ALLIANCES, AMBITIONS AND ARGUMENTS: WHY WE DON’T HAVE WIDESPREAD ELECTORAL PACTS

by James Anthony

The concept of progressive political parties working together in some form to beat right-wing parties in elections sounds like a great, simple idea – and it certainly isn’t a new one. Standing down in a constituency to avoid ‘splitting the vote’ has been thought about and even practiced formally as early as 1903 in British politics in the hope of bringing down Tory majorities in elections. With the current Tory administration enjoying a majority in the Commons and very promising polling data, progressive forces on the left have again started talking about entering into some sort of alliance. However, it rarely seems to get put into practice, at least not nationally.

The simplest form of an agreement would be for some parties to stand down in constituencies where a particular progressive party has a decent chance of taking a seat, encouraging their supporters to back a single progressive candidate. This has become especially relevant recently with the Greens deciding to stand aside in the Richmond Park by-election, and instead support the Liberal Democrat candidate, who had the best chance of beating the conservative-minded Zac Goldsmith. (And did)

I can completely understand why the local Labour party chose to field a candidate

Labour controversially decided to stand in this election, despite calls from prominent MPs – including Norwich South’s Clive Lewis – to stand aside and increase the chances of seeing another MP from a progressive party in parliament. As much as I agree with Clive Lewis on having an electoral pact in favour of the Lib Dems in this by-election, I can completely understand why the local Labour party chose to field a candidate.

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(The newly elected Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, Sarah Olney (centre), celebrates with party supporters © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Part of the problem is that the decision to stand aside ultimately has to be made by local parties, not national groups – and this is the problem. Local parties will almost never give up their claim to a seat. If you had spent much of your life campaigning for a party in a certain local area, why on earth would you want to let another party win over the voters that you had worked so hard to get to know? It’s easy to talk about stepping down in certain constituencies far from your own, but hard to imagine what it must feel like to give up personal political ambitions in the pursuit of the bigger picture.

Some people may not fully understand the hard work, attachment or personal ambition that comes with working politically in a certain ward or constituency, and how hard it would be to abandon it.

progressive parties cannot agree with each other. If we could, there would be no need for an alliance as we’d all have joined the same party.

The other, perhaps bigger issue is that progressive parties cannot agree with each other. If we could, there would be no need for an alliance as we’d all have joined the same party. Political viewpoints are extremely personal and voters would not be happy having a lack of choice when it came to elections. Even without a Liberal Democrat candidate, I wouldn’t be entirely content with voting Labour or Green, and neither would a lot of people, perhaps to the point of deciding not to vote – spelling disaster for a group whose whole purpose would be based on winning elections.

Both these problems are perhaps illustrated best in my current constituency of Norwich South. All the parties are hard at work in the area all year round and some campaigners have been at it for years. There is no way any progressive party here would willingly stand aside.

(Labour and Scottish Green Party flags, via Bright Green)

(Labour and Scottish Green Party flags, via Bright Green)

Perhaps Clive Lewis would not be so keen for an electoral pact if it were his own seat at risk. It would be argued, of course, that Labour have the best chance to win it – but having previously been a Liberal Democrat constituency, and the Greens making it a target – we cannot assume, particularly with the boundary changes, that there would be a clear choice of progressive candidate. With political careers on the line as well as competing ideologies, it’s hard to see how a local-initiated electoral pact could ever work here in Norwich. It will be the same up and down the country.

I am by no means against electoral pacts in principle, and anything to remove the Tories from Westminster gets my backing.

In a way, it is a shame. I am by no means against electoral pacts in principle, and anything to remove the Tories from Westminster gets my backing. People just seem to forget how much personal belief, time and energy is invested into politics and how impossibly hard it would be for local activists to give up their hard work in favour of a different party. We cannot talk about a progressive alliance like it is something simple to do, as for those who work so hard in politics, it is not.

There may be opportunities to do it in places with one progressive party hugely ahead of the others, where only one party is seriously active, and in single issue by-elections, but it becomes an entirely different scenario when the whole country has to go to the polls. At a general election, when the progressive left return to fighting amongst themselves for seats, and careers and reputations could be made or destroyed, it’s hard to see if we will ever get closer to the progressive alliance so many of us have been dreaming about for so long.

Featured Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck

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