James Millar: The progressive alliance is already taking shape

Written by James Millar on 4 January 2017 in Opinion

Keir Starmer has accepted that he needs to work with the SNP. He is not the only Labour MP set to reach that conclusion.

Those desperate for actual opposition to the Tories in parliament have talked up the possibility of Labour working with the SNP, the Lib Dems and anyone else who wants to join in since the 2015 general election. By 2017 enough of the poison generated by that result will have drained for it to become a reality.

Labour MPs found the prospect of collaborating with the very SNP members who’d just deposed 40-odd of their colleagues unthinkable in the summer of 2015. And they’d similar distaste for the seemingly insignificant rump of Lib Dems who were sitting alongside Conservatives just a few weeks previous. But a couple of years of sharing the voting lobbies and the bars of Westminster helps heal divides. And the prospect of three more years of achieving very little while the Tories run riot focuses minds.

Some commentators questioned why the Fabian Society in their report yesterday on Labour’s electoral predicament chose to talk up a progressive alliance rather than suggesting that ejecting Jeremy Corbyn was the answer to the party’s problems.

The answer is straightforward. It’s already happening. Once Keir Starmer took up the shadow Brexit secretary position the game changed. Labour suddenly had a sliver of competence in their team. And his ability is matched by Stephen Gethins in the same job for the SNP.

With the Lib Dems proving they are serious players again following the winter by-elections and Nick Clegg picking up the Brexit brief for them David Davis for the government finds a trio of genuine political talents ranged against him across the chamber. And the three are working together.

I understand conversations have been had, tactics discussed. Scottish Labour can rant and rave as they have since the Fabian report was published but Starmer is big enough to have accepted that in the absence of any Scottish Labour colleagues in the Commons bar Ian Murray and no sign of that situation changing he’s going to have to work with the SNP. But I understand he does so in a co-operative and charming rather than grudging style.

Similarly the Lib Dems know a thing or two about working with other parties after their experience of coalition government. There may be few of them but some still get on with Tories from their days in government together, particularly pro-EU Conservatives who might be persuaded to join any attempt to trip up Theresa May’s Brexit agenda. And it can be done. Not least because though they dominate the agenda the government’s majority is witheringly slim.

For example an SNP amendment to the EU referendum legislation challenging the June date garnered support from all sides but failed because Labour was too chaotic to get on board. (Might the outcome have differed if the poll had been held in the autumn?) Starmer is many things but not chaotic. And if the Starmer-Gethins-Clegg axis records a few successes – and that’s a Champions League strike force facing a lower league defence in David Davis so it seems likely – others will pay attention.

Nationalists who until now have been unable to see past the battles of the past with Labour may clock that the game in Scotland and Westminster is about taking on the Tories. All three parties are broadly pro-immigration, and there’s enough government backbenchers susceptible to concerns about the impact on universities and niche industries in their constituencies to listen to interesting amendments on that front.

On education Angela Rayner is proving herself able for Labour and she carries little baggage. The SNP’s Carol Monaghan has hinted her party might find a way to weigh in on grammar schools, I’m told a friendly approach from Rayner would ensure SNP support. And again there’s enough Tories with reservations to make the necessary numbers to ensure that policy is checked while plans to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education could be carried with the same coalition of support.

Already there’s a growing suspicion that Theresa May is a bit lame. An opposition that learns to play the numbers game in 2017 could leave May as a lame duck.



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