Ideas, alliances and promises

Dave Levy
6 min readMar 9, 2020

I was pointed at, “If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars” by Rory McQueen who compares the state of the UK’s Left today with that in 1983, arguably the last time Labour was in this situation; he conducts a balance sheet on the balance of class forces, and then explores the issues of alliances and programme. He takes “The future of the Left”, an anthology written after the 1983 election as his historic benchmark.

I think this is incredibly well written and beyond my ability to summarise. i.e. you should read it. He provokes some thoughts in me, which is why you should read the rest of this. I talk, briefly, about the power of the Left in the country, it’s much weaker today, the need for and paradox of political alliances, and the failure of Labour’s policy & manifesto development programmes. I conclude by repeating the question, what’s the point for socialists in restricting alliances to exclusively to Labour’s right and how can Labour build a policy development process that delivers a realistic, popular and transformational programme for government.

Ideological Power

The author talks about the heightened level of ideological conflict in the ’80s, the power of Left and the Trade Unions, both in terms of ideas and numbers, although he fails to recognise the dichotomy caused in society by the Winter of Discontent but he does recognise the intellectual vigour of the Tories as they broke up the so-called post-war consensus which he contrasts unfavourably, and possibly wrongly with today. He also comments on the stature of the leadership of the then Social Democrats and compares them favourably with the leadership/entirety of the 2019 splitters who basically failed; possibly because their reasons for splitting were even less ideological than those of the SDP in 1983.

Making the voting coalition

Much of the essay concerns the question of alliances; an issue made acute in the ’80s by the creation of the SDP whose performance while not translated into seats damaged Labour’s vote share significantly. For many, including me, the issue raises itself again, as we ask how is Labour going to win a majority in the House of Commons without the English pit and steel towns and without Scotland.

McQueen identifies a passage from Raymond Williams ‘ contribution to the book. There are those that argue that Labour should ally with other progressive parties, McQueen writes,

Raymond Williams’s chapter ‘Socialists and Coalitionists’ considers areas of potential agreement between left and centre and examines the potential for both a ‘Big Coalition’, involving some or all of the Alliance, and a ‘Smaller Coalition’ constituted of a Labour Party which has set aside disagreements to unite around a minimalist centre-left agenda. Noting that, if policies end up being the same then there is little to be lost from forming either coalition, Williams nonetheless emphasised that none of the suggested areas of commonality are “in any distinctive sense socialist”. If socialists do not believe moderate Keynesianism of this type or similar is adequate for any sustained recovery or advance, coalition around a non-socialist programme makes no sense.

McQueen asks a basic question for today’s Left in the Labour Party, and outside it, that if it needs allies, what makes Labour’s right more acceptable allies than (some) LibDems, Scottish Nationalists and Greens. Certainly, in the 2010s, Charles Kennedy’s LibDems and the Green’s may have been more acceptable allies than a rump Progress who have been malevolently disruptive to firstly Ed Miliband, and latterly Corbyn and in extreme cases leaving. Laura Parker in her declaration of support for Kier Starmer, starts with this,

The Labour Party can and must win the next election. For that to happen, we need to recognise the inherent paradox of our first-past-the-post system. In theory not producing coalitions, in practice it just anticipates them. In many other countries, Labour would be two, three, four separate parties, coming together to form electoral coalitions. We form our coalition in advance.

We need to ask what’s the programmatic outcome of a pre-election coalition or post-election coalition, because for the Left, the programme matters. It also matters to the electorate.

Crafting a popular manifesto

McQueen talks about the then Left’s look at the “longest suicide not in history”. He says,

In 1984, Massey, Segal and Wainwright were even more explicit: “The unpopularity of the left is not so much due to popular disagreement with left ideals (if they’ve ever heard of them), as to an absence of any apparent strategy for putting them into practice and therefore a feeling that they are pie in the sky.”

And this would seem to be part of the answer as to why we have popular policies but lost votes. People didn’t believe we could do it all! In particular, it seems that the 4 Day week was felt to be a promise that couldn’t be kept. It is a fact that what Rebecca Long Bailey and her most committed supporters claim to be the flame of virtue, are the 2019 Conference confirmation of the Green New Deal with its 2030 zero net carbon promise, the four-day week and a strong migrant’s rights position. All of these promises were carried at Conference 2019, less than 3 months before the election. Labour had no time to take these policies to the country. And while these policies came from the grassroots, or maybe, from Momentum’s national coordinating group, they had little support amongst the PLP nor even the NEC.

When one adds on, the promises on free fares & free broadband which have never been socialised, not even in the Labour Party, one should be able to see a massive disconnect between the promises, their credibility and their committed support.

McQueen in his own words,

Unfortunately for us, the electorate did not believe in Labour’s alternative-and wondered whether we all believed in it either.

and quoting Williams again,

… maybe the lesson is simply that if you’re going to propose the most far-reaching structural reforms in a generation or more, they need to be framed in a way that makes them sound realistic and not utopian

although I do not think the 2019 manifesto was utopian.

On policy formulation, Williams again, calls for a thorough transformation of the Party’s policy-making processes (beyond motions into genuinely practical programmes) and the launch of a public process of reconsidering and changing assumptions, habits and attitudes

I take the opportunity to remind the world that the rules on Conference, the Party programme & Manifesto remain in place and that after Williams wrote what he said, the Party, 15 years later, introduced a policy development process that had the capacity to go beyond motions although it was designed to suppress the membership and under Miliband was subverted by shadow cabinet led commissions. Democratic policy development can only work if the PLP are held to account to it and it is clear that this will only happen if re-selection is real. Labour’s Party Leader is only held accountable in the most brutal fashion. If they win no-one cares, and if they lose, twice it would seem, then they have to go.

On policy we need to make the Party accountable to its membership, it’s why many of hem joined; they want a politics that represents them, not mindless activity getting or failing to get other people elected. This means having a working policy development process and holding the PLP accountable to it.

Too many of the headline promises in 2019 did not cut through and weren’t believed; this has to change.

Image Credit: from or here, a Deloitte’s article, the original has forked tails in the shadows. This has been resized and cropped, stored and processed for my blog’s usual reasons of addressability, performance and longevity.

Ideas, alliances and promises

Originally published at on March 9, 2020.



Dave Levy

Brit, Londoner, economist, Labour, privacy, cybersecurity, traveller, father - mainly writing about UK politics & IT,