The ‘Progressive Alliance’ re-assessed, post-General-Election: a failed strategy

The think tank I chair, Green House published a report, in which I was a prominent author, in favour of the ‘Progressive Alliance’ concept, last year.

A year on, and it is clear that we live in interesting times. This election may have gone relatively well for Corbyn – but we must be honest enough to accept that it has gone pretty disastrously wrong for g/Greens. Ecology was virtually entirely absent from the election campaign. The Conservatives, now governing once again, ‘won’ (sic) the election with a manifesto promising less than zero, eco-wise. Labour, the main beneficiaries of the election, promised “faster economic growth” as the linchpin of their manifesto: an idea directly contrary to Green House’s raison d’etre. Meanwhile, the Green Party saw its vote-share more than halved, failed to make any gains, and lost its second-places.

This election has been the worst setback for the Green Party since the post-1989 meltdown – which means that for the vast majority of members of that Party it has been the worst ever / in living memory.

I was a strong backer of Caroline Lucas’s Progressive Alliance bid, throughout the last two years. I (still) believe it was a noble idea, worth attempting. However, I believe that we in Green House, and most of all in fact all those who have been the p.a. concept’s backers (this document is among other things a massive ‘mea culpa’, and I hope that others will engage in the same soul-searching)… all of us have a deep responsibility to examine critically what has happened, at this election. For the progressive alliance concept has proven to have two calamitous consequences:

  1. It proved impossible to pursue the ‘Progressive Alliance’ concept without the Green Party giving up its highly-distinct ecologistic Green identity and without falling into a vapid embrace of ‘progressivism’ and an outdated embrace of being ‘Left’. [1]
    • The former is dangerous because as g/Greens we actually have deep concerns about the idea of ‘progress’: it is the ideology of ‘progress’ that actually fuels the growthism and reckless technophilia that we are, above all, fighting. Only if the standard vision of progress is replaced by a thoroughly revamped vision, of ‘real progress’, is the concept of ‘progressive alliance’ acceptable. But that message has been swamped, marginalised: growthism and technophilia are hegemonic, and virtually no-one has understood that g/Greens don’t believe in progress if progress means (as it means for Labour, and virtually everyone) endless economic growth and endless industrial expansionism, endlessly rising ‘living standards’, endlessly more tech. When we greens – including Caroline Lucas – continue to speak of the alleged need for an economic ‘stimulus’ (!), we have failed disastrously to distinguish an ecologistic, post-growth vision at all from Labour et al. Furthermore, the term ‘progressive’ is so vapid that it can apparently include even someone like Molly Scott Cato’s opponent in Bristol West – an anti-Corbyn, pro-Trident, not-pro-PR Blairite… The term ‘progressive’ has, in general parlance, in fact come to include the entire Labour Party – quite contrary to our initial intentions, when people such as Caroline and myself spoke of a ‘bottom-up’ progressive alliance… This is highly dangerous – including, crucially, for the Green Party and its prospects.
    • Likewise, the latter, ‘Leftism’, is dangerous because for g/Greens other political spectra are more important than the vague, outdated, hegemonic Left vs Right spectrum. If we accept an equation of progressive alliance with leftism, then we are sidelining the absolute centrality of ecology, and accepting the debate on Labour’s terms, on ‘Corbynite’ terms. This is catastrophic for ecologism, and post-growth. Furthermore it then becomes easy for Labour, especially where they have a decent candidate, to make the case that g/Greens simply ought to vote Labour. This is what has happened at this election, across virtually the whole country. Voters felt that the Green Party was giving them permission to vote Labour in droves; Greens have also of course come under terrible pressure to endorse Labour or to withdraw candidacies; and so forth. ’Leftism’ and ‘Progressivism’ alike have no concept of limits to growth. They basically involve an appeal to voters that they (voters) will have more stuff, endlessly. This is untenable, for g/Greens, and contradicts Green House’s raison d’etre. What the Green Party badly needs is to articulate a post-growth future seriously, so that it becomes imaginable to people.[2] Green House plans to offer some draft such articulation, at the present time. But let’s be clear: outside a few isolated voices (such as former MP Alan Simpson) Labour has no interest in post-growth. None. And thus there is no interest in Labour, in reality, in facing up to climate reality, as per Green House’s report and project on this.
    • Furthermore, the pro-‘progressive-alliance’ positioning has had a further, dangerous and counter-productive effect, an effect that was broadly foreseeable unless Greens insisted on their distinctiveness throughout and rebuffed crude common understandings of Green as part of ‘the Left’: the Green Party’s appeal to Conservative voters has been reduced. This is avoidable (if Greens ditch the p.a.) and of course highly-regrettable, given that Greens have huge potential to appeal to green-leaning small-c conservatives, as opposed to the neoliberals who rule the contemporary Con Party. The reduction of Green appeal to c/Conservatives also, ‘paradoxically’, may reduce the likelihood of the Conservatives being defeated: for, in order for them to be defeated and actually turfed out of no.10, they probably have to lose votes (surprise surprise)… They are less likely to lose votes to Greens (or LibDems) if Greens (or LibDems) are not in any position to attract small-c conservative voters who have been betrayed by their neoliberal party – i.e. if those voters see these Parties as linked quasi-umbilically to Labour. By throwing their lot in with the p.a., Greens have basically said to Conservative voters: “Don’t even think about voting for us. We don’t even really want your votes. We define ourselves by not being you”. Outside certain metropolitan bubbles, this is a disastrous message, both in terms of Green (or LibDem, similarly) appeal (which ought not to be defined by the Left-Right spectrum, which is nowadays to a considerable extent eclipsed by the Green-Grey / Post-Growth/Growth spectrum) and in terms of actually practically beating Conservatives (who will not be beaten unless ‘we’ win some of their votes).
  2. The other parties refused to engage with the progressive alliance bid at all.

Barring some limited moves by (a couple of local parties in) the LibDems, there was no take-up of the Green offer over the past two years/months, nor any positive reciprocation of Greens’ extraordinary (excessive?) generosity in standing down in seat after seat to try to reduce May’s majority. In particular, there was literally zero take-up of the idea by Labour. Labour proved itself utterly incapable of transcending its tribal history. Perhaps this isn’t at all surprising – Jeremy Corbyn calls the Labour Party itself the ‘real’ progressive alliance; John McDonnell, while he has been helpful to Green House in the past, is strictly tribal when it comes to the Green party: in conversation, he urges Greens interested in a progressive alliance to (surprise surprise) join Labour. Labour were privately offered, a month out from General Election day, a remarkable deal in which Greens would stand aside in a further 12 seats (beyond those that they had already committed to standing aside in), if Labour would only stand aside in the Isle of Wight, a key Green target because it was a seat in which Greens are growing and in which Greens came ahead of Labour and LibDems in 2015. This unprecedented offer was spurned by Labour. The Green Party tried really hard to co-operate with Labour. Labour emphatically, absolutely refused. It’s that simple: Labour has zero interest in being part of any p.a. arrangement – and will have less than zero now, having been strengthened unexpectedly at the election. …In ‘game theory’, the rational strategy among potentially hostile potential allies is widely understood to be ‘Tit for tat’. You start off by doing something generous. If you get some reciprocal generosity in return, then you go further down the path of generosity. But if you get rebuffed, if you get treated with hostility or with contempt, then you stop being generous; you ensure that the other learns that you are not a dupe. The leading political demographer Pat Dade put the ‘Tit for tat’ point to me like this, in email correspondence about the matter at hand: “Teddy Roosevelt encapulated this in his famous meme, “Talk softly…and carry a big stick”. The big stick doesn’t have to be something to beat others with, which is how this is often interpreted. The big stick can be something the ‘other guy’ thinks he needs – the stick he can use to win – which is what he really wants. Your stick is a means to his end – from his point of view. Insight: You wouldn’t be at the table with him if he didn’t think you had a big stick. Now ask yourself – did Labour ever think the Green Party had a big stick? Looking at their reactions to the Progressive Alliance the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. It was a fantasy that if the Green Party does something ethical then it will be reciprocated in kind by Labour. It was a self-delusion to think a ‘power-player’ would do anything other than try to control any move presented to them. The Labour Party in 2017 treated the Green Party in the same way the Conservative Party treated their coalition partners the Lib Dems, in 2015.” …Greens have been (predictably, according to Dade) taken for fools by Labour. Greens have been treated with contempt. It would be absurd, under these circumstances, for the Green Party to go on the same way. (The definition of insanity: keeping on doing the same thing, in hope of different results.) Labour need to understand that there are real negative consequences to their actions, their tribalism. Unless they spontaneously change their tune (very very unlikely), then the progressive alliance needs to be rescinded. It ends here. Then maybe by 2022–3, they (Labour) might even be ready to actually consider the idea seriously… (A sine qua non for Greens to take it seriously then will need to be: their embrace of PR. Greens mustn’t ever make the mistake again of entering into arrangements with Parties who are not categorically pro-PR.)

Together, these two arguments that I’ve made make a very powerful case for abandoning the progressive alliance experiment.

The p.a. experiment was a noble effort, in my opinion at least. It was noble to try to play politics differently, and to try to get the awful anti-green May government out. And it has of course had some upsides: such as presumably helping in some of the seats that Labour gained off the Cons (But more on this below). But the bigger picture, of a Labour Party committed explicitly to faster economic growth (! – including HS2, airport expansion, road-building, coal-mining, Trident-renewal, nuclear power and much much more – Labour, as surely as the Conservatives, will in due course ‘lead’ us all into eco-perdition), crucially against PR, and so forth, remains stubbornly intact. And in any case Labour has simply stayed as utterly tribal as ever. The experiment of the progressive alliance, we must be honest enough to admit, has on balance failed. It has in fact backfired against Greens, disastrously.

Greens need to be able to engage in sufficiently full and deep critique of Labour, without reservation. Yes, Labour would be better in the short-run for most people; that’s partly why we wanted the p.a. in the first place. But in the medium-long run, Lab could even be worse than the Cons: for they (Labour) are determined to grow the economy as rapidly as possible, with deficit-financing, and to ensure that as many of us as possible live beyond our means for as long as possible. In the context of the limits to growth, g/Green criticism of Labour is just as profound as our criticism of the Conservatives, possibly in the medium-long run even more so. We must engage fully in that robust criticism, and position ourselves as the only sane alternative to this growthist madness.

But engaging in such entirely robust criticism, and not aligning ourselves with either of the old parties, is incompatible with the p.a. programme.

Finally, and decisively: after these bad results, Greens have no constituency 2nd places. None (in any seat where the major parties stand). That means that a progressive alliance cannot work electorally. If the Green Party goes in for it again, they will be simply engaging in a complete act of self-sacrifice. They would then be allowing a situation in which there will be calls for Greens to stand aside everywhere (save for Brighton Pavillion, which now looks pretty safe next time, even without a p.a, and even given boundary changes). That’s not an electoral strategy! Greens need instead to find a way forward that works for the Green Party. Because Greens now once again have no 2nd places, that way cannot be the p.a.

Some will say that, everything I have written above notwithstanding, still the Green Party may have helped prevent Theresa May from achieving an overall majority. Isn’t that worth it?

But at this point the advocate of the p.a. faces a dilemma. If it is true that the p.a. helped prevent May from being a majority-PM, then logically it is also true that the p.a. helped Labour achieve an unexpectedly strong result without making any commitment to electoral reform, such that Labour is now closer than it would otherwise have been to assembling an overall majority on its own under FPTP. In other words, the progressive alliance, such as it was has helped Labour not to have to change its policy to one of backing electoral reform. It has perpetuated FPTP. For just ask yourself this simple counter-factual: is it more likely that Labour would now be actively considering PR, if it had not moved forward (with the aid of the p.a.) on June 8th? The answer, obviously, is yes. So, a horrible irony: by supporting the p.a. (unilaterally) Greens have made it less likely that Labour will change its policy to embrace electoral reform.

This is a tragic, disastrous result. Greens have inadvertently set the cause of electoral reform in this country back. That mistake must not be repeated.

What then is the alternative to the p.a.? Greens are going to need to do some rebuilding, intellectual/ideological, as well as practical. Greens need to work to get people to understand that you cannot simply corral Green politics into some crude Left or progressive umbrella. Ecologism is a whole different approach to politics. There is a huge task of ‘political education’ implicit here. Green House hopes to play an important part in that.

Thus my central political strategy recommendation is for the Green Party to can the progressive alliance and instead to focus on setting out how, in the main, Greens are neither left nor right nor centre but out in front, ahead of their time: but how that time might finally be approaching, as the limits to growth start to crunch in. Greens need to re-assert the identity of their Party as Green.

Take as an example the Party’s messaging during this General Election campaign on health. That messaging consisted almost exclusively in trying to claim that we were more Left-wing than Labour on treating the NHS as a truly public service. That message worked in the days of Miliband; whereas, whether or not the message is true, it is absolutely hopeless in the era of a socialist leader like Corbyn. What Greens should be doing, instead, is putting their prime focus upon the way that only the Green Party has a joined-up, green approach to health: only Green policies tackle the causes of ill-health. That is a common-sense, financially-sound approach with very wide appeal including to c/Conservative voters.

The same approach applies across the whole field of politics. Greens need to be genuinely Green, not aim, hopelessly, to be lefter-than-thou.

To conclude.

Clearly, we live in febrile, exciting times. Will the tide flow further in Labour’s favour? Or: might it be able to reverse, and flow in the Greens’ favour? One thing is for sure, such reversibility of fortune cannot favour the Greens unless they are clearly distinct from Labour. This is the main message that g/Greens are likely to draw from Jeremy Gilbert’s striking analysis of the general election. If Greens keep desperately seeking to remain under the p.a. banner, then a switch from Labour to Greens wouldn’t be reversing anything, and so plainly would not occur.

In sum: the game has changed with this election. The progressive alliance is now an irrelevance, at least for Greens; PR is probably irrelevant for some time to come too, off Labour’s agenda (if it was ever anywhere on it).

Greens need once again to contemplate the difficult march to change and power on their own. And perhaps learn from the extraordinary achievement of Ukip – who appear likely to have changed this country forever (with the EU referendum), without ever winning a large number of Parliamentary seats.

It really won’t do for Greens to bask in reflected glory from the ‘success’ of the ‘progressive’ (sic) Parties – Labour, the LibDems (!), Plaid – on June 8. Greens didn’t succeed, outside of Brighton Pavillion – on the contrary. If Greens go on talking about being ‘progressives’ all the time, then they merely fuel the idea that there’s no harm in voting for parties other than theirs. The progressive alliance has set g/Greens back a couple of years, maybe much more.

Our living planet literally doesn’t have time for Greens to make the same mistake again.

Thus my 2 core recommendations:

  1. An end to the ‘progressive alliance’ delusion;
  2. A return to the Green Party’s core identity, as ecological – only this can give voters a significant enough reason to prefer Greens to Labour, and only this can enable Greens to appeal across the board. To be not left, nor right, nor centre, but out in front: the Party of the future.

[1] See my warning, which went unheeded, about how crucial it would be to maintain thoroughly a distinctive Green identity, in a progressive alliance, especially at p.7–8. But even I didn’t see clearly just how impossibly difficult this would prove to be, even if it were tried (which it wasn’t, not enough).

[2] Thanks to Paul de Hoest for this important point.

NOTE: This article first appeared as a contribution in Green House’s report ‘progressive alliance – revisited’. The full report can be accessed here

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