When Tony Blair offers a view on how to win elections it is worth paying attention. In recent weeks the former UK premier has been one of a number of left-leaning figures seeking to resurrect the dream of an electoral pact with other parties, a so-called progressive alliance, to defeat the Conservatives.
Writing last month, Blair, who has long blamed the historic split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for decades of near Conservative hegemony, called for a new dialogue. “Otherwise, we will be in the dreary business of fighting with a cause which is unclear, our hands tied behind our back, on a ground we didn’t choose in a battle we can’t win.”
This view was echoed by former Green leader Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Clive Lewis and the Lib Dems’ Layla Moran as they backed a three-party non-compete pact to end the “self-defeating tribalism” splitting the left vote. (Labour opposition to separatism precludes Welsh and Scottish nationalists.)
A report for the campaign group Compass identified 48 Conservative seats where the combined progressive vote exceeded the Tory total, enough to rob the government of its majority.
Such talk is seductive, especially to those who prefer to focus on the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system rather than any intrinsic lack of electoral appeal. But it is true that since 1979, Labour has won just three of the last 11 elections (all under Blair). The scale of the defeat in 2019 means victory at the next election is already unlikely.
But even allowing for the added credibility of the support of Labour’s one living election winner, and setting aside internal obstacles, there are four reasons why a progressive alliance is, for now at least, a dead-end for Labour.
First, parties do not own voters. If they pull out of a seat, a sizeable chunk of supporters will not simply do as they are told. Voters object to stitch-ups or being taken for granted. While activists may think in such terms as “progressive”, most citizens do not define themselves in this way. Those who do, already understand tactical voting.
The recent mayoral elections illustrate the point. These contests offer a proxy for a progressive alliance since voters have a first and second choice, with votes transferred should their first preference be eliminated. In the West of England contest, fewer than half the reallocated Lib Dem and Green transfers — 41,000 out of 96,000 — went to Labour. Around 12,000 went to the Conservatives and the rest went to neither. It was a similar story in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. In both cases it was enough for Labour to win, but it also shows that voters cannot be assumed to belong to a “progressive” side.
If one takes these results as anywhere near indicative, then there are seats where a general election alliance would help defeat the Tories, but there are probably fewer than progressives imagine. Of the 48 seats cited by Compass, in 23 the combined progressive vote lead is less than 1,500, meaning they would need unrealistic levels of voter compliance for the pact to deliver.
Second, the parties must agree a platform. While big issues like Brexit can create a common cause, it is not enough just to be anti-Tory. A further risk is that the parties turn inward and that their shared platform is fixed by the enthusiasms of activists rather than the priorities of voters.
Third, Labour would be accountable for every quirky view of the other parties. The Tories would soon find Green and Lib Dem policies with which to alarm voters. The pact could also cost Labour votes in some traditional seats such as Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, or Hull West and Hessle where the Tories are already making inroads.
The fourth problem is the largest and simplest. However solid the alliance, it is an agreement to put a Labour leader in power. This means it cannot succeed until Labour looks like a party the country is ready to elect. This is also a Catch-22. An alliance cannot work until Labour looks electable. But once it is, members are less open to pacts.
Labour did not lose in 2019 for want of a progressive alliance but because it lost more than 2.5m voters and 60 seats. A number of those losses, notably in northern seats, would not have been averted by such a pact. In Bishop Auckland, Darlington and Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield, the Tories secured 53, 48 and 47 per cent of the vote and their majority was greater than the combined Lib Dem and Green votes.
Talk of an alliance is therefore a displacement activity and a distraction from the hard steps Labour must take to make itself electable. It is a magic-bullet alternative to the more difficult task of reconnecting with its lost voters and finding a policy platform that speaks to their concerns.
Some argue building an alliance would enhance the standing of Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, and show the new changed post-Corbyn party. But at the moment it would look more like desperation than boldness. While there is some interest among some senior figures in dialogue to develop ideas on electoral or constitutional reform, the leadership is wary of pacts.
The caution is wise. There may come a time, nearer the election, when some kind of arrangement is worth examining. But Labour’s core task is to get itself in order and start looking like a party its lost voters are prepared to see in power. Electoral pacts are no substitute for electability.