The BBC's Challengers' Debate which aired last Thursday was interesting for several reasons. It was particularly strange to see Ed Miliband – remember him? 'Hopeless' or 'useless' Ed Miliband – come off surprisingly well, seeming the sanest, most serious option with the most credibility compared with the leaders of four minor, rather parochial parties.
One of the most frustrating things, however, was the evidence that the concept of a 'Progressive Alliance' – of all the parties who are even vaguely on 'the left' of British politics teaming up to work together 'for the common good' – still hasn't died the death it richly deserves.
In the UK, we live in a multi-party democratic system; something which most 'progressives' consider a good thing, and would want to increase. "Multi-party politics is here to stay!" claims the Electoral Reform Society, who say they campaign for 'a better democracy'. Why, then, do the leaders and representatives of self-professed 'progressive' parties forsake this view when push comes to shove, and instead attempt to reduce politics to a simple, binary choice between 'the Tories' and 'not the Tories'?
On the BBC debate last week, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon made an offer to Ed Miliband, claiming she could help the Labour leader 'lock out the Tories' (a stance which is rather at odds with the SNP's earlier claims that Labour and the Conservatives are 'all the same' – if this were really the case, why would Sturgeon be happy to work with one but not with the other?). The implication of this exchange between Sturgeon and Miliband, however, is that it is actually Labour and the SNP (and the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, and anyone else who comes under the broad 'progressive' banner) who are 'the same' – simply by dint of not being the Tories.
There may be some common ground between these parties (both the SNP and Labour are advocating a 'Mansion Tax', for example), but there are fundamental differences, too. Even aside from the most obvious split between the parties – that the Labour Party is innately unionist, whilst the SNP have long campaigned for Scotland's independence – there are other issues on which the parties are divided (for example, on the renewal of the Trident Nuclear Deterrent, which Ed Miliband explicitly said he supported during last week's debate on the BBC). Add into this mix the Green Party – which might agree with the SNP on Trident, but has starkly different plans from Labour in areas such as immigration, education, and a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union – and Plaid Cymru – who oppose welfare caps and are looking for billions more funding to devolved Wales – and we can see that the concept of the 'progressive alliance' airbrushes the heterogeneity of these different parties and their diverse aims and policies, instead assuming that anybody who doesn't vote for the Conservatives automatically dream the same dream and want the same thing.
This doesn't mean that these parties could not work together in a coalition government, or in a 'supply and confidence' voting arrangement – we have been governed for the last five years by a coalition of two parties who disagree in many areas, after all. But this is different from the suggestion that these parties are all the same because they all disagree with the Conservatives.
Indeed, on some issues, a 'progressive' party may agree more with a party on 'the right' than with their fellow left-wingers. For example, the Green Party propose to hold a referendum on Britain's rôle in the EU (although they would campaign for Britain to stay in); the Conservatives have also promised an EU referendum, but Labour (much more a natural ally of the Greens, you would think) have ruled it out. The Green Party also support scrapping the costly HS2 high-speed rail infrastructure project – another area where they align with UKIP policy instead of with their 'progressive' counterparts in the SNP, Plaid Cymru or Labour. To lump all these 'progressive' parties in together as being in agreement with each other, and as opposing the Tories, consistently and across the board, is simplistic and wrong.
It is worth remembering that, in the UK, you can only vote for a party or candidate – you cannot specifically vote against a party or candidate. It is fallacious to claim that a vote for any one party is automatically a vote against another party, and a de facto rejection of that party's stance on all issues. Any attempt to turn the UK's interesting and diverse plurality of left-wing political parties and movements into one homogeneous bloc with the same views and the same aims, therefore, is extremely facile. The 'progressive alliance' remains, I am afraid, a delusion which exists only in the minds of nerdy politics wonks obsessed with strategies and polls, and naïve left-wing student 'activists'.