Sussex Liberal Democrat Chris Bowers teamed up with Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Labour’s Lisa Nandy to write 'The Alternative', a book exploring cooperation among progressive parties. They then took it ‘on tour’ to fringe meetings at the Green, Lib Dem and Labour party conferences. Here Chris assesses what the meetings say about the appetite for a progressive alliance.
So what is the appetite for a Progressive Alliance?
It’s not nice when 50-70 people who want to attend your meeting have to be turned away, but hey what a compliment! The SLF had given over one of its three meetings at our Brighton conference to progressive cooperation, under the clever banner ‘Hanging together or hanging separately’, and the place was packed. The room held 200 people (officially), and the reason the 50-70 were turned away is that they quite simply couldn’t get through the door, such was the demand for the standing area.
So, a massive appetite for a progressive alliance, yes? There’s certainly a massive appetite for exploring it. Our equivalent meeting at the Green Party conference packed out the 400-seat Great Hall at the University of Birmingham, and other meetings have also been attended to capacity. Caroline and Lisa appeared with Vince Cable at a Guardian Live event in Islington the week before our conference and sold it out. Caroline and I spoke at a meeting in Crowborough, a sleepy East Sussex town, where there’s a burgeoning Wealden Progressives movement, and somehow 250 squeezed into a 170-seat hall. And other meetings on the subject have been full. That may speak for Caroline’s impressive pulling power, but it also speaks for a subject people want to explore.
The one exception was the meeting at the Labour conference. This wasn’t badly attended, but only 100 chairs were put out and they were only just filled. There were mitigating circumstances – there were about six fringe meetings on at the same time, many of them featuring some big names of the Labour movement, and the fringe venue was quite a way from the main conference. But it begs the question about whether the appetite is very much from the smaller progressive parties, with Labour still to be convinced that its days of winning an overall majority really are gone.