The result of the recent by-election in Chesham & Amersham has renewed speculation over a so-called “progressive alliance” – the idea that by co-operating, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens can beat the Tories in an election.
There are numerous holes in this idea, but the Chesham & Amersham result might well be its death blow.
Let’s start with the pre-existing problems. The first is what to do with the Green Party. The Greens are safe in the one seat they hold (Brighton Pavilion) and nowhere near gaining any others: their next top target, Bristol West, would require an 18.7% swing for them to win it, and in any case Labour wouldn’t stand aside in a Labour-held seat.
There are also no Tory-held seats where they start from second place. Clearly, the Greens would need to be given something in exchange for standing down but what? The Liberal Democrats’ solution in the Unite to Remain pact at the last election was to stand aside in a series of inconsequential seat that neither party was going to win anyway; it is unlikely that the Greens would be satisfied with that for long. One possibility would be to exchange local government seats for parliamentary ones, but those discussions would have to take place locally, not nationally.
Then of course there’s the relationship between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Suffice to say, it’s not always brilliant.
Many Labour members still don’t trust the Liberal Democrats largely because of issues relating to the coalition. Meanwhile, many Liberal Democrats still believe that Labour betrayed them over Brexit. These divisions are not easy to work out, and getting the two parties to agree on policy issues for forming a government – never mind agreeing not to stand against each other – is going to be difficult.
In addition to which, Labour will point to seats like Sheffield, Hallam; Bristol West; and Southport which over the last three decades have gone from Tory-LibDem marginals to a Labour-held marginal, a safe Labour seat and a Tory-Labour marginal respectively.
Truro & Falmouth in Cornwall is another seat where Labour have displaced the Liberal Democrats as the Tories’ main opposition, and there may be other seats where the Liberal Democrats’ former working-class support, having abandoned them over the coalition and Brexit, would support the Labour Party. On the other side, St Albans has gone from a Labour seat in 1997 to a Liberal Democrat-Tory marginal now, whilst Finchley & Golders Green saw them replace Labour as the second party in 2019.
If an alliance had been in place that involved the two parties not standing against each other, these changes in support and new opportunities may never have happened, something which neither party will want to risk in the future.
Now onto Chesham & Amersham’s recent by-election. Lots of people have been citing it as a positive example of a progressive alliance, but some deeper thinking about its implications would show it as anything but. Two theories have been advanced as to why the Liberal Democrats were able to win.
The first is the “disgruntled Tories” theory. The idea that the Liberal Democrats’ win was caused by Tory voters who were unhappy with their party – over Brexit, over Johnson, over planning, over the perception that they were being ignored in favour of the North and Midlands – and went over to the Liberal Democrats for one by-election in protest. In favour of this theory is the precipitous drop in the Tory vote – from 30,850 votes and 55.4% in 2019 to 13,489 and 35.5% in 2020. This is also what several prominent Liberal Democrats who visited the constituency have said. Against it is the fact that the fall in the Tory vote could be just as equally explained by the fall in turnout, as a poor campaign and some disillusionment meant many Tory voters simply didn’t bother.
The second is the “tactical vote” – that the Labour and Green vote defected almost en masse to the Liberal Democrats. This idea is supported by the fact that people have been advocating tactical voting against the Tories ever since the 2019 European elections, coupled with the fact that the fall in the Labour vote (6,544) votes is almost identical to the increase in the Liberal Democrat vote (6,890). Against it is, again, the fact that a fall in turnout could also explain at least some of Labour’s drop (remember that the demographics who vote Labour are largely the same as those least likely to vote, so a fall in turnout may well have disproportionately affected them). The reality is that the real answer is probably a combination.
And herein lies the difficulty for an alliance. If we accept the disgruntled Tories theory, then alliance could potentially be harmful to the Liberal Democrats in similar seat. Tory voters may have been more comfortable protesting at a by-election precisely because there was no chance of a Labour government. It is far from guaranteed that all of the 2019 Tory voters who voted Liberal Democrat would be happy voting for a Liberal Democrat who was explicitly supported by the Labour Party, and if nothing else you can guarantee that the “Lib-Lab pact” would feature very, very heavily in Tory campaign material.
If we accept the tactical vote theory, then an alliance is unnecessary. With a Labour and a Green candidate both on the balance, enough of their voters still voted Liberal Democrat to defeat the Tories. There is also the question of what those 622 Labour voters would have done with no Labour candidate. These are, by definition, the real die-hards, and although some may have voted Liberal Democrat, many would have not voted or even gone over to the Tories. Either way, the result does not provide any evidence that a so-called progressive alliance is either necessary or advisable.