Oh Snap

Is a 'Progressive Alliance' a Realistic Way to Beat the Tories?

Hanging out in Brighton to see if clubbing together against the nasty party actually works.
May 30, 2017, 2:15pm
Green leader Caroline Lucas, who advocated a "Progressive Alliance" against the Conservatives

The mods and the rockers faded out long ago, but Brighton's still one big seaside punch-up. Electorally, the town cleaves neatly into three seats, a different party in each, all marginals.

To the east – Brighton Kemptown. That went Conservative in 2015 by only 612 votes. Labour were second, but crucially the Greens were third with 3,000 votes.

The second – the downtown seat of Brighton Pavilion – is the throne of the country's only Green MP, Caroline Lucas. In 2015, Labour threw everything into unseating her, but failed. In fact, she increased her majority.

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The third – Hove – is presently owned by the Labour Party, but again only with a wafer-thin 2.4 percent majority. In 2010 it reverted to the Conservatives, and before that Labour once more.

Brighton, then, with its self-conscious reputation for radicalism, is also a living laboratory for the only deep systemic change you're likely to see at this election. It's the town where the long-touted notion of a Progressive Alliance is being most intensely tested out, an idea that could eventually scramble the political map as we know it.

The logic is simple. In 2015, only 24 percent of the country voted Conservative. But in first-past-the-post, that was enough to give the party a 12-seat majority. Many more backed one or other centre-left party, but individually these parties' vote-shares became insignificant. You had to look no further than the Losers Debate on ITV for evidence of that: from Farron to Sturgeon to Lucas, British progressivism is a large but fiercely balkanised tribe.

Davy Jones, who is no longer standing for the Green Party in Brighton Kemptown

So, the question becomes, what if the Lib Dems refused to split the vote in strongly Labour marginals? And if the Greens did likewise for the Lib Dems? And so on. There's already evidence an alliance can work. Remember Sarah Olney's shock victory for the Lib Dems over Zac Goldsmith in Richmond? The Greens took the decision to unilaterally stand aside there, probably sealing Zac's fate.

It's been talked over endlessly for years, but for the first time in a generation it's actually happening. Two weeks ago, the Progressive Alliance launched at a chichi London events space near the Barbican. By Thursday that week, down in Kemptown in Brighton, Green candidate and yoga teacher Davy Jones was hosting a public meeting to explain his decision to stand aside to give Labour a clear shot at the seat.

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"We were already thinking about the possibility," Jones explains, munching a Twirl in a coffee shop by the station. "We figured the Tories might go for an early election. In the end, we decided to stand down in Kemptown on the same night that – completely by chance – the Lib Dems voted to stand their candidate down in Pavilion. That was the beginning…"

The meeting in Brighton

It's a rain-sodden evening in a draughty church hall as wiry yoga teacher Jones mounts his explanatory meeting. Box wine is available at the back of the hall. Every cliché of Green voter has turned up in dyed red hair and cardies and DMs, but also a load of very ordinary middle-aged burghers, about 50 in all. Before Jones speaks there's a slick little video presentation on the evils of their local Tory MP Simon Kirby. He voted for fracking, we're told; against making rental properties fit for human habitation, for workfare; claimed a huge amount in expenses; and has never rebelled against the party whip.

The Greens are the prime movers in this Progressive Alliance, but the branding and big idea status comes from a man called Neal Lawson. Once a key adviser to Gordon Brown, Lawson set up the Compass think-tank in the early-2000s. It started out representing the mid-left of the Labour Party less prominent under Tony Blair. But in 2007, a key decision was made to open up membership to anyone, regardless of party stripe. That set the stage for Compass to become the umbrella org for well-heeled metropolitan progressivism.

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The Lib Dem Paul Chandler is also standing aside in Kemptown. Officially, there's no national Lib Dem policy in favour of a Progressive Alliance – you won't hear Tim Farron talking it up. But the uniquely devolved structure of the Lib Dems means that the local party has a lot more say.

"We had a vote, and it ended up three-to-one in favour of me not standing," Chandler explains. "So, after we'd had the vote, I looked around the room and we said: 'Well, what are they going to do? Send someone down here and force them to stand?' It didn't seem likely…"

Nationally, the Greens estimate they've stood aside in 40 seats. Informally, the Lib Dems suggest they're dropping out in around 30. Despite being the chief beneficiaries, Labour have taken no part in the system. In fact, their national constitution forbids them from standing down in any seats.

The strength of this policy has already been put to the test in South West Surrey, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's seat. There, three local Labour activists were expelled from the party for backing a non-Labour candidate, the National Health Action Party's Dr Louise Irvine, in a theatrical attempt to unseat Hunt.

"The wider picture is that, for Labour, every compromise is seen as simply letting one of these young upstart parties nip closer at their heels."

"We had the candidate selection meeting on the Saturday," explains Steve Williams, one of the three who were expelled. "The first I heard of it was half past four on the following Monday, when I received a letter from head office telling me I'd been expelled." Bummer, given how he'd spent 40 years of working for the party.

Williams is no natural troublemaker. In fact, he's a fully paid up Corbynista. "I still support his leadership," he says. "But the party needs to be much less tribal." Of course, that's tricky for a party that still sees itself as owning the title deeds to British progressivism. Labour-left poster-boy Clive Lewis has spoken in favour of the alliance. But the wider picture is that, for Labour, every compromise is seen as simply letting one of these young upstart parties nip closer at their heels. Even though, as long as Scotland remains the SNP's domain, alliances are their only realistic path to power.

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Over on the west of Brighton, in Hove, the local MP is Labour's Peter Kyle. Kyle is not being afforded the luxury of his local Green standing down – he's off the team because he ruled out supporting Proportional Representation in Parliament. "We had a meeting with him," explains Davy Jones. "He would give us no assurances of anything. He, in effect, told us he wanted us to stand."

I contact Kyle for an interview. His spokesman initially says yes, then goes AWOL. Instead, he sends over a bland prepared statement. "I think the public are perfectly smart enough to work out for themselves that the only way of not ending up with a Tory MP in Hove is to vote for me."

Thanks, but is there any truth in what the Greens say – about the abortive deal? He stops responding.

"Frankly, I think it suited him," Jones suggests. "He's happier to sit in the middle and pull off the soft Tory votes, plus the right of the Labour Party. So it actually works to his advantage to have the Greens sat out to his left."


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There may, though, be a sense in which Labour is buying into the Alliance. Over in Pavilion, having thrown the kitchen sink at dethroning Lucas in 2015 – which Jones blames for letting the Conservatives in at Kemptown – Labour is now fielding a young, unserious candidate in Solomon Curtis: a 20-year-old student with dreads down to his balls. It's a tacit pattern of drawing-back that's worth watching out for nationally. Simultaneously, they're trying to put pressure on Labour to draw down their guns on the Isle of Wight – where the Greens are already running a close second to the Tories.

The truth is that whatever happens on the Isle of Wight, in Bristol West or any other seat in contention, if you run the maths, the Alliance can't be decisive in 2017. In the bigger picture, the significance of individual seat horse-trading will be nothing compared to the overall bonding effect.

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For all Labour's present objections, the choice may eventually be forced on them. The stalking horse to the Progressive Alliance is what everyone I speak to calls "the regressive alliance".

"There was quite a big UKIP vote in Kemptown, and they're not standing this time," Jones explains. "The guy who was standing last time against me in Kemptown is now standing in Pavilion against Caroline – where the Tories have got no hope of winning. So you ask yourself… is that an accident? Or is there a behind-the-scenes thing happening? A backroom nudge-nudge deal to stand down in the two seats where the Tories have a chance… They've done the same in other places."

All over the electoral map, strange things have been slithering about in the night. UKIP have failed to stand candidates in 300 seats in a move designed to boost pro-Brexit Conservatives. Researcher of the far-right, Matthew Goodwin, points out that, of the ten most marginal seats in England and Wales, UKIP are not standing in six of them. Four are Labour, two Conservative. But the average number of UKIP votes per seat is 4,494 – enough to decide all of them.

In the end, being reduced to a rump could finally give Labour the jolt to adapt or die. Politics is often reaction rather than action. The wrecking ball of the present realignment on the right might swing through the House of Commons on the 8th of June and be the thing that finally makes a realignment on the left inevitable.

@gavhaynes