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.
Here, the choice of Lisa Nandy as the Labour co-editor of The Alternative is worth a word. The book was conceived by Caroline and me, after we stood against each other in last year’s general election. We felt we needed a Labour co-editor, and the obvious person would have been one of the growing number of Labour MPs who support proportional representation. Lisa is not one of those. She told us at the outset she needs no convincing that first-past-the-post is an awful system, but until she’s convinced about a PR system that doesn’t put power in the hands of party elites, she feels unable to back a change.
Her motivation for doing the book lay in her belief that you get better outcomes by working across party lines, and her speech in Liverpool to the 100-or-so Labour members was an inspiring one about the need to expand the current debate, not shrink it. She shies away from the term ‘progressive alliance’, preferring instead the more flexible ‘cooperation among progressives’. Cynics can argue that she’s keeping all escape routes open, and maybe she is, but we know thousands in the Labour Party think like her, so we have to win them over if a progressive alliance is to become realistic.
One line I kept hearing was ‘This is all very well, but your problem is Labour – with Corbyn as leader and a refusal to commit to PR, you can’t take this very far.’ Given that a progressive government in the next 20 years will be Labour-led simply because Labour is much bigger than all other centre/left parties, it will indeed be an obstacle if Labour’s leader doesn’t look like a prime-minister-in-waiting. But then in the 1990s Paddy Ashdown had a Labour leader to work with who was very receptive and prime-ministerial, and he won over the centre ground to such an extent that he never had to concede much to any other party. So in some ways having a Labour leader who looks like he can’t win on his own may be a good precondition for progressive cooperation. And who’s to say the leader of the largest party has to be the prime minister? – couldn’t we, if appropriate, find a leader of the progressives?
To some extent, events will determine how much progress we make. The call by Lisa, along with two other Labour MPs Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds, for Labour not to stand a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election was a very brave one. It may not have resulted in Labour fielding no candidate, but it might end up giving Labour-leaning voters de facto blessing to vote Lib Dem. And the Greens did stand down their candidate in favour of the Lib Dem Sarah Olney, which further entrenches the principle that, at elections, the progressives are all in it together.
The challenge now is to take a clearly recognisable problem and find ways of solving it. It was easy for us to set out how futile it is for candidates of similar mindset but different parties to beat each other to a pulp and allow the Tories to stroll through the carnage to victory. But solving it is harder, because every solution has as many pitfalls as potential. The next step may be working out some loose, broad-based manifesto, a set of bullet points covering the main principles of centre/left thinking to act as a unity of purpose, perhaps linked to a ‘stamp’ or ‘kite mark’ that would allow a candidate to show he/she is worth supporting tactically by voters of other parties. Or perhaps the next step is to create a British Podemos, a movement (rather than a party) of the liberal/socialdemocratic/Green/socialist left that works from the grass roots upwards and addresses some of the fears and angst behind the Brexit vote.
There are no simple answers, but we have at least asked the question and produced a manual to encourage discussion. Our various meetings show the will for that discussion is clearly there – we now need to work out how to take this exciting project forward.