Paul Hindley argues that progressives in England are facing an existential challenge and that to counter this they need to work together in a formal Progressive Alliance, equipped with a compelling narrative.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats in England appear to be facing an existential crisis. While the SNP are hegemonic in Scotland and Labour still dominate Wales, in England the Conservatives are going from strength-to-strength. Are we witnessing the strange death of progressive England?
At last week’s elections, the Conservatives continued to eat into the traditional ‘red wall’ Labour heartlands in the North of England, as well as the traditional Liberal Democrat heartland in the South West. Tory gains in Durham took the County Council into no overall control from Labour for the first time in a century. In Cornwall, the Tories gained control of the Council after the Liberal Democrats lost more than half their seats. Prior to 2010, the Lib Dems held every parliamentary constituency in Cornwall. It was the result of the Hartlepool by-election which received the most coverage from the media. The Tories won a seat which Labour has held since 1964 with a 16-point swing, while the Lib Dems struggled to win just over 1% of the vote.
These results would be remarkable after 11 years of a Labour government; the Tory Party making gains as an insurgent opposition force. However, it is the Tories who have been in power for 11 years and not Labour. The Tories have increased their vote share at every general election since 1997. They have won the most votes in England at every general election since 2001. Michael Howard defeated Tony Blair in the English popular vote share in 2005.
Following its latest electoral setbacks, Labour is beginning yet another period of introspection. For Labour, the problems are very deep. A bit more socialism or a bit more Blairism will not reverse the party's fortunes in the face of cultural identity politics. Equally, if Labour responds by embracing the ‘Blue Labour’ approach, becoming more culturally conservative, it is likely to continue to haemorrhage support to the Greens and the Lib Dems in metropolitan areas. The positive mayoral election results in London, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and the West of England offered some comfort for Labour amidst terrible results elsewhere.
The election results were very mixed for the Lib Dems. Their setbacks were offset by gains in the South East, most notably in Oxfordshire and St Albans. But overall, the party remained static having yet to recover from its major electoral setbacks during its time in Coalition.
“The same old Tories” is a common attack-line used against the Conservative Party, but Boris Johnson’s Tories are anything but “the same old Tories”. Just look to the Tees Valley. There, Tory incumbent mayor Ben Houchen won a remarkable 73% of the vote in what was a traditional ‘red wall’ Labour heartland in the North East. Houchen’s winning formula of conservative localism and economic interventionism has reaped political dividends. How should progressives respond to this new red Toryism or “Houchenism”?
In Boris Johnson, Labour and the Lib Dems face their greatest opponent. Johnson’s government has shown a willingness to be authoritarian, for example with the Policing Bill and the ‘Spy Cops’ Bill. All the while, his government consciously wages a populist nationalist culture war in defence of national symbols and statues, while downplaying the presence of structural racism in modern Britain. Johnson’s traditional free market economics is tempered by a commitment to targeted increases in public spending and investment towards areas like the Tees Valley and the West Midlands; an approach which would concern most traditional Thatcherites.
Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters seem to be gripped by the magical thinking that their parties will inevitably recover. No electoral evidence to back up this notion is forthcoming. The basic fact is that there will not be a progressive government, so long as the Tories are able to win swathes of ‘red wall’ seats against Labour, or continue to dominate swathes of former Liberal Democrat territory in the South West. There simply are not enough seats in metropolitan areas and liberal-leaning parts of the South East to make up for the loss of traditional Labour and Lib Dem heartlands elsewhere. And that is before we discuss the SNP and the looming prospect of Scottish independence.
The only hope for progressives is to construct a UK-wide unifying progressive narrative. Joe Biden in the US has been able to develop a compelling social liberal narrative which appeals to both working class communities and culturally liberal metropolitan areas. Labour and the Lib Dems should learn from Biden’s social liberalism. The antidote to Houchenism may well be Bidenism.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have to realise that it is in their mutual interest to cooperate like never before. This means a fully-fledged Progressive Alliance where both parties would stand down candidates for one another in Tory marginal seats. Egos and tribalism in both Labour and the Lib Dems must be set aside. Such an alliance must also involve the Green Party. Both Labour and the Lib Dems should stand down in a couple of Tory-held seats such as the Isle of Wight and Bury St Edmunds, to give the Greens the maximum opportunity to increase their representation at Westminster.
Any Progressive Alliance should be forged around a common platform. First Past The Post continually sustains Tory governments who receive a minority of the vote. Proportional Representation should be at the heart of the common platform. It also needs to be committed to ending the climate emergency, devolving more power to the English regions and supporting Citizens’ Assemblies as a means to bring communities together and end the divisive Tory culture war. It should also aim to reinvent the welfare state for the world of the 21st century and help people who struggle in economic precariousness. Both the Lib Dems and the Greens already support a universal basic income, a vital radical policy needed to achieve this.
A Progressive Alliance is not about whether Labour (with the assistance of the Lib Dems and the Greens) can defeat the Tories at the next general election. It is about whether progressive politics in the UK has any meaningful future at all.
Progressive England faces an existential crisis. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have a simple choice. They can either work together in a formal Progressive Alliance, equipped with a unifying narrative, or they can prepare for uninterrupted Tory political domination and the possible end of the United Kingdom.
Paul Hindley is an independent social liberal campaigner from Blackpool, who served on the Social Liberal Forum Council from 2016 until 2021.