A run of UK by-elections in safe Tory seats — like that in Old Bexley and Sidcup last week — is reviving talk of progressive pacts in British politics. At the root of these discussions is the recognition of a historic split on the left of politics which sees the two main progressive parties competing with each other while the conservatives are left largely unchallenged on the right. Under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system the split has meant lengthy periods of Tory hegemony.
The scale of the last election defeat has now led many in both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to talk about a “progressive alliance”, a form of non-competition pact in which parties agree not to stand against each other so as not to split the anti-conservative vote. Labour’s 2019 defeat was so heavy that a 12 per cent swing is required even to secure a single seat majority. It would therefore require the near implosion of the Tories, yet the combined Labour and Lib Dem vote was almost identical to Boris Johnson’s.
Since a hung parliament is a more achievable goal it makes sense for the parties most likely to ally to do more to bring it about. Such a deal would almost certainly need to include an agreement to reform the electoral system to move towards some form of proportional representation.
The superficial attractions are obvious to those on the left but there are reasons to be wary. Informal co-operation in by-elections can work, although voters already understand how to vote tactically in such contests. In any competitive contest the third party routinely sees its vote squeezed. In Old Bexley and Sidcup the Liberal Democrat vote fell to just 647 votes (still not enough for Labour to snatch a solid Tory seat). The inverse is thought likely in the looming North Shropshire contest, triggered by the resignation of a scandal-hit MP. It is also the case that in mayoral contests with transferable votes, some Lib Dem and Green voters give Labour their second preference — but higher levels of transfers would be needed to win the target Tory seats in a general election.
So far Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has ruled out such an alliance, though he is under pressure especially from Blairites to reconsider. He is right to resist. For one thing parties do not own their voters and the electorate does not like being taken for granted. Furthermore, forcing local parties to stand aside for each other is extremely difficult. Nor are by-elections useful proxies for a national contest.
More important, however, is that a progressive alliance is an agreement to install a Labour-led government. This means that voters have to be ready to see a Labour leader — in this case Starmer — in power. Until they are, no alliance will succeed.
It is wise for like-minded parties to work together. The Liberal Democrats are already clear they could only ally with Labour after the next election. Where informal pacts, such as running paper candidates, can deliver results, the parties of the left (which includes the Greens) would be foolish to ignore such tactics.
But Labour will be making a mistake if it allows this to become a displacement activity for the more urgent task of turning itself into a viable alternative government. In recent days Starmer has sharpened up his shadow cabinet team. Yet the party still looks too opportunistic in its attacks. It lacks the policy and ideological coherence that will give voters confidence it can be trusted with power. If Starmer wishes to oust the Conservatives it is this, rather than electoral pacts, that should remain his primary focus.