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Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The perils of a 'progressive alliance'

By David Hough

A progressive alliance, where parties stand aside to give the main challenger a better opportunity of winning a seat, is something that sounds great in theory, but also comes fraught with dangers.

The Labour MP for Norwich South, Clive Lewis, among others, advocated doing this in a Guardian article on April 30th. They specifically said that Labour should stand aside in some seats, to help the Greens.

In reality, this would only help Caroline Lucas hold Brighton Pavilion, where Labour are the main challengers, and might even lead to wavering Labour voters, and Liberal Democrats (the local party having already decided to stand aside) voting for the Conservative, and putting the seat in danger.

My first point being that there is no guarantee that the result will not backfire. There are only limited circumstances, in a very marginal seat, where it may work.

A second problem is that once these voters have been encouraged to back another party, or have put their cross elsewhere, they may not return. For those that go to the polls, their vote is important to them, their way of expressing an opinion on which party they believe will provide the best government for them.

This creates a third problem, which is that their vote becomes a negative one, and not a positive, because they are being encouraged to vote against something, not for. Tactical voting is something that goes on in elections, but at least a choice is being made to vote against a particular party. When a party removes itself from the fray, it restricts the amount of choice available.

An example that comes to mind occurred in Richmond a few months ago, when Zac Goldsmith resigned his seat and Conservative Party membership, over the proposed third runway at Heathrow. He stood as an independent on this issue, and the party decided not to put up a candidate against him, and support his candidacy as an independent.

This backfired spectacularly when Sarah Olney of the Liberal democrats came through to win the by-election, as many Conservatives were unhappy at the actions of the local party, and either didn’t vote, or it went elsewhere. Goldsmith has been readopted as the Conservative candidate for the election, but there is no guarantee that voters will just return to the fold, especially those who object to his pro-Brexit stance, Richmond having voted to Remain during the referendum.

My final objection, which is linked the those previously mentioned, is that it is undemocratic. Voters are having their choices restricted. Readers will, perhaps, think that not all parties stand in all seats, which is true, but that is not the same as a deliberate decision to stand aside in favour of a different party’s candidate.

Voters back particular parties for their own reasons, and it would take too long to go into them here, and they will often be reluctant to vote for another party, just because their local party asks them to.

Our political system is far from perfect, and many people express dissatisfaction with the parties, and the candidates that are already placed before them. However, I do not believe the artificial manipulation of the system is the answer.

This article is not about electoral reform, but that could be a way forward, enabling parties to stand on their own programmes, but voters would be aware that they would be likely to be working together in government. The recent coalition government, has made many wary, so it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

In conclusion, I do not think formal deals as part of a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ would be beneficial to our democracy, and could work to its detriment. The two principle objections I have are that it is a negative vote and its undemocratic, because it removes choice. That it can also backfire, is another issue I’ll leave the parties to wrestle with.

David was Labour candidate in Rayleigh & Wickford at the 2015 general election