Can progressives cooperate to defeat the Tories?

The Alternative, Towards A New Progressive Politics

we now have a meeting date: 24 September Hall for Cornwall, Truro upstairs coffee shop 10am – please email me first to confirm attendance – see below.

With Andrew George’s agreement – ex Libdem MP for St Ives Constituency – I am publishing  an abridged version of the full article written by him which appears in the newly published book: The Alternative, Towards A New Progressive Politics. The book is currently in Waterstone’s, Truro. If anyone is interested in meeting up for a chat over coffee about what practical steps we might take to help make this happen in Truro and Falmouth Constituency (or elsewhere in Cornwall) email me: gavinbark[at]gmail dot com. Also feel free to leave a comment below the article.

Failure to fully fathom the ‘shy Tory’ at the 2015 general election didn’t just leave egg on the faces of opinion pollsters. It produced shock waves across the political spectrum; from a delirious Conservative party to Paddy Ashdown’s exasperated milliner.

Of course psephologists weren’t really suggesting that a significant proportion of Tory voters are bashful by nature but were perhaps politely implying there may be a sense of ‘shame’.

Politics in its most basic form is polarised between, on the one hand, those who feel ‘shy’ about their self-absorption and (when the mask slips) their distaste for ‘low achievers’, and on the other, ‘progressives’ who seek to appeal to our better instincts (for others, a wider community, the common good, future generations, the climate etc). Less bashful ‘progressives’ may believe they are in a majority when in fact the country may be evenly divided.

Indeed, there’s an assumption amongst many ‘progressives’ that the 2015 general election represented a high water mark for the Tories; that the pendulum will inevitably swing back at the next election, and that scores of Tory marginals will be comfortably won back. A reality check is needed.

My contribution to the book The Alternative which comes out today (25th August) reviews the prospects and appetite for cooperation amongst progressives; arguing that those with a broadly centre-left/green/liberal or just plain anti-Conservative perspective should do more to work together, because:

  • what divides them from each other is less pronounced than what divides them from Conservatives;
  • the Conservatives are quietly rigging and gerrymandering the system to grant themselves a stranglehold on power for decades to come;
  • an electoral system which permits – as it does now – Conservatives to secure dominant power when 76% of electors didn’t vote for them needs to be reformed, and it won’t be reformed so long as they have power;
  • the majority of non/anti-Tory voters who are not members of the party they vote for don’t understand why politicians who share a broadly progressive perspective seem to spend more time re-rehearsing their disagreements than identifying where they agree;
  • if the parties carry on as they are, they will fight each other to a standstill in enough marginal constituencies at the next general election to grant Theresa May a comfortable victory and larger Parliamentary majority.

If progressives are more interested in progressing their policies rather than their disagreements, they will have to find a way of cutting through the tribalism and forge a degree of cooperation.

Since last year’s election I’ve been working with colleagues in the Green, Labour and Plaid Cymru Parties to explore opportunities for effective cooperation. It is evident that, behind the obligation to demonstrate outward self-confidence, realistic assessments of electoral prospects have been made. The Tories’ electoral advantage will be further reinforced by their project to rig and gerrymander the system to their advantage; through:

  • re-drawing constituency boundaries – to the significant benefit of the Conservatives;
  • voter registration rule changes – resulting in the removal of mostly non-Conservative electors;
  • constraints on trade union funding – giving the Conservatives a massive funding advantage;
  • the Electoral Commission effectively sanctioning the Tory ‘carpet bombing’ of swing voters in marginal seats as ‘national’ rather than constituency expenditure – giving the Conservative election arsenal crucial superiority; and
  • the ‘neutering’ of anti-Conservative Scotland from the UK parliamentary arithmetic – giving them the ability to govern even if they lose across the UK.

If the antipathy towards tribalism among the voting public isn’t enough to encourage party tribalists to stop and think, then perhaps the likelihood of growing Tory dominance might persuade them?

The centre-left can do something about it. If we take an 8 per cent swing as a plausible range for an ambitious, effective, campaigning challenger, 102 of the current 331 Tory-held seats are winnable. Of these, Labour are in second place in 76, Liberal Democrats in 22, the SNP one and Ukip 3.. Of course, forthcoming boundary changes will muddy the waters to a certain extent, but it will be possible to extrapolate where the new 100 or so Tory marginals are likely to fall.

In the book I set out a menu of potential initiatives (from non-aggression agreements, jointly selected candidates, Tatton models, VoteSwapping and many others) which cooperative centre-left parties at local or regional levels may seek to act upon.

If progressives don’t cooperate, the chances are they can look forward to decades in the political wilderness as the Conservatives exert a stranglehold on power.

Postcript: you can see a book review on Left Foot Forward here>>> and order on line from either Biteback Publishing or erm The Telegraph Bookshop (no kidding!) – but not the Guardian Bookshop…(?)





  1. I think the thrust of this article is largely correct. I think that the only way the centre-left will be persuaded to unite is on a local, issue-by-issue basis. Anything smacking or merger or disregard of smaller, less likely to win groups will raise hackles. If the party hierarchies can get together and bury their differences and then emerge to say “To keep this hospital (or whatever), we need to vote for Candidate A who has the best chance of defeating the Tories”, they may just stand a whisker of a chance of persuading at least some of their supporters to go with them. The media won’t like it and will do their best to talk up division between co-operating groups, in private as well as broadcast. I think it may well be the only hope we have of any progress.


    • Hi Dot – hope you are well! Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You are right to suggest that anything like a merger will backfire. Even those most enthused about a progressive alliance will baulk at losing their preferred party identity. What you are also suggesting though is another dimension to Progressives – a local manifesto that identifies key assets such as hospitals which are not up for grabs. This could complement a broader manifesto such as implemeting PR and real localism for the regions (not the paper tiger the government proposes at the moment). Interesting thought-but tell me if I have not got this quite right


  2. As you may know lines of communication already exist between Mebyon Kernow and the Greens. In 2005 they had an electoral pact, and, via the European Free Alliance / European Greens parliamentary group, the two parties cooperate at an EU level. Getting the LibDems to make concessions to these two smaller parties would be difficult but not impossible. But the problem, and we all know it, would be Labour. From an MK view point just look at the friction that exists between the SNP and Labour in Scotland. Labours motto with regards competition with left-wing nationalists seems to be ‘death or glory’. They are so incredibly sectarian with so little of interest to say on Cornwall or the Cornish I doubt if your alliance would, or could, ever include them in the Duchy. Lets try and start with a progressive, green and autonomist alliance for the Cornwall Council elections and then take things from there.


    • Thanks Fylip I would be more than interested in exploring the possibilities you suggest. Re Labour, there is some interest from individual members such as myself but yes, there are probably a good few that will look with dismay at my efforts to reach out. I think this is all part of the process and it is inevitable that all parties will experience some resistance and division from within to a certain extent but lets see how we go with this.


  3. A radical Northern regionalism should work with like-minded progressives in Scotland, Wales and the English regions. It should build contacts with radical regionalists elsewhere across Europe and maintain the flame of a ‘Europe of the Regions’. There is the political space in the North to do it, given Labour’s total lack of interest in democratic regionalism, the low profile of the Lib Dems and the Greens apparent shift away from espousing real devolution. Is a new political formation the way to achieve it? I’m not so sure…there is support for democratic regionalism within Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, the small regionalist parties and lots of non-aligned people who are pro-democracy, pro-Europe, socially progressive and anti-statist. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation, as a non-aligned radical regionalist force, is well placed to bring that progressive regionalist alliance together. So watch this space. Read more here:


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