by Alan Wager
Friday, 3
December 2021
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11:46

Labour can’t hide behind a ‘progressive alliance’

The Party is struggling to channel anti-government discontent
by Alan Wager
Credit: Getty

It’s perhaps not surprising that, following the Conservative’s checked victory in Old Bexley and Sidcup yesterday, the main story emerging before and after the result was about the performance of the smaller parties.

The third-placed Reform UK just about managed to hold onto their deposit while the Greens and the Lib Dems both lost money. But as the theory of the so-called progressive alliance goes, these results provide some counter-intuitive optimism for those parties; it is a sign that an increasingly efficient opposition vote could, in turn, create some Tory nerves in the Home Counties and even, at a stretch, in rural Shropshire in a fortnight.

It may well be that Old Bexley and Sidcup turns out to be the calm before the North Shropshire storm. Yet if Labour’s best weapon is shoring up opposition votes and relying on other parties to inflict real damage to the government, it suggests some key problems for Keir Starmer.

The first is that — in the context of a general election — any strategy dependent on increasing the efficiency of the anti-Conservative vote means the Lib Dems gaining nearly as many seats as Labour. The Lib Dems are in second place in about half the constituencies where there is a large enough latent third-party vote to squeeze. This means that displacing Boris Johnson from Downing Street may well need to be on the back of a yellow wave.

This may not matter if the Labour leader is privately at peace with the idea of cross-party politics. The problem with informal alliances between parties is that they leave much unsaid that could do with being explicit: the fact that post-election negotiations in some form would need to be conducted with smaller parties. If Keir Starmer doesn’t fancy talking about all this, Boris Johnson might. (The attack line is obvious: Keir Starmer will lead a ‘coalition of chaos’).

Perhaps above all else, these marginal gains disguise the simple fact that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has not yet become a catch-all vehicle for anti-government discontent. This is a pre-requisite for any opposition, but particularly one whose central message and energy derives from highlighting and punishing the mistakes of the government. The Lib Dems have a better chance in North Shropshire precisely because they may well be, once again, an inoffensive vehicle for both discontented Tories and tactical voters.

Keir Starmer’s attempt to detoxify the image of his party in opposition has been compared to David Cameron. Starmer may too be looking to replicate David Cameron’s success in entering Downing Street via the rose garden. Yet Cameron was able to secure significant by-election swings by harnessing anti-government discontent while in opposition.

Labour simply is not in a place to secure enough voters to replicate that sort of momentum, and will have to look on as the Liberal Democrats do so instead.

Dr Alan Wager is a Research Associate at The UK in a Changing Europe, based in the Policy Institute at King’s College Londo

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George Knight
George Knight
6 months ago

Alliances are always tricky. In a sense, Labour is an alliance between the “Starmerites” and the “Raynerites”. At the moment, they are just about holding together because they can unite around the vilification of Boris Johnson. Over time this surely wears thin. The Conservatives can point to success in a number of areas and continue to push their levelling up ideas which should garner broader appeal than the continual carping of Labour. Whether the Liberal Democrats can shoot up the middle is a possibility, but I feel that they have a long way to go to be something other than a safe protest vote for Conservative voters.

D Glover
D Glover
6 months ago
Reply to  George Knight

I seem to be seeing the results differently. It’s Reform who have become the protest vote for Conservative voters.
The LibDems can’t ‘shoot up the middle’ on this dismal showing. If they can’t do better than 3% at this stage in the cycle, and in a bye-election, they’re lost.

George Knight
George Knight
6 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

You may well be right. I just think that the scale of the initiatives proposed by Reform are so huge that they will not really attract a protest vote. Rather they will attract votes from those who truly believe that Reform has sound policies and that they can deliver them. Incidentally, I am attracted by their pitch but I am not yet convinced that they know how to deliver their reforms.

George Glashan
George Glashan
6 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

i wouldn’t discount the lib dems, their like a recurring fungal infection, you think you’ve got rid of it and then a year later … bang cheesy feet worse than before.

AC Harper
AC Harper
6 months ago
Reply to  George Knight

But if the idea of a progressive alliance becomes too well established they might find themselves campaigning against a traditionalist alliance of the Conservatives and Reform.
Judicious allocation of traditionalist alliance candidates might present a minimal opportunity for a progressive alliance to make inroads.
Plus I don’t see a progressive alliance hanging together for very long.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
6 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

There is not much chance of a “traditionalist alliance” being formed, let alone hanging together, even to counter a “progressive alliance”; Tories don’t think and behave that way. There is a small chance that Reform might take a few seats, and a bigger chance that their presence might force the “conservative” party to move to the right, while risking letting Labour in.

R S Foster
R S Foster
6 months ago

…with an 80-seat majority to overturn, they all have until about 2028 to think about it. At which point they are likely to be taking on “Dishy Rishi” or “Luscious Lizzy”…with who, exactly? Might quite easily be Richard Burgon by then..!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago

Labour are screwed as long as the SNP are popular, and the Scottish electorate is too mesmerised by the Independence saga to vote on any other issue.

Stephen Spurdon
Stephen Spurdon
6 months ago

Unsurprisingly, Dr Wager, the two main prongs of the ‘so-called progressive alliance’ are tearing at each other in the North Shropshire consituency. Labour came second to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election with 22.1%, and the Liberal Democrats came third with 10%. But the LDs claim to be first place challengers to the Conservatives.  
Evidence of this comes in the following ‘tweets’ from people who live in the area:
“I support a #ProgressiveAlliance but the Lib Dems actions in N Shropshire make this much less likely. Stating something frequently doesn’t make it true. There is no agreement with Labour not to fight. An honest anti Tory vote is therefore not @helenhalcrow but @btwodo for Labour.”
“As I have already said if you think N Shropshire is like Amersham & Chesham you don’t know the area. If the Lib Dems want an alliance to #GTTO and get PR then the lies about their relative strength and the Labour Party during this by-election will not have helped!”
“I live in Shrewsbury but have been helping out across North Shropshire. I’m 100% certain that the Lib Dems are the clear challengers in this seat, this time. I’ve voted Labour or Green in the past myself, when it seemed clear they had a better chance.”
“Can’t understand why Labour in Shropshire are so fixated on helping the Tories get in time after time. See May elections when Labour candidates in Shrewsbury spent their time trying to defeat Lib Dems and then lost a seat of their own to the Tories!”
“Labour are fighting the by-election as we are the 2nd party in N Shropshire. LDs are misleading voters by saying they are the tactical vote here – not true. LDs are pushing their leaflets hard but that’s about it. Helen came 3rd last election, less than half the votes of Labour.”
So, the anti-tory votes are likely to be divided and will let the Conservatives win again. Also, please note that the votes are anti-tory rather than ‘pro-progressive alliance’ – most people here will suspect that a vote for the latter will mean more moaning about leaving the EU and making sure that Shropshire takes in its ‘diversity quotient’ of people from abroad whom no one else wants – presumably to ‘teach us a lesson’ of the kind New Labour imposed in 2002 – and look where that ended up.
One remark was particularly telling:
“I don’t think the Liberal Democrats know how racist they are going to have to be to get to win in Shropshire. Shrewsbury fans will yell racial slurs at blonde white people with Costa del Sol tans. Every vote you get there is an insult.”
Being someone who has experience of coming up against Liberal Democrats in local elections, I can say that they would have very little difficulty in being ‘racist’ in order to gain advantage – as anyone with experience of them in East London in the 80s and 90s would know.
The above commentator is typical of the Shrewsbury middle-class, bleeding heart brigade, who view most English people as being beneath contempt, and then who wonder why Shropshire has remained Conservative territory for so long. Their solution is “DIVERSITEEEE” – i.e., replacing the current electorate with one they will import from elsewhere. Only recently one council cretin managed to get Shrewsbury enlisted as a ‘City of Sanctuary’. They have no idea what is is like to live in an area where ‘diversitee’ has hit and the consequences of it being imposed on Shrewsbury and the rest of Shropshire may result in the opposite of what the ‘progressive alliance’ wants.
We have to question what is meant by ‘progressive alliance’ other than just getting the Tories out. Progress towards what, exactly?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
6 months ago

The left-wing writers have been tossing PR around the magazines. Labour activists seem to think that PR could be the only way get back to power. (New Statesman many times and Socialist Review).

It would seem that the aim in the future might be to support the Greens, Liberal Democrats and any other parties to try to get around the Left vs Right battle in parliament.

Intuitively this seems doomed to failure but it is a plan. To head off this attack BJ has to spend a lot of time talking about the environment and so spend less time on the other important issues like the NHS. After today’s announcement by Unite, Labour has a big decision to make.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
6 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Why would BJ have to “to spend a lot of time talking about the environment” to head of the Greens? They are a threat to Labour, not the Conservatives. The threat to the latter is that irrational environmentalism might alienate traditional Tory voters…