There has been much discussion in the media recently on the prospects of a progressive pact for the next general election: progressive parties standing aside in favour of the candidate presumed to have the best chance of beating an incumbent Conservative. The idea has been dismissed by the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Daisy Cooper, as an “insult to voters”, a “stitch-up”, and a “flawed” concept that “would risk repelling the very people the Liberal Democrats need to win over to defeat Conservative MPs” in a well-argued piece in the Independent. Labour’s Wes Streeting, when asked by Trevor Philips if it was time to start thinking about an alliance (between Labour, Lib Dems and Greens), replied “I don’t think voters like the idea of back-room deals and pacts between political parties”.
But these politicians didn’t provide any evidence to back up their dismissal of the idea, and that’s not surprising, because the only contemporary evidence on the idea of progressive pacts is overwhelmingly supportive of their effectiveness. Granted, there are only two pieces of evidence available, but both come to remarkably similar conclusions, and these conclusions are almost identical to just adding Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green vote share together from the 2019 election.
So yes, progressive voters aren’t just robots that progressive parties can issue instructions to, but the net result of the disgruntlement and the enthusing that a pact might cause is pretty much the same as if progressive votes could just be poured into whatever candidate bucket the progressive parties choose for each seat.
The first piece of evidence comes from Andrew Blick for the Constitution
(carried out on June 4-6th 2021, when the Conservatives were measured as having a 12 point poll lead with SavantaComRes and at a time when they were averaging about a 10.5 point lead in the polls).
The question asked was a straight-up, no nonsense electoral pact question on the issue of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens standing aside in all Tory-held seats:
“Suppose at the next general election that all the usual political parties are standing in your seat except that the [OTHER PARTY1] and [OTHER PARTY2] have agreed not to stand and are asking their supporters to vote [SELECTED PARTY]. Which party, if any, would you vote for, in this general election?”
In this scenario the Tories would lose 58 seats relative to the 2019 general election, even at a time when they were polling at a very similar level to the results of that election. If you take the lowest lead around that time of 6% (Opinium on the 27-28th May), there would still be a loss of around 30 Tory seats. If you took the highest Tory lead of 16% (YouGov 2-3rd June), a progressive alliance pact would maybe defeat an extra 78 Conservatives relative to business as usual (Calculations made using this basic online tool: http://www.electionpolling.co.uk/swingometer/uk-parliament. These calculations include Scotland where the research did not)
Remarkably, 8 of the projected lost seats would be lost to the Greens, based on the Greens being allocated 23 seats for them to have the other progressive parties stand down in their favour. The Greens were projected to win over 1 in 3 of the seats they were allocated, a much higher ratio than for the other progressive parties, perhaps indicating that they should be pushing for many more targets to give a progressive alliance the best chance of success.
The second piece of evidence comes from research done for Best for Britain https://www.bestforbritain.org/opposition_cooperation_in_a_minority_of_seats_can_remove_tories_from_power?fbclid=IwAR0dnt1n1KdTuR_hCzEtetYDtacImFzmFyVco1OKpmTTVy0YV1nT-0MnvaQ The publicly available information does not make for great evidence frankly. They haven’t even made public the questions they asked of voters and just talk of “unity candidates”. Nevertheless their results (from polling carried out between the 2nd and 17th August 2021, when the Tories had between a 3 and 11 point lead in the polls with an average lead of 7 points) suggest enormous benefit from co-operation.
Best for Britain report their findings as 91 lost Tory seats relative to the general election results, but perhaps 20-25 of those seats would have been lost anyway if you take the average 7 point Tory lead in the polls at the time. This gives an estimated gain of 66-71 seats for progressives by working together and standing unity candidates (more difficult to estimate as Best for Britain only polled voters in England).
If you examine the results of the 2019 UK general election, there are 56 seats where the total vote of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens if added together would defeat the elected Conservative MP. There are an additional 7 seats in Wales that would fall with the help of Plaid Cymru and an additional 5 seats in Scotland where SNP help would remove Conservatives too. This 56-68 seat range is remarkably similar to the numbers indicated by the Constitution Society and by Best for Britain, strongly suggesting that the electorate are perfectly willing to embrace an open and honest commitment of the progressive parties to standing single candidates against Conservative incumbents.
It is disappointing that both these pieces of research chose to exclude Scotland from their polling. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats were somewhat tarnished by their association with the Conservatives during the 2014 Independence referendum campaign. By joining forces with the Scottish Greens in an explicit effort to permanently remove the Conservatives from majority power at Westminster, these parties might provide a very attractive alternative to the SNP, and so diminish the considerable concerns of English voters about the SNP gaining power as part of a coalition government https://www.survation.com/the-general-election-2015-the-polls-what-happened/.
The available evidence indicates a progressive alliance standing single candidates against Conservative MPs would take away the Conservative majority at the next general election even if the Conservatives rallied to achieve a 45% vote share again.
By refusing this strategy, opposition parties are likely to be gifting the Conservatives a 50-60 seat head start at the next general election. No matter the sophistication of tactical voting efforts or the agreed prioritisation of targets stitched up in back room deals, it is hard to foresee any co-operation, formal or informal, overt or covert, which could make any more than a dozen gains relative to 2019 levels of inter-party conflict.
Faced with parties refusing to co-operate in this way, it can be anticipated that progressive voters wishing to see the back of the Conservatives will grow increasingly frustrated with the established parties.
Just as UKIP achieved its goal of the UK exiting the EU without gaining any significant power, a party advocating progressive parties stand aside for each other might achieve gains in proportional local elections in Scotland and Wales in time to place pressure on progressive parties to get their act together before the next Westminster election.
Volt Scotland are supporting me (Ewan Hoyle) as a candidate for Glasgow’s Pollokshields ward for the elections next May. I will be communicating my position as the most anti-Conservative vote that can be cast and am inviting progressives to co-operate in an attempt to remove the Conservatives from their most long-held seat on Glasgow City Council. Volt Scotland would be delighted to support other candidates wishing for progressive co-operation to unseat Conservatives both at the council and Westminster level. Volt are a progressive, pro-European, pan-European party with over 70 elected representatives across Europe.