Friday, December 09, 2016
Why I am a sceptic about the idea of a Progressive Alliance
Last night, in a Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council by-election, the Conservatives held Trench ward with an increased majority.
Not a big surprise, you may think. But there was more to it than that.
Because both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens had stood down to give Labour a clear run.
It is always unwise to read too much into a single local contest, but the outcome here should remind us of an important lesson.
Parties cannot deliver their voters en bloc to another party.
And that is why I am a sceptic when it comes to the idea of a "progressive alliance" against the Tories.
Think of the Richmond Park by-election.
Would it have helped Sarah Olney if Labour had declined to field a candidate? I doubt it very much.
Think of the way that we hung the support that Zac Goldsmith had received from Ukip around his neck.
If Sarah had been endorsed by Labour she would have been "Jeremy Corbyn's candidate" on every Tory leaflet in Richmond Park.
That would have made it less, not more, likely that she would have won.
The Green Party did stand down in Richmond, which may have helped Sarah. Only people who were already going to vote Tory would have been discomfited by that.
But that is because the Greens do not matter than much at present. If they did come to be more significant in the minds of the voters, then deals with them would become more problematic,
True, they are not laden with decades of embarrassing baggage the way Corbyn and McDonnell are,
but they would then put off potential Lib Dem voters as well as attract them.
We should also ask what the Greens are after in return for standing down in seats like Richmond. I suspect it is because they are after a clear run in their own most promising seats.
As these are generally ones that we Liberal Democrats held as recently as 2010 - Bristol West, Norwich South - I am wary of giving them what they want.
(If you want a alternative view of a Lib Dem - Green alliance, read Clifford Fleming on the Social Liberal Forum site.)
Let's end by returning to the central point: parties cannot deliver their voters en bloc to another party.
The corollary of this is that when voters have made up their mind to throw out the Tories, they are quite capable of organising themselves to do it.
Think of 1997, when the operation was carried out with ruthless efficiency.
Sometimes that was to the detriment of us Liberal Democrats. In several of our target seats (St Albans, Hastings and Rye, Bristol West again) Labour came from third place to beat the Tories.
Yes, some of our gains because Labour did not try to hard in those constituencies, but that is because informal pacts like those are more likely to bear fruit that any grand, publicly announced Progressive Alliance.