Thursday, 9 March 2017

Parliamentary sovereignty and Brexit

Deborah Mabbett

For many people, the first weeks of February were a dispiriting time. After the brief cheer of the Supreme Court’s decision, MPs bowed to pressure to accept the referendum as decisive and trooped into the ‘Ayes’ lobby to support the government’s authority to trigger Article 50. Albert Weale has brilliantly explained in this journal why this was a dereliction of the democratic duty of those who opposed Brexit. Evidently MPs saw it differently, but what exactly did they think they were doing?

In the absence of a written constitution, we rely on authoritative commentators to tell us what the rules are. Among those commentators, Vernon Bogdanor is currently enjoying ascendancy with his claim that there is a new convention governing the relationship between referendums and Parliament (1).  Parliament is sovereign, except over the range of its own powers. If it is considering giving up some of its powers, it should seek a public mandate through a referendum: the 1975 vote on EEC membership and the Scottish referendum in 2014 could be said to be governed by this principle. An instruction from the people to Parliament to take back powers is also binding, and the 2016 referendum gave that instruction. Parliament should have its say, but, Bogdanor suggests, what it should say is governed by the referendum result, and MPs know this.

Why should a referendum have this authority? One familiar argument is that representatives should act as delegates when there is a clear expression of voters’ preferences, which a referendum provides. A referendum is a vote on just one issue at a time, whereas a general election cannot give a clear verdict on any single issue. But the claim that the referendum result is a clear verdict is easily rebutted. For referendums to produce clear expressions of preferences, they would need to be designed carefully. Very often, a two stage procedure is required. For Brexit, a first vote could determine whether to start negotiations while a second would test the outcome of negotiations against the status quo. There are various practical objections to this process, but it seems to be the only way to ensure that referendums provide clear expressions of preferences.

Bogdanor recognises these issues, and he does not offer a general defence of policy-making by referendum. Rather, he proposes that there are some decisions so fundamental that Parliament cannot legitimately decide them: specifically, decisions to transfer powers to and from Parliament, either upwards to the EU or downwards to the devolved governments. It follows that referendums bind Parliament when they are votes on the constitutional order, as Parliament operates within the constitutional order.

But the ambiguity of the referendum result damages this argument irreparably. Somehow, the result had to be invested with meaning, beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’. At this point, the role of Parliament became its normal everyday role of rubber-stamping executive authority. In passing the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill unamended, the House of Commons bowed not to the will of the people but to the authority of the government to promote a particular approach to implementing the outcome of the referendum. The government has apparently decided on a ‘hard Brexit’. There is surely a majority in the House for a softer version, but MPs proved incapable of organising themselves to set the agenda and vote for that. The vote was not a temporary suspension of parliament’s authority in the face of a popular mandate, as Bogdanor has argued. Rather, it was the result of the same old political behaviour that has weakened Parliament for decades. MPs went along with party positions: they did not vote with the views of their constituents; nor did they vote in accordance with their own beliefs about the best policy for the country.

It was business as usual, except that Labour failed to perform the role of official opposition. We don’t know exactly why, but it seems likely that the leadership of the party took a position that was based on an assessment of the views of those who it sees as the party’s core voters, particularly in the North. That assessment has been challenged by John Curtice, who has shown that a clear majority of Labour voters supported Remain, not only in the South but also in the North (2).  Just because a majority in a Labour-held seat supported Leave, it does not follow that a majority of Labour voters in that seat were Leavers. Curtice’s analysis has in turn been challenged by Ian Warren (3),  who has argued that the voters who abandoned the party in 2010 and 2015 were mainly Leavers, so Labour has to pitch to Leave to get them back. Perhaps, but perhaps Labour should think about better representing its faithful Remain voters. It could even adopt a position of principle that does not succumb to the cries of the tabloid press, but that might be too much to ask.

This leaves the puzzle of why the government is apparently intent on propelling the UK towards the hardest form of Brexit, and why Conservative Remain MPs have allowed this. The most charitable interpretation is that the government’s position is a bargaining strategy. To have any hope of getting other EU members to agree to a special relationship, the UK has to make it appear credible that it will walk away without an agreement. This, incidentally, makes it vital that Parliament is not allowed to vote on the final deal or non-deal, as it would surely reject a non-deal, and EU partners know this. Whether the bargaining strategy will work or not, we will find out, but there is an uneasy sense that the UK is playing chicken with a juggernaut. It will be very difficult for the other twenty-seven to find the flexibility that the UK demands.

The constitutional issue that this raises concerns the government’s power to negotiate on behalf of the UK without parliamentary constraints. The judgments in the Miller case clarify this power. Even while the judges determinedly stated and restated the principles of parliamentary sovereignty, they all agreed on the existence of executive prerogative in the area of international relations. Prerogative powers, as the majority judgment puts it, relate to ‘important areas of governmental activity which .. are essential to the effective operation of the state’, including foreign affairs: diplomatic relations, the deployment of armed forces abroad, and the making of treaties.

The judgments in Miller turned on the question of whether this prerogative power could be invoked to end the UK’s membership of the EU. The majority held that the government could not invoke its authority over foreign affairs in dealing with the EU, as EU law has become part of domestic law. To treat EU membership as a matter of prerogative would be to assert prerogative powers to change domestic law, and that is untenable. Parliament makes the law, not the executive.

But here the legal position comes up against the realpolitik of negotiation, and it is surely this that meant there was no rebellion on the Conservative side, with the lonely exception of Ken Clarke. Conservative MPs with Remain constituencies followed the logic of power that has served their party well for a century: their government is leaving the EU and their task is to ensure that it has the bargaining power to do so on the best possible terms.

The real fallacy of Bogdanor’s argument is the implied claim that leaving the EU will restore the powers of the national parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty was a fiction before Britain joined the EU, and leaving will not change that. The national sovereignty that is being reclaimed by Brexit is not parliamentary sovereignty: it is executive authority. The vote was not about parliamentary power, but about the balance of power between a judiciary that is part of a supranational legal order on one hand, and the executive (and the legislature it dominates) on the other. The primary impact of leaving the EU will be to reduce the authority of the judiciary and and increase that of the executive.

The judges in the Miller case found that EU law is part of domestic law. This has important practical effects. A remarkable achievement of the EU is that it has replaced diplomacy and executive discretion in international relations with a system based on law. While this legal system is integrated by the supremacy of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, it is first and foremost a system based in domestic law, routinely accessible to businesses and citizens. The effect is that a UK-based business which finds itself excluded from trading or operating in another state can challenge the regulatory authority that is obstructing it in the courts of that state. The British government need not get involved; indeed, very often the higher echelons of government in the other state do not get involved either. They can leave the question to the relevant regulatory body, which wins some cases and loses others in its dealings with its own business community and citizens, and has the same relationship with those based abroad (provided they are in the EU).

In its Brexit plans, the government has been forthright in its determination to leave this system. Bringing an end to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice is the main subject of chapter 2 of the Brexit White Paper, ahead of controlling immigration (ch 5) and ensuring free trade (ch 8). In future, aggrieved citizens will have to turn to their consulates. Businesses that find their market access blocked by a regulatory agency will have to ask the UK government to take up their case, instead of being able to seek the protection of EU law in the courts of the country that has blocked them.

I remarked above that a charitable interpretation of the government’s strategy is that it is trying to secure a strong negotiating position. A less charitable interpretation is that senior members of the present government fundamentally reject an international system based on law. They prefer bargaining and diplomacy to the settlement of disputes by independent authorities. One explanation of this preference is that judicial settlement of international disputes has a tendency to spill over into areas of domestic law which have no apparent cross-border aspect. Indeed, it is arguable that the Court of Justice has done little to prevent this spillover, as it has over time given up the self-restraint that confined its decisions to matters with cross-border effects. Still, the hostility of the present government to judicial authority is striking. Courts are, apparently, all tarred with the brush of progressive liberalism. The Court of Justice has blotted its copybook with the British government with decisions upholding the rights of EU migrants to receive social security benefits. This is small beer financially and economically, compared with, say, the same Court’s decision that the City of London must have non-discriminatory access to the euro derivatives market, but the government seems unable to weigh up the gains and losses in a rational way.

Brexit will mean the replacement of law by diplomacy in economic relationships with the EU. Diplomacy is an area of prerogative power; leaving the EU will enlarge the domain of this power. We will not see international relations widely discussed and debated in Parliament: it is an area where secrecy prevails. The Supreme Court did its best to allow Parliament to have a say on Brexit, unequivocally rejecting the claim that the referendum result could be put into effect directly. Parliament’s capitulation shows us how referendums really work, and the distance from Bogdanor’s account is large. Referendums permit the expression of a general ‘will of the people’, but the people’s will is susceptible to interpretation, and it is the political executive that has seized the power to interpret. Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law are squeezed between the general will and the strategic executive, between the moment (but only a moment) of democratic expression and the long-drawn-out process of closed door negotiations.


(1) Vernon Bogdanor ‘After the Referendum the People and not Parliament are Sovereign’ Financial Times, 9 December 2016.
(2) John Curtice, 'Is Labour’s Brexit dilemma being misunderstood? 'The UK in a Changing Europe, 17 February 2017
(3) Ian Warren, ‘Brief response to John Curtice’ 2 March 2017

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The populist surge and democracy in today’s Europe

Giorgos Katsambekis

If we believe top European officials like Herman van Rompuy or Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as mainstream media, populism is now ‘the greatest danger’ for our democracies. Indeed, during the years of crisis and austerity there has been a significant rise of populist parties in Europe, with some of them winning elections and disturbing previously established hegemonies. In this sense, the populist challenge has a ‘real,’ concrete base, as populists of various orientations are gaining ground. Interestingly, this ‘populist surge’ has brought renewed intensity to the debate around the crisis of democracy itself and the capacity of existing institutions to express and empower citizens. If people are turning to populist challengers, who seem overly radical, or even ‘extremist,’ then something must be wrong with our democratic-representational systems. This, at least, seems to be a common suggestion on the lips of politicians, pundits and academics.

To be sure, populists are identified on both sides of the political spectrum. Starting from the right, the Front National (FN) under Marine Le Pen poses as a viable contender of power in France, the Finns Party in Finland are participating in a coalition government, holding significant cabinet posts, the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was only narrowly defeated in the recent Austrian presidential elections, while Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s hegemony in Hungary seems unchallenged.

At the same time we have witnessed a new surge, characterised by the emergence of populist parties that belong to the Left. The austerity-hit European South has been at the forefront of this new trend. Political parties like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain rode the waves of massive grassroots anti-austerity movements and significantly expanded their electoral support, with the former being already in power for two years and the latter consolidated as a major player in Spain’s political scene.

But is this trend something good or bad for democracy? And what are the prospects of populism from now on? To deal with such questions we have to start from defining populism. Drawing on the emerging consensus among academics that use discursive or ‘ideational’ approaches, we can sketch the main characteristics of the phenomenon.

First, populism entails the discursive construction of ‘the people’ as a collective subject. ‘The people’ are called upon as the only ones that can legitimise democratic decision making; as the key-subject of social change and radical subversion. The second characteristic of populism is its sharp antagonistic worldview: the representation of society as ultimately divided between ‘the people’ and the ‘establishment.’ Populists are placed on the side of ‘the people,’ pledging to serve the popular will and reinforce popular sovereignty, accountability and participation, against power holders and ‘oligarchs.’

This formal understanding of populism gives us a precise illustration of its political logic, but it does not tell us much regarding the content of populist politics. Indeed, populism’s contents may vary, depending on the ideology to which it is attached, as well as the socio-economic environment in which it develops. This explains the fact that we have historically witnessed many different forms of populist articulation: populisms that favoured statist economic programmes and others that were free-market oriented; populisms that emerged from the grassroots and populisms that were concentrated on charismatic leaders and top-down hierarchies; populisms that put forth demands for democratic expansion and social inclusion and populisms that defended authoritarian logics and social/ethnic exclusion.

Accordingly, the way in which populists speak about ‘the people,’ can vary significantly, as some consider the people to be a mono-ethnic community bound by relations of common culture, language or blood, while others see it as a political community, plural and heterogeneous, bound only by a sense of common fate and a shared set of values. Moreover, the way in which the antagonism with the ‘enemy’ is signified can also acquire different content: in some cases, an unresponsive ‘elite’ can be blamed for its economic injustices and corruption, or it can be castigated for opening the borders and allowing invading ‘others’ to ‘take over’ the country.

In this context, taking into account the vast heterogeneity of the phenomenon, I believe that it is wrong to denounce populism per se as a pathological and anti-democratic form of politics. In fact, it might be better to understand it as one way, among many others, to appeal to groups of people in order to mobilise them against named opponents, while offering some kind of incorporation.

Now, what we may call ‘populist incorporation’ can be exclusive and identitarian (‘you’re one of us, as long as we share the same ethnic origins’), or it can be inclusive and pluralist (‘you’re one of us regardless ethnicity, religion, etc., as long as we stand together against an oppressive elite’). Admittedly, this is a simplified version of possible articulations, based on the two broader trends that seem to crystallise in Europe. In any case, this function tells us something crucial regarding the conditions of emergence and probable success of populist projects.

And it is here that the notion of ‘crisis’ enters our discussion. Kenneth Roberts, for example, has linked populist ruptures to certain crises of representation. One of the scenarios that he describes is the situation where a political system is characterised by lack of responsiveness or accountability. In this case, while democratic institutions formally work, the rule of law is respected, liberties are secured and parties can freely compete in elections, citizens are left with a feeling of lacking alternatives or of not being heard; they thus do not feel included, incorporated.

This is due to the fact that mainstream parties that dominate the political scene have converged to such an extent that it does not really make a difference to vote for one or the other. And this seems to be the case today in many European countries. Moreover, citizens in Europe have often witnessed the imposition of policies sharply opposed to their mandate, due to external pressures and constraints. Take for example the Greek referendum of July 2015, where, despite the people’s clear decision to reject a new bailout deal premised on further austerity, such a deal was imposed on the Greek government under the threat of a complete economic collapse and international isolation.

In such a context, where citizen feel misrepresented or not represented at all, where there are serious doubts about the moral integrity of the political elite and the policies being implemented have little to do with the popular vote, populists can claim to better understand and express the frustrated people, against a political system that has become self-serving and alienated.

Hence, instead of trying to account for populism as a ‘threat,’ there might be a much more important lesson to draw from the success of populist parties and movements, and this has to do with the quality of representation itself; with the responsiveness of political actors and institutions.

This is particularly important in today’s Europe, where mainstream political forces seem to have lost their links with civil society, becoming increasingly attached to the administrational workings of the state; what Peter Mair has described as the ‘cartelisation’ of political parties, which has spread to the EU itself, making it a ‘protected sphere,’ unaware of people’s needs and grievances. In one way or another, populists are gaining ground against such ‘cartel’ systems around Europe, and they are doing so not only in cases where economic hardship has been severe, but also in cases where the economy has performed well and institutions are stable and efficient.

In the South, the populist Left has found a favourable environment to put forth demands against austerity, rising inequality and impoverishment, in favour of re-including the marginalised people. In the North, the populist Right has managed to attract voters that were frustrated with mainstream parties, channelling social anxieties through identity issues, stressing the need to return to strong nation-states that provide protection to ‘their own.’ It would be impossible for such parties to succeed, if a ‘gap of representation’ wasn’t there for them to fill.

To sum up, any discussion regarding populism in Europe cannot be productive if we don’t take into account the inherent ambiguity of the phenomenon: both threat and corrective, both fulfilling a democratising promise and susceptible to authoritarian turns. The a priori demonization of populism that ignores its specific content and message, is doomed to backfire, since along with dismissing the populist ‘devils,’ one risks dismissing ‘the people’ themselves, their worries, frustrations and grievances.

In this sense, mainstream parties ought to take seriously the demands of populists on the issues which they raise, from participatory democracy to transparency, and from wealth distribution and social protection to popular accountability. And they do not just have to take them into account, but they ought to respond to them with concrete policy proposals and with discourses that can aspire positive passions of hope among citizens that struggle in conditions of stagnation and impasse.

You can read the full article The Populist Surge in Post-Democratic Times: Theoretical and Political Challenges here.

Monday, 23 January 2017

The SNP's progressive dilemma

David Torrance

It was the former Labour politician David Marquand who identified what he called the ‘progressive dilemma’ in British politics, that is the reluctance of UK voters to support parties – usually Labour or the Liberals – whose broadly progressive values and policies they otherwise claim to support.

Superficially, the Scottish National Party (SNP) – currently approaching its tenth anniversary in devolved government – would appear to be an exception. Three times it has fought elections for the Scottish Parliament on a “progressive” platform, and three times it has emerged as the largest party, once with an overall majority.

On closer examination, however, the SNP is subject to exactly the same dynamic as its progressive counterparts on the UK stage. Indeed, as I argue in my essay for the most recent edition of Political Quarterly, when it comes to Scottish Nationalism there is in fact a twin dilemma: in order to achieve independence, the SNP has needed to win political power, and in order to achieve political power it has had to win elections, and orthodoxy dictated that winning those in Scotland involved offering voters a centre-left agenda.

But over the past five years it’s become increasingly clear that the SNP’s two goals, winning (and subsequently retaining) office and ultimately securing independence, are often in conflict. Indeed, two recent events illustrate the point, the devolved Scottish Government’s latest Budget and the publication of its “Brexit” paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe.

The first is significant – “historic” in Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s own word – because for the first time Holyrood will have (almost) complete control of income tax bands and rates north of the border. Now although the SNP has always subscribed to the low-tax orthodoxy of British politics, its rhetoric about “social justice” and “progressive” values have rather created the impression that, given the chance, it would be more redistributive.

But in the most recent Budget, all the Finance Secretary did was forego the Treasury’s planned threshold increase for the upper rate, which means middle earners in Scotland will end up paying a little more than those in the rest of the UK. On the 50p rate, however, the SNP had in the past supported its restoration, only now it uses George Osborne-like arguments about the dangers of fiscal flight.

The SNP is not stupid; it knows its electorate well, and it fully realizes that while Middle Scotland likes to think of itself as “progressive” and more left-wing (i.e. better) than Middle England, it’s not really prepared to translate that conceit into higher taxes. In other words, the secret of the SNP’s electoral success since 2007 has been a New Labour-like ability to articulate the desires of Middle Scotland and thus win political support.

Increasing taxes and welfare payments (now also within its gift) risks offending moderate voters and therefore not only diminishing the party’s grip on devolved government but also support for independence. In the run up to the last referendum, for example, the SNP went out of its way to moderate its message, suddenly becoming pro-NATO, stressing its support for the monarchy and promising that independence would not mean higher taxes or lower public spending.

And now Brexit has increased the chances of another independence referendum, the SNP remains in safety-first mode. The essence of the Scottish Government’s long-awaited Brexit paper, meanwhile, is also that of compromise. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is acutely aware that a large chunk of her own supporters voted Leave in June’s referendum, thus she now accepts that Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, is set to leave the European Union.

So instead her government’s paper argues that the UK and, failing that, Scotland, ought to remain part of the EU Single Market. With respect to Scotland, however, this goal is quixotic, for sub-state units (i.e. a devolved Scotland) are not eligible to join either the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association. And even if it were possible, it’d need the approval of all 27 EU Member States, which seems unlikely, particularly in the case of Spain.

There are also broader tensions. The SNP might depict the UK as innately regressive, prone to Conservative, reactionary governments, and the EU as generally progressive, in spite of its economic treatment of Ireland and Greece, but the point remains that the former’s fiscal transfers give the Scottish Government significant leeway to sustain universal benefits like free personal care and free university tuition, while Scotland – independent or not – would likely be a net contributor to the EU.

Those on the Nationalist left, however, comfort themselves with the belief that once independence has been achieved, the SNP will dispense with Blairite triangulation and govern according to properly progressive principles. That aspiration, however, rather betrays the reality that it hasn’t thus far. The party’s twin dilemma will continue until, and perhaps even beyond, another independence referendum.

You can read the full article here.



Friday, 30 December 2016

Progressive Dilemmas

Patrick Diamond

David Marquand’s influential work of the early 1990s, The Progressive Dilemma, was a landmark volume: Marquand’s book addressed the most profound, long-term challenges that confronted the liberal-left in the UK, identifying the central question of how to mobilise a ‘progressive’ anti-Conservative majority that would not only win elections, but sustain a radical government to enact progressive social reforms. Marquand developed his thesis at a particular moment in the early 1990s when Labour appeared to be on the brink of electoral recovery, but was unexpectedly defeated in the 1992 general election. The centre-left had already suffered three losses at the hands of Thatcher’s Conservative party. Labour had recovered its position under Neil Kinnock, but still lacked a plausible governing programme. Elsewhere on the centre-left, the SDP had imploded and the Liberal Democrats had made a hesitant beginning.

In electoral politics, Marquand defined the dilemma facing British progressives as the challenge posed by the existence of rival parties around which there had coalesced deep ‘tribal’ differences, with roots stretching back to the late nineteenth century. This fissure repeatedly split the centre-left vote; it was a critical factor in allowing the Conservatives to govern for 72 out of the last 100 years.

At the level of ideas, the progressive dilemma was that intellectuals were ambivalent about whether to co-operate with the Labour behemoth. Marquand contended that Labour needed the liberal-left intelligentsia to develop a credible governing programme; politically these intellectuals had nowhere else to go after the eclipse of the Liberal party. But many thinkers remained decidedly ambivalent about the Labour party, disliking its tribalism and sectarian culture; both Keynes and Beveridge refused to join Labour.

This deleterious situation for British progressives was exacerbated by various structural changes in the later decades of the twentieth century which also appeared to favour the Conservatives. These included the electoral effects of class de-alignment, the decline of manual labour, the erosion of the traditional labour movement, the massive expansion of suburban housing estates, and the associated cultural changes wrought by material affluence. In the 1950s and 1960s, the New Left alongside Labour’s revisionists had drawn attention to the party’s inability to face up to the consequences of sociological change, which undermined the established cultures and practices of British labourism. The relative prosperity which the Conservatives cultivated in the growing regions and sectors of the UK appeared to entrench their electoral dominance, adding to Labour’s ‘Southern Discomfort’ problem. In these circumstances, Marquand wondered, could the centre-left ever win again?

An affirmative answer was provided by ‘New’ Labour’s election victories of 1997, 2001 and 2005; but the crisis that emerged in their aftermath indicates that Marquand’s thesis is far from redundant. The irony of these victories was that the ‘progressive alliance’ that both Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown wanted to build in the mid-1990s was made much less politically imperative (for Labour) by the size of its 1997 majority. It may well be that this was a missed opportunity for political and social reform: to enact changes to the electoral system for Westminster and local government, to develop a more coherent approach to constitutional questions and European relationships, to embed environmental sustainability more deeply into public policy, and to uphold a ‘progressive internationalism’ that might have avoided the errors of pre-emptive war in Iraq.

The case for revisiting the Progressive Dilemma is that Marquand’s thematic concerns, and his highly influential historical thesis, continue to have considerable resonance: they are particularly striking in the context of the structural crisis facing the centre-left in the era of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In key respects, the processes which Marquand discerned – chiefly the fracturing of the class identities associated with the industrial age – have become even more pronounced since the 1990s. And the centre-left now faces challenges which Marquand could not have foreseen, including the rise of forms of populism and nationalism that are threatening the very foundations of the British political system and state.

Our political culture has been deeply affected by the disillusionment generated by the experience of globalisation, the increasingly precarious nature of work, the impact of sharp reductions in local government and other areas of non-protected public spending, and disaffection with levels of immigration. There is a sense of anger and resentment associated with visible forms of inequality which the pre-Corbyn Labour establishment was slow to grasp. These shifts have led to the popularisation of new forms of protest and ‘identity’ politics including, most notably, the rise of nationalism in Scotland and, more recently, England. In the largest part of the UK, with over 84 per cent of the population, a significant process of national reawakening has been occurring over the last two decades. Notions of English national identity have come to acquire greater salience and meaning, especially for those living outside London and the metropolitan centres. Labour has clung grimly to the notion that ‘Britishness’ represents a progressive ‘non-national’ patriotism, and has disagreed internally about whether regional government or devolution to cities, and city-regions, represents the most effective way to address inequalities. The party’s unwillingness to engage with shifting patterns of national sentiment, most obviously in Scotland but also now in England, has left Labour out of touch with the most profound dynamics reshaping contemporary political life.

If the centre-left cannot amass a more pertinent response to the growing political cleavages of national identity, the risk is the Tories will dominate the electoral landscape, making the twenty-first century another Conservative century. Marquand’s (1991: 240) concluding words in The Progressive Dilemma are worth recalling:

"What is needed for anti-Conservative Britain…is a marriage between the communitarian, decentralist, participatory radicalism to which the Liberal Democrats are heirs, and the communitarian, decentralist, participatory strands in the socialist inheritance: a marriage, if you like, between Thomas Paine and William Morris."

As the liberal-left warily confronts the new dilemmas of identity politics and the populist insurgency, it will need all of these intellectual resources at its command. In such circumstances, Marquand is surely right that ‘such a marriage hardly needs official blessing’.

This blog is based on the introductory article to the Political Quarterly issue on ‘Progressive Dilemmas’ by Patrick Diamond, Michael Kenny and Roger Liddle.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Progressive Alliances

Ben Jackson

When the Conservative Party is strong and the Labour Party is weak, leading ornaments of the British left often turn their minds to the creation of a broader, multi-party progressive alliance that could be mobilised to remove the Conservatives from office. The 1930s, the 1980s, and to a lesser extent the 1950s, all bore witness to such efforts. It has been evident since the 2015 general election that we are once again likely to face a lengthy period of Conservative government opposed by an unpopular Labour alternative. While it is certainly possible that the challenge of delivering Britain’s exit from the European Union might bring down Theresa May’s government, there is no reason to think that the Labour Party would benefit from a subsequent general election. So we find ourselves returning to the tactical and strategic dilemmas that were familiar to the left in the past.

Could a broader progressive alliance among Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and perhaps even Scottish nationalists be constructed to oppose the Conservatives? This special issue of Political Quarterly, edited by Patrick Diamond, Michael Kenny and Roger Liddle, brings together some penetrating reflections on how such ‘progressivism’ should be understood and operationalised as a political project today. Of the many valuable points that emerge from this collection, one theme that deserves initial emphasis is that there are in fact several different possible forms that a progressive alliance could take.

First, a progressive alliance could cohere at an ideological level, in a set of shared political ideals and goals that reach across party boundaries and provide a framework for cross-party co-operation in their pursuit. This is in one sense the easiest form of progressive alliance to contemplate because it is chiefly intellectual rather than practical in character, and because there is already plenty of common ideological ground between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and even the SNP. A shared social democratic vision of a more egalitarian, pluralist and ecologically sustainable society already exists and should be further developed (1). But in another sense, if such a vision is to have a political cutting edge, then it must also make more divisive choices between alternative policy options. Scottish independence is one obvious place where it will prove difficult to knit the SNP into such an alliance. Britain’s future trading relations with the EU, and in particular freedom of movement of labour, looks likely to be another significant tension within any emergent progressive bloc. Even at an ideological level, substantial differences of opinion will need to be navigated and reconciled.

A second form of progressive alliance can emerge from the grassroots behaviour of the voters themselves. Tactical voting against the Conservatives – unendorsed by national party leaderships – was an under-rated aspect of the electoral decline of the Conservatives after 1992. Similarly, the availability of a progressive non-Labour Party was critical in siphoning off voters from the Conservatives who for cultural and social reasons would have been reluctant to cast their ballots for Labour. The strength of the Liberal Democrats, especially in the South-West and in affluent urban constituencies, played an important role in weakening the Conservatives’ parliamentary representation. As we saw in 2015, the unwinding of this tactical voting helped the Conservatives to an overall majority – and the rest is history. This tacit progressive alliance appeared to function relatively well without any formal organisation or national political leadership. Indeed, the formalisation of this tactical voting through explicit advice from national parties might actually repel some voters who would otherwise be happy to support non-Conservative parties. Would all of the Liberal Democrat voters in the South-West still have voted Liberal Democrat in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 if by doing so they were participating in vote trading with the Labour Party? At any rate, as the Richmond Park by-election showed, the issue of Europe has now created the space for the Liberal Democrats to make some electoral headway as the pro-European opposition to the Conservative Party. The tougher problem is in fact probably going to be the squeeze that Europe will now place on the Labour vote: whichever way Labour jumps on Europe, it will alienate some voters who would otherwise have supported it.

Third, a progressive alliance could be embodied in a coalition government, put into place after a general election in which political parties faced each other in a normal electoral competition. As the 2010-15 coalition government demonstrated, British political culture is uncomfortable with such arrangements, though they are commonplace in other political systems. Clearly, though, if a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government could be made to work, then a Labour-Liberal Democrat government would also be possible, although the Liberal Democrats will doubtless now be more cautious about presenting such a deal as anything but a transactional business arrangement. However, it seems unlikely that the parliamentary arithmetic will make such a government feasible, in part because of the continuing strength of the SNP. The SNP, fortified like the Liberal Democrats by the Europe referendum, will likely be the third party in the House of Commons for some time to come. The prospect of forming a government with their support will thus loom over any post-election coalition deal. The 2015 election campaign showed that the opportunistic sectionalism of the Conservative Party and its press allies will know no bounds when confronted by this possibility. But it is undeniable that the question of how to knit together a coalition between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP is a daunting one and any government that emerged along those lines would be likely to be quite fragile (which is not to say that it wouldn’t be worth a try in certain circumstances in order to remove the Conservatives from power).

The fourth variant of a progressive alliance is the one that is most widely discussed, if only loosely and with little sense of the difficulties it entails. This is the idea that there should be explicit electoral pacts between the non-Conservative parties, perhaps with other parties standing aside for the best placed non-Conservative party in each constituency. This is very unlikely to ever happen in a systematic way, although in ad hoc individual cases it might prove to be a workable tool. Labour tribalism usually receives the blame for the failure of electoral pacts to take root and there is little doubt that a significant section of Labour opinion remains hostile to working with other parties. But even if we bracket Labour’s political culture for a moment, there is an important practical question to consider: would electoral pacts actually work as a tool for displacing the Conservatives? Isn’t there a danger – especially in the current political climate – that voters might perceive it as an attempt to rig the electoral marketplace by political elites (especially once the issue is framed in the media by noisy headlines in the right-wing press)? If tactical anti-Conservative voting was possible and effective between 1997 and 2010 (and in the Richmond Park by-election, albeit with the Greens officially standing aside), then perhaps electoral pacts might actually detract from more effective decentralised and organic efforts along these lines.

There is also a fifth possibility. All of these versions of a progressive alliance presume that Conservatives lie beyond the pale of such an arrangement. That is surely a correct assumption in normal political times. But the current fluidity of British politics renders much orthodox political thinking suspect. As James Stafford and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite have argued, in the fraught months and years ahead it is only by forging some common ground with dissident Conservatives (and indeed the DUP) that Labour and the other progressive parties can hope to influence Britain’s exit from the EU in a positive and internationalist direction (2). A future dominated by nationalist protectionism will offer little space for the liberal and social democratic agenda that has usually been seen as the focus of a progressive alliance. For that reason, the priority has to be forming an alliance that might stave off the most dangerously nativist outcomes of Britain’s exit from the EU. The question is whether those who excoriate political tribalism in others are themselves willing to work with old opponents in pursuit of shared strategic objectives, even if that new-found ally turns out to be George Osborne rather than Caroline Lucas.

Notes

(1) For a useful discussion of these ideological affinities, see L. Nandy, C. Lucas and C. Bowers (eds.), The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics, London, Biteback, 2016.

(2) J. Stafford and F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘After 2016’, Renewal, vol. 24, no. 4, 2017, pp. 5-14.