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.

More thoughts on the UKIP-Green comparison

After writing one post comparing (or rather contrasting) the electoral prospects of UKIP and the Green Party, another contrast occurred to me: how they relate to the parties they are in competition with.

Trying to suggest an alternative to Greens’ current electorally unsuccessful path Neal Lawson proposes the following:

You are in an amazing position, but only if you stop playing the establishment game. Liberate yourself and your imagination. Give up the pretense of being a serious opposition party. The British Social Attitudes survey shows interest in politics rising but belief in political parties declining fast. Why lash yourself to the mast of that sinking ship? In a world of peer-to-peer democracy, just about anything is possible. You can be a radical voice for sustainable, egalitarian and democratic politics. Channel your energy into witty and clever campaigns that gets to grips with the anxieties, hopes and fears of the British people.

I know it’s hard. The electoral system is against you. Resources are tight. But with average temperatures rising faster than your chances of winning more seats, you need a new plan. Ukip has shifted the national agenda way to the right without a single MP. What could you do?

I think the problem with this proposal is that it conflates the objectives of the Greens and UKIP.

For a while now I’ve been suggesting that Farage and co are filling the the niche in British politics that’s filled by the Front National (FN) and other far-fight parties on the continent. I still feel there is a comparison in terms of UKIP’s appeal to those left behind by globalisation itself including former Labour supporters. However, my impression is that it breaks down when it comes to the party itself rather than its supporters. The FN and its ilk emerge from a neo-Nazi tradition that is quite distinct from the conservative or christian democrat traditions that gave rise to the mainstream centre-right parties in Europe. UKIP, however, seem like part of the same tradition as the Conservative party. While UKIP may share the continental far right’s scepticism of immigration, multiculturalism and the EU; it has a quite different approach to economics. While far right parties have embraced the welfare state, UKIP wants a flat tax and big public spending cuts. In fact UKIP’s list of grievances – Europe, immigration, grammar schools, political correctness, gay marriage – seems indistinguishable from the those of the Tory right. Indeed, it seems that many within the Tory party are very sympathetic to UKIP. For this reason the party seems to me more like the Tea Party than the FN: a movement of the more rabid elements of the conservative tradition trying to capture control of their tribe. They don’t want to replace the Conservative party but bring back the ‘real’ Conservative party.*

The Green Party is different; it is not just a more full blooded version of Labour or the Liberal Democrats. This is because it has it’s own ideology that is distinct from social democracy and liberalism**. My impression of the Greens is that their environmental policies are only partially about the environment: they would like us all to forgo our cars and buy locally sourced organic food not just to protect the planet but because they think this would make for a better society. This contrasts with the more instrumental view of environmental problems taken by Labour and the Lib Dems. We could also contrast social democracy’s scepticism of the market contrasts with the Green tendency to idealise a particular kind of small, local business. Even more fundamentally, the liberal enthusiasm for free trade and the Green scepticism are about as irreconcilable positions as one could imagine.

My sense is that this will render Lawson’s prescription inadequate from the Greens point of view. UKIP can perhaps accept a role of putting extra mass on the  right side of the ideological see saw because there is a party they would be content to have slide their way. By contrast, simply shifting Labour and/or the Lib Dems will not be enough for the Greens. While UKIP exists to ‘return’ the Tories to conservatism, the Greens are trying to introduce a new political tradition into the mix of British politics.


*Like most people seeking a return to a lost idyll those who see Cameron as a traitor to the Conservative cause have a poor understanding. They don’t want a return to conservatism but to Thatcherism. Disraeli, Baldwin, Macmillan or Heath would find Cameron’s worldview far more congenial than Farage’s.

**This is not to say that liberalism, social democracy and ecologism(?) don’t overlap with each other (and indeed with conservatism). It is just that it is possible to identify fundamentally different worldviews driving these ideologies.