A Progressive Alliance would have won in GE2017 (and prevented Brexit)

I read the following two paragraphs in the Guardian last night. It is a great example of political journalism without political awareness.

“The Lib Dem fightback failed to materialise in the Somerset constituency of Wells. The party’s candidate, Tessa Munt, fought a vibrant campaign and thought she may have won by tapping into the youth vote, but the Tory James Heappey held the seat he took in 2015.

Labour which has never won here, was delighted to have doubled its number of votes to 7,129.”

The vote total shows that the last line is, or should be, ridiculous:

· Conservative: 30,488

· Liberal Democrat: 23,906

· Labour: 7,129

· Christian Peoples Alliance: 320

Labour was delighted that it finished a slightly less-distant third place, while its votes would have been enough to defeat a Conservative — the party Labour was seeking to replace in government.

By refusing to stand down a candidate in Wells and support the Lib Dem, Labour lost a seat for a potential Labour-led coalition and made it less likely that they would govern the country.

Progressive infighting gave government to the Tories

There had been some talk about the creation of a Progressive Alliance during the election campaign, as a way for Labour, Lib Dems, and the Green Party to unite their support against Conservative candidates.

The three parties may have their differences, but clearly are far closer together than with the Tories. But other than a few informal agreement, there was no cooperation, and Labour, Lib Dems, and Greens ran against each other in most seats (I don’t have full data yet to check how many). To the leaders of the parties, an alliance was something they didn’t bother with trying.

Voters for the three parties should be furious at this inaction.

Despite the collapse of the Conservative majority, Theresa May is still prime minister, which progressives opposed. She is now more beholden to Conservative backbenchers, who progressives oppose. She is being supported by the Northern Irish DUP, who, if initial reports about their stances are correct, progressives will oppose.

While it was a great night for Labour, they are still not in power. They needed an additional sixteen seats to make a viable coalition between Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, and the Scottish National Party.

As it happens, there are at least seventeen seats* won by Conservatives where the combined vote total of Labour, Lib Dems, and Greens would have won. There are probably more, but I stopped counting once I reached their threshold for a majority.

In other words, had a Progressive Alliance emerged in those districts, a prime minister that progressives would have preferred would likely have been on his or her way to the Queen today to ask to form a government.

Not just this year

This isn’t a new phenomenon in British politics. The Conservative-led coalition that governed from 2010–2015 was also the result of a split in the left wing vote.

If there had been a Progressive Alliance in 2010 running against a Conservative Alliance (Tories + UKIP) — assuming that the votes went in the same way — the Progressives would have won 421 seats to the Conservatives’ 205.** This would have been a swing of 101 seats away from the actual results of the Conservatives.

While we cannot know now what the vote totals would have been if there had been a two-party system in place in 2010, since we can’t go back in time and run the campaign again, this is enough of a swing to make it seem highly likely that a unified progressive party would have remained in government.

It’s not to say that this arrangement would always work for progressives. In 2015, if we assume that UKIP voters would have joined a Conservative Alliance, the Tories would have gained an extra 36 seats.***

Nonetheless, if there had been broad-tent alliances, David Cameron would not have had to worry about having his own vote split by UKIP, and he wouldn’t have offered to hold a referendum on Brexit. I am fairly certain that the UK would be staying in the EU if the Conservative Party had not faced a political culture conducive to minor parties in 2015 and was more worried about splitting its base than reaching out to middle ground voters.

Change the system or adapt to it

Having multiple parties competing for similar ideological space has proved disastrous to the liberal side of Britain since 2010. It delivered two election wins to Conservatives and encouraged the gamble that led to Brexit.

The larger point here, as I’ve made before, is not about liberal versus conservative policies. It’s about the nature of politics.

Politics is not a game — it’s too important to be considered as such. But it does have rules. In the United Kingdom, as in the United States, the rule is first-past-the-post. Whichever candidate has the plurality of votes in a district wins.

This means that if one side split their vote between multiple candidates, the chances of any winning are lower. This is what happened in the United States in 2016, when the Green Party could have made Hillary Clinton president, but diverting votes to Jill Stein delivered the White House to someone who claimed climate change was a hoax.****

Ignoring the rules of an electoral system, and not taking them into account in a strategy, only hurts your side’s chances of getting into government, and therefore the ability to enact policy preferences.

Since the UK might have another election soon, my suggestion to any Brit reading this is simple. There are two choices.

  1. Change the electoral system to something that permits similar parties to compete against each other, like proportional representation or a ranked ballot, as Maine has done. A French-style two round system would also have the same effect.
  2. Accept that a first-past-the-post system favors a single, broad party, and adapt to it.

Otherwise, the liberal side of British politics will continue issuing manifestos that rally its troops, gaining a majority of the vote on election day, and finding itself in Opposition the day after, unable to transfer political support to actual governing.

* These seats are the following (with a full list once results are published by the Electoral Commission):

· Chipping Barnet

· Hendon

· Harrow East

· Richmond Park

· Putney

· Cities of London & Westminster

· Wimbledon

· Preseli Pembrokeshire

· Aberconwy

· Hazel Grove

· Bolton West

· Southport

· Morecambe & Lunesdale

· Middlesborough S & Cleveland E

· St. Austell & Newquay

· Finchley & Golders Green

· Wells

** Seats in 2010 would have been:

Progressive Alliance: 421

Conservative_Alliance: 205

SNP: 5

DUP: 8

APNI: 1

SDLP: 3

SF: 5

Speaker: 1

Ind1: 1

PC: 1

*** Seats in 2015 would have been:

Progressive Alliance: 213

Conservative Alliance: 366

SNP: 51

DUP: 8

UUP: 2

PC: 3

SDLP: 3

SF: 4

Speaker: 1

Ind: 1

**** Trump’s margin over Hillary in the tipping point states:

Michigan: 10,704 votes

Wisconsin: 22,748 votes

Pennsylvania: 44,292 votes.

Green Party vote totals in those states:

Michigan: 51,463 votes

Wisconsin: 31,072 votes

Pennsylvania: 49,941 votes.

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