Can Progressive Parties Work Together?

by Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics

The big question for the left is whether parties can work together. Everyone from John McDonnell to Tony Blair has spoken of the need to co-operate in an increasingly fragmented and divided country. But can it be done?

On 21st February the Centre for British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck hosted a discussion around the possibility of creating a ‘progressive alliance’ in the UK, based on the recent book The Alternative (read a sample chapter here). The panel was made up of the three editors of the book: Lisa Nandy MP (Labour), Caroline Lucas MP (Green) and Chris Bowers (Liberal Democrat) as well as Jon Cruddas MP (Labour). They propose an alliance, perhaps taking different forms, between the progressive parties of Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, all uniting around co-operation, political reform and radical economic change.

Working together in British politics isn’t as unusual as it seems. Local authorities up and down the country have done it and there have been coalitions in Scotland and Wales. In general elections, there are all sorts of ways of tactical voting and vote swapping. The idea of progressive co-operation has also been tried and tested in by-elections: in December 2016 the Greens and Women’s Equality Party threw their support behind the Liberal Democrat MP – who went on to spectacularly unseat Zac Goldsmith.

There are, however, plenty of obstacles. The electoral system may need to change to one that is more proportionate – but not everyone in all the parties, or even on the panel, were convinced. Labour appear split with some for and some against or lukewarm.

The tribalism of British politics will also need to be broken down or at least temporarily suspended. Labour, as the biggest party, must be persuaded. As the panel discussed, not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea, and some are happier arguing that their potential allies are not really progressive. Jeremy Corbyn appeared set against it, unhappy at working with the Lib Dems, though he may have slightly changed his views as the Copeland and Stoke central by-elections draw near. Tim Farron has also rejected the idea of working with ‘hard Brexit’ Labour.

So can the historic left divide be united and what principles can they unite around? How would it work? Can there really be an alliance without a push for PR? Listen to a recording of the event and judge for yourself:

Ben Worthy’s book, The Politics of Freedom of Information, was published in 2017 by Manchester University Press.