"The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: "Communists" plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant prove equal to zero.
A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralyzing the revolutionary force of the proletariat". - Leon Trotsky, Lessons of Spain, December 1937
The proposed launch of a Compass Labour Network has started a new round of debate on the old idea for a "Progressive Alliance" between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.
Compass, a centre-left think tank, was previously linked to soft left Labour figures such as Jon Cruddas but lost substantial influence in the Labour Party in 2010 when it advocated tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats.
Its latest initiative is to establish Compass-aligned networks within the three parties mentioned in order to push for "positive collaboration" between parties and a "centre and left alliance" to defeat the Tories.
The Compass Labour Network is backed by figures such as journalist Paul Mason, Momentum's former national co-ordinator Laura Parker, academic Jeremy Gilbert, and Labour MP Clive Lewis.
Though the idea recently received support from a Guardian editorial on 14 December, it has been a long time in the making, and was common in the circles around Clive Lewis's short-lived leadership campaign in late 2019.
In 2017, a Compass pamphlet authored by Gilbert elaborated the basis for the "progressive alliance" at length, and its arguments will be attractive for many activists reeling from Labour's 2019 election defeat.
On the basis of Antonio Gramsci's advice that "it is necessary to engage battle with the most eminent of one's adversaries... if the end proposed is that of raising the tone and intellectual level of one's followers and not just... of creating a desert around oneself by all means possible", it is worth taking a closer look at Gilbert's arguments.
The backdrop for the pamphlet is the uphill struggle facing Labour's attempts to form a majority government. Writing in March 2017, Gilbert highlighted Labour's dire position in the polls. Though this increased markedly in the 2017 general election itself, the defeat in December 2019 further confirmed the scale of the challenge, prompting renewed calls for the "progressive alliance" as a short-cut to return Labour to power.
Gilbert prefaces his argument by noting that Labour has only once – in 1997 – won a comfortable majority from opposition (Harold Wilson's in 1964 won a majority of four seats). However, the price of the 1997 victory was the wholesale adoption of a neoliberal programme "to win over the Sun, the Express and many powerful players in the City of London" and a promise never to seriously challenge their interests.
Blair channelled the view that "there was literally no alternative to globalisation and labour-market deregulation; it was up to the individual to equip themselves to respond to the demands of the global market". As the social discontent piled up, exacerbated by the 2008 financial crash, people increasingly looked to xenophobic and racist narratives to explain their situation, for example through the scapegoating of migrants and a tendency to blame "Europe" for all manner of ills, both real and imagined.
Bound by the pact with the City and the Murdoch press, Blairite Labour was unable and unwilling to blame the ruling-class and capitalism for growing economic inequality and, as a result, "the only narrative that many of the public heard was the one that Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch wanted them to hear".
Now, with Brexit, and "the real threat hanging over us that a significant section of the voting public might be drifting towards support for actual fascism, or something like it", Labour must sign up to a "Progressive Alliance" if it wants any shot at a return to power.
Gilbert pitches his "Progressive Alliance" arrangement as a light-touch one-off set of electoral deals:
"The initial proposition of the Progressive Alliance strategy is simple. There are literally dozens of Toryheld parliamentary seats wherein the combined vote for Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat and Plaid is significantly larger than the Conservative vote. There are many key target seats for Labour where the Lib Dem vote is significantly higher than the Tory majority. There are also many constituencies where Labour has no hope of ever taking the seat but in which the Labour vote is higher than the Tory majority over the Lib Dems. Under these circumstances it makes perfect sense to try to work towards local agreements which make it more likely that sitting Conservative MPs could be beaten".
The objective would be to secure a non-Tory majority, to introduce Proportional Representation and perhaps call a further General Election on that basis. Gilbert leaves open the question of whether such a Lab-Lib-Green government would have a more ongoing programme for government.
Though the argument is motivated by Labour's electoral situation, it speaks to a much wider problem: how the left responds to the rise of a far-right populism, and what alliances and compromises are permissible within the framework of a principled left-wing politics.
The very same issues underly debates and discussions about voting for Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 French Presidential election or, more recently, for Joe Biden and the Democrats in the 2020 elections in the United States.
The urgency of Gilbert's argument is clear, and has only been rendered more urgent by the scale of the 2019 defeat. His solution, however, is unconvincing.
Having set out what he means by a "Progressive Alliance," Gilbert's pamphlet proceeds discursively through setting up and answering a number of common objections to his argument.
The first and common objection from left-wing Labour members is that "the Liberal Democrats 'are not progressive', are 'just as bad as the Tories' or 'cannot be trusted'." Gilbert argues that this misses the point, which is "not to validate and celebrate the progressiveness of the Liberal Democrats" but about "beating the Tories." Indeed, Gilbert says that he "really [doesn't] care if the Liberal Democrats are not 'properly progressive', not a real a left-wing party or even desperately untrustworthy."
There is, however, an issue here. Gilbert's proposal involves telling Labour voters in certain seats where the Liberal Democrats are more likely to defeat the Tories to vote for the Liberal Democrats. That, at the very least, implies a degree of political confidence in them. That in certain circumstances a vote for Labour and the Liberal Democrats are commensurable implies a framework of a shared "progressive politics", utterly emptied of any class politics.
We will explore the underlying politics of the "progressive alliance" further below but, first, there are a few practical objections to the proposal.
For a "Progressive Alliance" voting arrangement to work, Labour not only would have to tell its voters to vote Liberal Democrat, but it would be relying on Liberal Democrat voters to reciprocate.
There could be an issue here. If a Liberal Democrat voter in a no-hope Liberal seat has consistently voted for the Liberal Democrats, despite knowing that the result would be a Tory victory in that seat, what confidence should we have that the local Liberal Democrat electorate would break more than 50% for the Labour Party if the Liberals stood aside? With most left or centre-left voters voting Labour anyway in such seats, what value is there to be gained from the Liberal Democrats standing down? In some seats, it may well benefit the Tories, especially if Labour in future had a left-wing leadership, by driving disenfranchised Liberal voters into the Tories' arms.
Secondly, there is a democratic argument. Electorates would rightly object to local or national-level political horse-trading which results in them being denied the opportunity to vote for a party of their choosing. The consequence would be passive resentment or, worse, could lead to a backlash against the parties involved.
More to the point, the labour movement should put representatives up for election in all seats. If Labour had taken the position in the late 1800s that some seats would always "naturally" be Liberal or Tory, it would never have broken the two-party system in the first place. Similarly, today, we should not deny working-class voters the right to vote for a Labour candidate, even if their immediate prospects of election look remote; we should aspire to change those prospects and lay the ground for future victories.
More fundamentally, however, there is a stadial logic to Gilbert's position: first, we make an alliance with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, then we can work for a left-wing Labour programme.
However, in reality, politics does not proceed in the fashion of pre-conceived stages, and Gilbert's argument assumes that the benefits of an electoral deal come without political costs.
The sort of political conditions which would be necessary to bring about a political alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would not leave the internal dynamics and the political character of Labour unchanged.
The right-wing nature of the Liberal Democrats means that they would undoubtedly set conditions and limits on the sort of Labour Party they found acceptable to do deals with and recommend a vote for, however tactically.
In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Jo Swinson explicitly ruled out even a temporary coalition with Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, telling the Financial Times that: "Look, Liberal Democrat votes are not going to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. He is not fit to do that job".
Swinson's party ran candidates against Labour in no-hope areas, costing Labour victory in seats such as Kensington. This is because in 2019, at root, the party did not fundamentally prefer a Labour government to a Tory one, just as it preferred to put the Tories in office in 2010 and inaugurate a decade of austerity.
Faced with the choice of a centre-left liberal and former Coalition grandee Ed Davey, the membership of the rump party definitively chose the latter, only confirming their rightwards development.
Such a party would be unlikely to forge an alliance with Labour unless the latter was placed safely in the centre of the political spectrum. The pursuit of a "Progressive Alliance", then, would create a right-wing gravitational pull, reinforcing the "moderating" course of the current Starmer leadership, and leading Labour further and further away from the radical and transformative politics that are necessary to meet the challenges of Covid-19, mass unemployment and a hard-line Tory Brexit.
The price of even a limited electoral deal would be an a poor Labour policy platform, even if Labour limited itself for the common programme to items such as PR and a new election.
This would repeat the very errors of the Blair period which Gilbert highlights in the opening to his pamphlet (and at a time of greater economic and social polarisation), leaving Labour unable to provide the radical solutions which are vitally necessary to meet our current challenges.
As social crises continue to deepen, support could grow for political forces even darker than the current right-wing Tory government, with no plausible countervailing forces.
Another objection Gilbert cites is the 'Trotskyist' argument that "doing deals with liberals constitutes 'crossing class lines'." Gilbert bats this away by dismissing 'the idea that the Labour Party somehow expresses the pristine, unadulterated interests of the united proletariat, while the Liberal Democrats represent only the treacherous petty bourgeoisie' as "ludicrous."
Certain elements within Labour, he argues, "are far more closely tied to key sections of capital than are the Liberal Democrats or any of their factions". Moreover, there "are unions with close links to industries such as nuclear power, just as there are intimate cultural, ideological and monetary ties between the Blairites and key players in the finance and PR industries". The Liberal Democrats, "by contrast…do not represent or have the backing of any significant section of the capitalist class, having their main social base among well-paid professionals and the more socially liberal and egalitarian sections of the commercial middle classes".
It is true that the Labour Party contains influential sections representing the interests of capital. This is why Marxists have insisted upon the characterisation of Labour as a "bourgeois workers' party", a party which bases itself on the working-class and the labour movement, but whose leadership is thoroughly reconciled to capitalist society and expresses a bourgeois outlook on the world.
It is also true that certain trade unions put the narrow economic and corporatist interests of certain sections of their membership – for example, in carbon-heavy industries or defence – over the interests of the working-class as a whole for a socialist Green New Deal and a reduction in armaments and war spending.
None of that is new. However, the key point, surely, is that socialists should not accept this state of affairs: we should set ourselves the goal to transforming the labour movement.
This means building support within the Labour Party and the wider labour movement for socialist ideas. Central to that is the notion that the working-class has the potential to transform society should it rely on its own strength.
Gilbert rejects this because his argument is premised on largely accepting this state of affairs "for now", rooted in a pessimistic view of the way forward. "[It] must be clear from any sober assessment of contemporary British society", Gilbert writes, "that the British working class is currently too weak, disorganised and demoralised to have any hope of mobilising autonomously against its enemies for the foreseeable future. Without some form of coalition with the more progressive sections of the middle classes at least, there is no hope of defending what remains of the social democratic settlement or challenging the Right's desire to turn Britain into the world's biggest offshore tax haven".
This is perhaps the crux of the disagreement. Gilbert's proposal may (perhaps) be compatible with winning a non-Tory majority. But is it compatible with building a socialist movement? I would argue not.
It may be argued that the "Progressive Alliance" is a means to an ultimate end, a future Labour government. For those of us for whom the election of a Labour government is not the be all and end all, but a step towards more substantial and permanent social change – socialism – such means as the "progressive alliance" are not permissible.
That is because, at its root, socialism is the self-emancipation of the working-class, based on a labour movement fully conscious of its potential power and confident in its capacity to transform the whole of society.
Trotsky put it best in this regard when he wrote:
"Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means…which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.
Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the 'leaders'."
Gilbert argues that the working-class is too "demoralised to have any hope of mobilising autonomously against its enemies" but it is this autonomous mobilisation which is the very goal of socialist to promote. In the early years of the Russian socialist movement, Georgi Plekhanov expressed this duty crisply:
"A necessary condition for the victory of the proletariat is its recognition of its own position, its relations with its exploiters, its historic role and its socio-political tasks.
For this reason the new Socialists consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness.
The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful".
If the duty of socialists is to promote class-consciousness, the pursuit of a "progressive alliance" between Labour and what Gilbert himself describes as a party of "well-paid professionals and the more socially liberal and egalitarian sections of the commercial middle classes" is at direct variance with that duty.
Indeed, when one gets into the detail of Gilbert's defence of a "progressive alliance", it becomes an altogether more enduring project than his initial pitch of a one-time electoral pact to secure PR.
In response to Martin Kettle, who accuses advocates of the "progressive alliance" of assuming a natural dividing line between Tories and non-Tories, Gilbert argues that he makes no assumption, and that his idea "proposes to offer leadership to a coalition of interests all of which would be defined by their opposition to the rightwing consensus promoted by those parties and their allies in the press". He concedes that "we are fully aware that such a coalition does not yet exist and that building it would prove challenging" but that "this is not a reason not to try to build it".
It is argued here that rather than tie the effort of activists up in promoting the "progressive alliance", a more pressing need is to rebuild a much-needed sense of class consciousness in the British labour movement.
Gilbert complains that "time and again, critics point out to us that the Progressive Alliance does not yet exist as if that were some kind of arguments against trying to create it". He asks that these critics "now to stop and reflect - if that's the best argument you've got, then you should be aware that it is informed by wholly circular logic, and amounts to an argument against ever trying to make anything happen anywhere that isn't happening already".
A similar objection can be made to Gilbert's argument that because "the British working class is currently too weak, disorganised and demoralised to have any hope of mobilising autonomously", it is necessary to give up on class politics in pursuit of a "coalition with the more progressive sections of the middle classes."
Gilbert's arguments are, in essence, a rationalisation of political pessimism. It is exactly when the movement is at a low ebb that it becomes all the more important for socialists to uphold the notion of working-class self-emancipation.
As Gramsci put it: "Only they who can keep their heart strong and their will as sharp as a sword when the general disillusionment is at its worst can be regarded as a fighter for the working class or called a revolutionary".
Socialists cannot, at will, rebuild the labour movement, though our efforts in organising and agitating can and do, of course, contribute. Similarly, we cannot, at a stroke, reverse decades of decline in union organisation and density.
What we can do, however, is maintain our insight – against the whole weight of bourgeois opinion - that capitalism is a system based, fundamentally, on the exploitation of wage-labour and that, therefore, the working-class remains, objectively, the privileged and potentially most powerful agent of social change.
This power depends, above all, on workers' consciousness of their situation. It is this consciousness which socialists exist to promote. We cannot do this if we commit political hara-kiri in pursuit of the "progressive alliance" with the Liberal Democrats.