Odd one out: Lib Dems and a progressive alliance

Labour can ever have an alliance of the centre-left alliance with the Lib Dems or an alliance of the hard left with the Greens and Nationalists. It can’t have both.

A couple of weeks back I wrote a post highlighting why I thought an alliance between the Lib Dems and Labour was unlikely. James King, a fellow Lib Dem and occasional guest poster here at Matter of Facts, has written a post tackling a similar subject: the notion of combining all anti-conservative forces in the UK together into ‘a progressive alliance’. Where I mostly relied on intuition, he’s found empirical evidence to show quite how hard this might be. This bit particularly caught my attention:

This post by Tim Bale, Paul Webb, and Monica Poletti is based on survey data which asked strong supporters of each major party to plot their own ideological position, along with that of their favoured party and the other parties, on a score from 0 to 10, with 0 being the most left-wing and 10 being the most right-wing. In principle, the closer the dots are, the greater potential for an agreement there should be between the parties.  Of course, this approach is far from perfect – the left-right spectrum, while widely used, is unsubtle and frequently misleading, and these values are the averages of a potentially very wide spread.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting starting point, and if anything underestimates any potential problems with the coherence of the ‘progressive alliance’.

With the help of MS Paint, I have visualised the outlook of each party’s supporters as a linear scale.  First up, Labour.

Labour political axis

A quick explainer: the pink dot is where Labour’s strong supporters put themselves, and the red dot is where they put their party.  Green is Green, Yellow SNP, Orange Lib Dem, and so on.  The thing that stands out here is how Labour voters see themselves as being in more-or-less the same space as the SNP and the Greens, with UKIP far out to the right.  The Lib Dems, on the other hand, are perceived as slightly right-of-centre, roughly equidistant between Labour and the Tories.  Any association of Labour with the Lib Dems will alienate these supporters; while you can see a pattern of a possible progressive coalition on the left there, the Lib Dems are the clear odd-one-out.  (It should be said that this data was collected immediately after the General Election, so there may have been a shift of the views of Labour Party supporters since then.)

I don’t think Labour voters are mistaken to perceive a gap between the Lib Dems and ‘the left’.

The different components of the Labour Party may have staggeringly disparate ideas about what it means to be on the left but in my experience what tends to hold them together is a visceral opposition to the right. This is referred to as ‘negative partisanship‘. This is also a potent force for the Greens who tend to oppose Labour out of a sense it’s made too many compromises with the right-wing forces in British society. And an association of England with Toryism provides nationalism with much of its fuel.

‘Negative partisanship’ is a much less powerful force for Liberal Democrats. This can be seen in its willingness to contemplate coalitions with parties of both left and right.

Underlying this is a fairly weak identification of Liberal Democrats with the left. Which is not to say we don’t incline left. Vastly more British Liberals understand themselves as being on the left than the right. A factor that becomes pretty obvious whenever self-consciously right-wing liberals try to exert influences within the party. But there are plenty of Lib Dems who prefer to define themselves as centrists or reject the whole notion that the left/right split is meaningful. A fair number – and this includes me – are an incoherent mixture of all three. The figures James presents do indeed show that Lib Dem voters tend to see themselves as closer to Labour than the Conservatives. But only a minority of that is because they place themselves to the left – they barely do. It’s mainly because they see the Conservatives as further from the centre. Or maybe that should be ‘saw’ rather than ‘see’ – Jeremy Corbyn may have changed this.

Essentially, it will be difficult to fit the Lib Dems into an alliance built on ‘negative partisanship’. Our anti-conservative leanings are not definitive enough to convince adamant left-wingers of our reliability. And we probably need some kind of positive alignment to really buy into the alliance.

Therefore, I think Labour probably has to decide between creating ‘a progressive alliance’ with the Greens, other far left groups and perhaps the nationalists that is based solely on the notion of beating the Tories, or alternatively doing what it did in the early stages of Tony Blair’s leadership and creating a sense that Labour and the Lib Dems are engaged in a shared ‘project’ with concrete policy objectives that go beyond anti-Toryism.

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