Many commentators and politicians critical of recent Tory governments increasingly recognize the difficulties for one opposition party to win an overall parliamentary majority in a general election, given the far-reaching changes in the economy and national identity in recent years, and this right-wing Tory government’s increasingly blatant efforts to rig the system in its favour.
We accept this position, but we cannot see that the best ways now to beat the Tories is either by i) informal tactical voting or ii) an electoral pact between opposition parties, often referred to as a progressive alliance. Instead, we suggest an alternative approach should be considered — a temporary merging of opposition parties into a grand alliance to support one well-chosen candidate per constituency, with the aims of winning a general election, and establishing proportional representation as law. This will enable a new politics, far more competent, effective and representative government that that provided by the current Tory syndicate.
While proportional representation would be central to the democratic renewal that a grand alliance would promote, it would need accompanying by additional features such as a written constitution, far-reaching powers of devolution to all the regions of the United Kingdom, and an elected upper house. As well as being essential in themselves to any programme of democratic renewal, they would also act as further fail-safes against any future government — not only the Tories, but Labour as well — acting in ways that were undemocratic or against the interests of the broad mass of the people.
A grand alliance is a means not just of defeating the Tory Party syndicate, but also of preserving British democracy. Political parties exist to fulfill their specific mission. Voting systems enable the electorate to choose the people to represent them in government. If the system is fair, it is deemed democratic government by consensus. However, if a government:
- limits access to voting,
- ensures its own place-men and -women occupy the positions of influence in national institutions,
- shuffles constituency boundaries for its own benefit,
- benefits from an upper-house with its own appointees who have paid for their priviledge
- enjoys a supportive media that filters and misrepresents news,
the democracy is not fit for purpose. This is now the United Kingdom’s direction of travel, with viable alternative parties stymied and fighting amongst themselves concerning their best way forward. Meanwhile, the country morphs into a one-party state.
Factional Alliances in British Politics
Alliances have long been a central feature of the British political party system, but they can take a form that is increasingly detrimental to the health of British democracy.
The Tory Party is, and has always been, an alliance of factions to the right of British politics. Its strength resides in the fact that it is very fluid in terms of its policies; indeed, it prides itself on this pragmatism. The main purpose of the Tory Party is to secure power in order to control government. Once secured, its factions wrestle for supremacy. Its grip on power is secured by a supportive media and financial groupings who feel their interests are best secured by keeping the Tory Party in government. In government, the Tory Party uses its power to protect and serve the interests of these supporters and themselves, and also to ensure electoral and governance arrangements that best suit themselves. Factions within the Tory Party range from centrist One Nation Tories, motivated by the conviction that conservative values best serve the country, to those, further right, who are more self-serving, often with an agenda to maintain and increase their wealth and those of the people whose support they wish to secure and deny opportunities to those who do not support them. Currently, the flavour of the Tory Party is distinctly right-wing and has moved to capitalise on the xenophobia that enabled Brexit. In doing so, the Tories have recruited and favoured the more extreme right-wing elements in their alliance, and ejected many to the left of their party because of their opposition to Brexit and their disapproval of the Tories’ rightward drift.
To understand how and why the Conservatives operate in the way they do, it is necessary to recognize that they are not a political party pursuing goals consistent with particular political principles. They are a syndicate of varying interest groups whose main reason for existence is to hold onto wealth and power. In recent years, the balance of power within this syndicate has shifted in an increasingly right-wing, extreme direction. This is not to say, of course, that there are not plenty of decent principled conservatives genuinely concerned for the well-being of the broad mass of the British people, however much they might differ in their preferred solutions from those advocated by parties to their left. But the decisive trend within the Conservative movement has tipped the Tory syndicate increasingly further away from such traditional one-nation conservatism.
The Labour Party is also, and has always been, an alliance to the left of British politics. This alliance consists of a left-wing with strong socialist convictions, and more centrist social democrats more prepared to balance ideals with electability. That Labour has been in opposition for such a long time results in more open conflict between these factions concerning which aspects the party should emphasize. It is, thus, easier for the right-wing media to emphasize these divisions and also to cast the Labour Party as a Trojan horse for an extreme left-wing state of the kind to which the majority of British people are averse. But the right-wing media refrain from pointing out the right-wing extremes of the Tory Party i.e. vote for a traditional conservative, get a right-wing extremist.
Inevitably, all political parties consist of members who are prepared to compromise in order to secure a political objective. Over the years, British politics has been presented as a democratic contest between these different factions. In truth, the manner of elections and the susceptibility of the electorate to messages from the media has favoured the Tory Party, as indicated by the proportion of the time that the Tories have held power. The current manifestation of the Tory Party maintains power by shifting to the right, being held to ransom by its right-wing and also securing support from nationalistic factions in the country that it did not have to rely on in the past. This, plus the willingness of the Tory government to use power to pervert ‘democratic’ processes, has made it extremely difficult for opposition parties to mount a challenge, to the general and potentially fatal detriment of UK democracy.
A GRAND Alliance
While parties in opposition have different agendas, they cannot garner attention without proper democratic processes. The label ‘grand alliance’ effectively describes the arrangement that could exist between parties with different agendas in order to gain sufficient electoral clout in the UK’s current political conditions. It is also a term rich in examples throughout history, whether in war or politics, whereby diverse powers or parties have come together in temporary common cause to overcome a powerful and dangerous opponent. These include the grand alliance of European countries against Louis XIV at the turn of the eighteenth century and – though we do not suggest any moral equivalence to the threat we currently face – the Allied war effort to defeat Hitler in World War Two. We have recently seen close cross-party cooperation, resembling a grand alliance more than a looser pact, in the case of electoral coalitions formed in Israel and the Czech Republic.
Partners in a grand alliance in UK politics could collaborate in order to win a general election in order to create conditions in which they can operate fairly in a proper democratic process. The grand alliance can be maintained for as long as necessary in order to secure a proper democratic system under PR in which parties can contribute, negotiate, collaborate and challenge, ideally for just one parliament. This arrangement will prevent one party controlling the instruments of government for its own ends, as at present. The grand alliance would, thus, comprise able people across the political spectrum who are currently prevented from contributing.
A grand alliance would be a surer way of achieving these goals than either informal tactical voting or a ‘progressive alliance’ of some kind or other. The following sections elaborate on the reasons for this. Among other things, these sections distinguish between two kinds of ‘progressive alliance’ –
- a progressive alliance in the specific sense of a single, newly constituted “progressive” party, and
- a progressive pact, which would see the parties involved retaining their current identities, while stepping aside for each other in particular constituencies in order to give one or other a clearer run at winning them.
See also the page ‘Strategies to beat the Tories‘ for a series of at-a-glance tables of the pros and cons of the various approaches outlined in the following sections.
Concerns about informal tactical voting
Opposition parties may tacitly encourage supporters to lend.their votes to another opposition party, or at least campaign half-heartedly, if they feel they are unlikely themselves to win in a particular constituency, and the party to whom votes are to be lent has a reasonable chance of success. This strategy is often backed up by previous voting figures for each constituency. However, an approach that relies on individual voters to work out who is most likely to win in their constituency leaves too many things to chance, such as how well-informed or otherwise an individual voter is. Because of this, and the other measures the Tories are employing to rig the system, there is too big a risk that informal tactical voting will not deliver constituencies on the scale needed to swing a general election. Nor can it assume that statistical analysis of voting patterns in an up-coming election will be consistent with what has gone before especially when various new alliances present themselves and may cause opposition votes to fragment in hitherto unknown ways.
Concerns about a single-party progressive alliance
The term ‘progressive alliance’ is sometimes taken to mean the same thing as an electoral pact. However, it can also be used to refer to a newly constituted single-party alliance. Such an alliance would become a broader church than the Labour Party is at present. Presumably, those proposing a new progressive alliance party on the left of centre, for example, would hope to attract centrist Labour supporters, leaf-leaning Lib Dem and Green members who see their various agendas as not too dissimilar, to operate as one collaborating party, rather than plundering the same pool of voters, thereby favouring the Tories. Their combined power would aim to beat the Tories in a general election, then govern as a progressive alliance. However, there are serious concerns about whether such an alliance would be a viable means of defeating the Tories.
Why this is likely to fail in beating the Tories
- All parties are alliances of some kind; collaborating with another party may deter some members from giving support. So, the alliance may not garner as many votes as had been anticipated.
- Left-behind members of the collaborating parties may set up their own party to challenge under FPTP.
- Old disagreements between collaborating parties may resurface.
- Just as voters may have concerns that the Labour Party is a Trojan horse for Marxism, they may feel that a progressive alliance is a Trojan horse for a Labour Party which is itself a Trojan horse for Marxism.
- Just as one group might propose a progressive alliance of the centre-left, another group might opt for a progressive alliance of the centre-right, attracting right-leaning Lib Dems and Labour voters to bulk up disillusioned Tory party members. Thus a constituency could be contested by two different progressive alliance parties and an independent Labour Party. Who could predict how this fractured opposition would then fare against even a weakened Tory Party in a FPTP election?.
- Forming an entirely new party for the long term would be a slow process, and by the time it were achieved the Tory Party would be likely to have strengthened its grip on power so firmly that such a progressive alliance would be unlikely to make sufficient headway in any case.
There are also serious concerns about whether a single-party progressive alliance would be desirable even if it were to achieve power.
- If such an alliance were to gain power under first past the post (FPTP), it too could potentially further secure its grip on power through antidemocratic means, in much the same way as the Tory Party is currently doing. Replacing the Tory Party with this kind of mirror image would therefore be highly undesirable from the viewpoint of ensuring the long-term health of a flourishing democracy.
- A single party progressive alliance may be less likely to secure broad consensus regarding some constitutional reform issues.
- Alternatively, any arrangement that kept FPTP intact would risk an extremist, authoritarian, self-serving Tory government in the future.
Concerns about progressive pacts
Electoral pacts between progressive parties are risky
Electoral pacts risk not working if they just involve asking people with different party allegiances to support a different party. After all, people vote for a particular party because they don’t feel other parties support their views. For example:
- Right-leaning Lib Dem supporters may not support a local pact to elect a Labour candidate; left-leaning Lib Dem supporters may be reluctant to support a Labour candidate, otherwise they would probably be Labour supporters already. Many may see a pact as a Trojan Horse for Labour.
- Many Labour supporters may never be persuaded to support a Lib Dem party which, in their eyes, gifted electoral success to the Tories in 2010, then helped them drive through austerity.
- Pacts in which smaller parties give their support to larger ones often result in one party coming out on top and gathering a disproportionate amount of the spoils. Thus, Lib-Lab pacts in the past eventually favoured Labour. Lib Dem support for the Tories in 2010 effectively gave the Tories all the power they sought. On neither occasion did the smaller party benefit from its cooperation to any significant extent; indeed, in the latter case it was hugely damaged. Recall of such examples can discourage support for electoral pacts.
The label ‘progressive pact’ might deter some voters
Calling an electoral pact ‘progressive’ might deter some people voting for parties styling themselves as ‘progressive’, such as Labour, the Lib Dems or the Greens, even though they may no longer feel that the current Tory Party represents their kind of conservatism. Moreover, the term ‘progressive’ is not clearly defined, and a progressive pact risks being labelled in the media as a left-wing stitch-up.
Some of these objections to pacts might be leveled at the idea of a grand alliance too, but not convincingly
A grand alliance will avoid the weaknesses of a progressive pact, because:
- Parties committing to a grand alliance will be showing sincere intent, by agreeing to select the best candidate in each constituency, based on ability, local knowledge and local appeal, as well as ensuring a richer pool of talent to lead the country.
- Some candidates will need to stand down for the duration of the alliance, but they will still make an important contribution in supporting the selected local candidate. Their commitment will be public and they will have the opportunity to stand in future elections held under PR. The electorate will see that such party members are, indeed, placing the alliance, UK democracy and the interests of the country above party.
- The very scale and depth of cooperation between the alliance partners in order to oust the Tories will convey to voters the urgency and importance of achieving that objective.
- For all these reasons, voters can feel confident that all collaborating parties are working towards a laudable common goal, rather than just all being ‘in it for themselves’.
- Crucially, a temporary grand alliance party can appeal more broadly than any temporary pact of existing opposition parties, by enabling disaffected moderate Tories to run as candidates as well. Thus, alliance candidates will be able to mount more serious challenges in safe Tory seats during a general election, not just in by-elections when voters are more likely to switch parties anyway. When the grand alliance has run its course and achieved its objective, such seats can return Tory MPs, if that is what the voters choose.
- A binding agreement between parties to form a grand alliance would remove any temptation any one party might feel to coalesce instead with the Tories in the event of a hung parliament after a general election.
Concerns about forming a grand alliance, and why they do not stand up
It’s not needed when one last push will do it
Many opposition party activists will see no reason for compromise while they remain optimistic that the electorate will ‘come to their senses’ and realize that the future rests with their alternative vision. Such optimism is a constant source of fuel for people in opposition who assume one last push will do it. It is often particularly visible after a by–election just to give the government a bloody nose, while intending to return to voting for the government during the next general election. But one or other opposition party will often over-interpret their latest by-election win as a sign of a ‘sea change in British politics’ which shows that ‘their time has come’. However, such now are the aforementioned obstacles to one party winning power by itself that such optimism is even more likely to come to nothing than it would have before.
If parties as diverse as Greens and far-right nationalists can combine to win elections in countries like Israel and the Czech Republic, then so can UK opposition parties. That they do not is due above all to lack of will. They might be more willing were they to contemplate any one party defeating the Tories at the next general election, and the prospect of the Tories then putting the UK firmly on course to becoming a far-right, one-party failed state.
They should also remember that a grand alliance would be a one-off arrangement. It would not compel them to compromise their identities or indefinitely suspend competition between themselves; on the contrary, in the long run it would enable them to sharpen and strengthen those identities, and to compete within a political system giving them a much greater chance of regular power.
No one would want to lead it
Who could command the respect of such a disparate coalition of people enough to be able to lead it and be its candidate for prime minister? Indeed, there may be reluctance by people in public life to lead or even lend support to such an enterprise because they may not wish to be seen to be challenging UK democratic traditions.
But given that our democracy is now under threat, and with constituency boundaries being redrawn and other efforts by the Tories to rig the system, we are heading for a right-wing one-party state that will continue to divide and impoverish the nation. This will spell the death of UK democracy, while the creation of a PR-seeking grand alliance would preserve it. Hopefully, suitable potential leaders would therefore not hesitate to offer their services to lead in a way that avoided compromising the alliance, without jeopardizing their position in their own party.
It didn’t work in the 2022 Hungarian general election, so why should it work here?
The Hungarian general election was contested between Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party and an alliance of six opposition parties running under a single candidate. It resulted in a crushing victory for Fidesz. But Fidesz had already spent twelve years rigging the electoral system, attacking the courts and muzzling the media, and Hungary was already no longer a democracy. The odds were therefore massively stacked against the opposition from the start. The Hungarian election is therefore not an argument against forming a grand alliance; it is an argument for forming a grand alliance before it is too late.
It would lack credibility
A temporary grand alliance might be seen as lacking credibility as a potential government. However, it will actually present itself as an effective potential government partly because it will be temporary, and in turn establish a system of politics far more durable than our current one, for the following reasons:
- Because of its political scope, weight and mass, a temporary grand alliance government will have strong legitimacy and capability to work on all the urgent issues in the national interest.
- Collaborating parties can find substantial areas of agreement, both with one another and with the great majority of the British people. They will thus make far greater progress in dealing with these areas than a right-wing Tory government that cynically assesses everything in terms of impact with its own voters, not in terms of the best interests of the country.
- Governing in this constructive way will also help parties develop the arts of effective coalition, such that future elections under PR will lead to effective government.
- A grand alliance government can then establish PR as law, with an appropriate voting system to enable broader representation of opinion and expertise within parliament. This representation will better embody the choices of the electorate.
Any PR system it introduced would cause existing parties to split
We do not deny this, but believe it will benefit both individual parties and democracy. With PR, member parties of the grand alliance can realign to assume their own identities, sharpen their ideas and champion their own purposes without the same compromises, second-guessing and distractions entailed in the internal politics of a larger party. This can benefit existing parties and stimulate the establishment of viable new parties:
- A social-democratic Labour Party and a more left-wing ‘Momentum’-type Labour Party can negotiate as potential partners with common interests. This idea may currently be rejected by many Labour Party members who may assume that, if the mood of the country swung in Labour’s favour in a FPTP election, it is their faction within Labour that would benefit. But given the points argued above, no Labour faction has a realistic hope of both winning under FPTP and holding power suffiently to make a difference. An amicable split, by contrast, will benefit both factions. Rather than focus their energies on damaging one another to the delight of the right-wing media and benefit of the governing Tories, they will be liberated to focus on ideas rather than internal warfare. This will be in the interests of both, and of the Labour movement as a whole. That said, if both wings of the Labour Party preferred to avoid a split, PR would encourage them to work together more effectively. This has been the case with the New Zealand Labour Party.
- The Greens can be a crucial force against the existential and ever more urgent threat of the climate crisis. They have the commitment, knowledge and experience for their contribution to the climate change debate to be decisive.
- The Lib Dems will be able to become significant players on a more sustained basis, with a more positive impact than they had in coalition with the Tories in 2010-15, among other things in their traditional areas of strength like civil rights. They can also act as a restraining policy influence where necessary.
- Those parties of the left and centre that will form the bulk of any grand alliance should recognize that there are also many principled, able and democratic Tories, however much they might disagree with some of their policy positions. Figures such as David Gauke, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Rory Stewart, who were thrown out of the Tory Party or marginalized because they didn’t sign up to Brexit, will be able under PR to establish a viable popular centre-right party – even claiming the name ‘Conservative Party’.
- There will be greater scope for independent candidates to stand for election and engage in government.
- Candidates from a right-wing Tory party will also have their opportunity to stand for Parliament under a PR election, albeit without the current advantages they are engineering for themselves under FPTP.
Speed is of the essence
The efforts by the current Tory government to rig the system in its favour could, in the event of a further Tory election victory, render irrelevant any further talk of how to defeat it. From that point on, the opposition will no longer be able to prevent the United Kingdom from degenerating into a right-wing, one-party failed state, divided, impoverished, and imperiled by the sustained impacts of recent Tory governments..
- We have seen the dangerous ways in which such a process can unfold in other countries. Given the current government’s efforts to hobble the courts, tighten control of the media and electoral oversight, and combat fictitious threats of ‘voter fraud’ in order to restrict voting, not to mention the existing iniquities of first past the post, it is increasingly likely to happen here.
- The more representative politics that will emerge from a grand alliance government and its new political settlement will be particularly well placed to facilitate more comprehensive and extensive devolution. This will benefit the regions and constituent nations of the United Kingdom, thereby increasing the chances of saving the Union from breaking up before it is too late.
- The more constructive politics that will emerge from a grand alliance government and its new political settlement will also bring immeasurable and timely benefit to the UK’s international relations. Among other things, it will greatly improve the UK’s relations with its democratic European neighbours.
- The greatest threat to both global and national security and well-being is the climate crisis. There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to address this crisis. But theTory government not only continues to show itself dangerously unequal to the task, but is also actively making the crisis worse. Any electoral strategy that does not maximize the chances of winning the next election increases the risk of taking us to a place where the climate crisis – with all its calamitous social, economic and political as well as environmental consequences – will no longer be soluble.
- Already we are seeing the current Tory Party on the first stepping-stones to a repressive state in its measures against migrants through its use of the Border Force and its new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill aimed at suppressing dissent. Moreover, the same Tory Party that is incapable of tackling the climate crisis could, if unchecked, eventually assume more extreme forms of response to the consequences of that crisis. A future right-wing Tory government may well, for instance, take a radically authoritarian approach to the ‘social problem’ of large numbers of internal refugees caused by coastal and river flooding, an approach that could eventually echo the darkest chapters of history. This is not a firm prediction, but when any government is unfettered by proper democratic checks, it is a more likely scenario. Given, also, that unchecked climate change threatens extreme conditions, and extreme conditions can create extreme responses, why should this scenario be considered far-fetched?
Preserving the United Kingdom
The political situations within each of the non-English constituent nations of the United Kingdom are distinctive and complex, and a detailed consideration of them is beyond the scope of this outline. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish nationalists will be a welcome addition to a UK grand alliance, because they can help ensure that it will lead to more satisfying forms of devolution for their respective constituent nations, not to mention for the English regions. While for many nationalists the whole agenda is severance from the UK, there is much to suggest that many ‘softer’ nationalists actually prefer a better settlement within a United Kingdom that is not set for perpetual government by English nationalist Tories.
The UK is at a tipping point. A grand alliance of opposition parties offers the surest route to managing a dangerous future and promoting a fair democracy for all parties. We are not politicians with a political agenda, nor constitutional experts. We are just gravely worried for the future of the UK and its people. We also believe that if the parties involved fail to take these steps quickly, and instead pursue one or other of the deeply flawed options we have outlined, then UK democracy is doomed, and the UK itself will irreversibly become a right-wing, one-party failed state. Seize the day, or rue the day.