Is a progressive alliance a possibility?

As the polls narrow, Jenny Muir looks at the possibility of a de facto, case by case, progressive alliance emerging from next week’s election.

It is no surprise that the dominant General Election battles have been between the Conservatives and Labour in England and Wales; and between the SNP and the Tories in Scotland. The smaller parties have pretty much vanished from serious consideration, due to our perverse electoral system for Parliamentary elections. Although the polls are all over the place, the general trend has been a Labour surge at the expense of all parties other than the Tories. But that surge doesn’t bring Labour close enough to win a majority. With a few days to go, there’s all to play for.

The long campaign was initially dominated by attitudes towards Brexit, perhaps prompted by talk of the ultimately unfulfilled pacts and alliances amongst anti-Brexit parties as much as because it was Theresa May’s reason for calling the election. It’s not surprising that May is now trying to pull the debate back to Brexit and by implication away from discussion about public services, where she was losing big time. Not only that: they are backing off from the strong and stable leadership message, which backfired as much for its lack of subtlety as its inaccuracy, when the leader crumbled under pressure and was too arrogant to take part in the traditional BBC TV debate.

Jeremy Corbyn is having a good election, although I still doubt whether good enough to win. Manifesto commitments to improve spending on key services sound increasingly credible as he can (usually) answer the question ‘how are you going to pay for it’? It’s disappointing that Labour plans to keep Trident and nuclear power, increase airport capacity and won’t back a second Brexit referendum. But there’s much to welcome and people’s experiences of being let down by health, education, transport, housing or welfare benefits systems mean they are open to change.

And yet… the question of his leadership ability hasn’t gone away just because Theresa May has been discredited in this area. If he can’t lead his party effectively then how can he form a Cabinet capable of delivering the manifesto? However, Labour has some very strong candidates – not all of whom support Corbyn, of course – and an unexpected endorsement from The Guardian.

The current situation is that both Labour and Conservative are trying not to talk about leadership. If Labour can keep the focus on policy over the next few days then they will do better. If the agenda shifts back to the Brexit negotiations then the Tories will make bigger gains.

Both Labour and the SNP have ruled out a formal coalition in the event of a hung Parliament, however in this situation a minority Labour government would be part of a de facto progressive alliance, able to implement its policies only on a case by case basis. This would allow meaningful participation from parties across the UK in delivering and improving upon a Labour programme, including some parties from Northern Ireland. There would still be disagreements: for example Labour and the Tories may well align against others to keep Trident and to resist further electoral reform. The West Lothian question would gain more salience and, paradoxically, it would be in Labour’s interest to obstruct moves towards Scottish independence. What would happen with Brexit is anyone’s guess. But much could be achieved, and in particular the task of reconstructing the public sector could begin.

 

Jenny Muir

3 June 2017