Labour’s misuse of ‘Progressive Alliance’

“Under first past the post, nothing makes sense except fighting to win.” Molly Scott Cato shares her personal experience of standing in Stroud and experiencing Labour’s ‘anti-democratic attack’ on the Green Party.

Stroud from the air
Stroud from the air
Molly Scott Cato

I can’t remember when I first heard the phrase ‘progressive alliance’ but I liked it at once. It chimed perfectly with Green ideas about political cooperation and pluralist values. Here in Stroud, an alliance of Green, Labour and Lib Dem councillors took control of Stroud District Council from the Tories in 2012, and the Alliance is still going strong ten years later. That success has kept the Tories out of power locally and given us a shining example of how we can put political differences aside to jointly secure power in this archaic First Past the Post voting system. Following this model nationally as a first step towards PR seemed like the natural thing to do.

How naïve I was. The saddest thing in politics is to see a beautiful concept you have developed and nurtured picked up by other political parties and turned into a monster. This is what Labour has done with our genuine attempt to do politics differently. They have turned the idea of electoral cooperation into an anti-democratic attack on our right to stand candidates at all.

Prior to Progressive Alliance becoming part of our political vocabulary, we were always under pressure from tactical voting – given the absurd electoral system we suffer with, how could it be otherwise? But progressive alliance went further, involving the idea of stand-asides to enable Tories to be defeated by the candidates best placed to win. In our Green understanding, this would be a fair process – where each of the opposition parties would be allocated a number of seats to match their national support.

Something like this did happen at the 2019 election – an electoral pact called Unite to Remain, whose candidates stood aside for each other in a comradely and negotiated way. I stood in Stroud with a UtR label while the Green candidate in Cheltenham reluctantly but nobly stood aside. Unfortunately, the national Labour Party insists on standing candidates in every single constituency in the country, refusing to play any part in Unite to Remain or a Progressive Alliance. They tried to crush the Greens in Stroud and prevented the Liberal Democrats from winning in Cheltenham. They chose the rotating chance of absolute power and a Tory government over the chance to reject Brexit and enjoy a truly pluralist politics that could shut the Tories out of power for a generation.

But, worse, some in Labour also saw a different opportunity in the idea of standing aside. They turned it into insisting that others ‘stand down’ and made it an intimidating message to prevent them from having to face up to the competition our popular message was creating for them.

My experience of this in Stroud has left me and many local Greens with permanent scars. It was extreme, with hectoring, emotionally manipulative messages being shared on Facebook. When my daughter came home to support me for the final lap of the campaign, she was horrified to find her friends aggressively pushing her to tell me not to stand. Lovely young women who had frequently stayed in my home were painting me as the enemy. Within a few weeks of the election, they apologised, saying they did not understand what they were saying – admitting they had been brainwashed by relentless social media messages.

Although these tactics of intimidation were totally unacceptable, I can understand the pressure in Stroud, which is a marginal seat. But I was also told not to stand in Bristol West in 2017, where there was zero chance of a Tory winning. And friends from across the country have told me the same tactic was used against them in seats that are safe for both Labour and the Tories, or where Labour have no chance of winning. This is not a message about ‘getting the Tories out’; it is a cynical decision by Labour to turn our cooperative approach to politics into a weapon to be used against us. They are trying to demand a two-party state where no other parties challenge their claim to power on the basis of ‘not being the Tories’. 

I find the way Labour used the Progressive Alliance concept profoundly depressing and I am sharing this to ask you to protect our Party against it. When the general election comes, we need to win more parliamentary seats. That means we need to be loyal to our party, aim for a full slate of excellent candidates, and fight to win. Under first past the post, nothing makes sense except fighting to win. It doesn’t feel any more comfortable to me than it does to you, but if we don’t do it we might as well pack up and go home.

So this time, no quarter for alliances or deals or tactical voting. We need to fight for every seat. We must not give a single scrap of energy to the Labour bullies. They respect power and courage and that is what we must show. There is room in our democracy for a range of voices, and cooperation between progressive parties can improve the chance of removing the Tories from power. But cooperation must be genuine and on the basis of reciprocity. And for as long as the national Labour Party insists on standing candidates in every single seat in the UK, no matter whether they come third, fourth, fifth and ‘let the Tories in’ – then we cannot allow them to demand that others stand aside.