019 was so severe that a swing of 12 percent was needed, even to secure a single seat majority. It would therefore require the near collapse of the Tories, but the combined Labor and Lib Dem voice was almost identical to Boris Johnson’s.
Since a hung parliament is a more achievable goal, it makes sense for the parties that are likely to be an ally to do more to achieve it. Such an agreement would almost certainly have to include an agreement to reform the electoral system to move to some form of proportional representation.
The superficial sights are obvious to those on the left, but there are reasons to be cautious. Informal cooperation in by-elections can work, although voters already understand how to vote tactically in such contests. In any competitive competition, the third party regularly sees his voice imprinted. In Old Bexley and Sidcup, the Liberal Democratic vote dropped to just 647 votes (still not enough for Labor to win a solid Tory seat). The reverse is likely to be in the looming North Shropshire competition, caused by the resignation of a scandal-ridden MP. It is also true that in mayoral competitions with transferable votes, some Lib Dem and Green voters give Labor their second preference – but higher levels of transfers will be needed to win the Tory target seats in a general election.
So far, Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, has ruled out such an alliance, although he is particularly under pressure from Blairites to reconsider. He is ready to resist. For one thing, parties do not own their voters and the voters do not like to be taken for granted. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to force local parties to stand aside for each other. By-elections are also not useful proxies for a national contest.
More importantly, however, a progressive alliance is an agreement to install a Labor-led government. This means that voters must be ready to see a Labor leader – in this case Star mer – in power. Until they are, no alliance will succeed.
It is wise for like-minded parties to work together. The Liberal Democrats are already clear that they could only bond with Labor after the next election. Where informal agreements, such as candidates for running papers, can yield results, the parties of the left (which includes the Greens) would be foolish to ignore such tactics.
But Labor will make a mistake if it allows it to become a displacement activity for the more urgent task of transforming itself into a viable alternative government. In recent days, Starmer has sharpened his shadow cabinet team. Yet the party still seems too opportunistic in its attacks. It lacks the policy and ideological coherence that will give voters confidence that it can be trusted with power. If Starmer wants to oust the Conservatives, it is this, rather than election pact, that must remain its primary focus.