What do you think will happen to the Centre-Left?

At conference, this Saturday, Vince Cable and Roger Liddle will respond to the question, “where now for the centre-left?” It is a good question.

Around the September conference of last year, Vince Cable wrote “progressive centre-left politicians from Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to ‘come together’ to stop the Conservatives monopolising power in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory.”

That sounds to me like a repeat of the 1980s, with either an Alliance, or a new merged party.

Shortly after, Tim Farron pointed to a possible future where disaffected Labour MPs would switch directly to our party.

He made an open pitch to Labour’s members and elected politicians to jump ship to the Liberal Democrats, and he also invited disaffected Tories. In his leader’s speech, he said “if you are in your heart a liberal or a social democrat, you have a home in the Liberal Democrats.”

In January, Roger Liddle, a former member of the SDP National Committee, wrote “there can be no let up in the defence of fundamental social democratic values, the renewal of centre-left ideas and the exploration of new progressive alliances. Labour now faces a literally existential challenge.”

That sounds to me like possible electoral pacts. But then, as a Labour peer, Roger may not be free to say exactly what he thinks.

Perhaps we shouldn’t just focus on divisions in the Labour Party. The Independent has produced a striking map showing how Tory MPs are split over Europe across the whole country. Perhaps, last December, Simon Heffer was right to ask, “What money would a bookmaker give on the Conservative Party’s still being in one piece in December 2016?”

My view is that, while bruised by the Referendum, the Tories will stay together. However, I think Labour will split. The boundary changes in 2018 will mean most Labour MPs will have to apply for new seats, and a fair number of them will not be selected. When that happens, they will have no reason not to break away.

However, politics is in flux, and could take many courses, any of which will profoundly affect our future.
What do you think will happen? What do you want to happen?

* George Kendall is vice-chair of the Social Democrat Group, which was formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party. He writes in a personal capacity.

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26 Comments

  • Why would Labour or Tory Cllrs MPS or ex MPS risk a partnership with the Lib Dems. The brutal truth is that the said people will look at events like the upcoming May Elections and not want any part in the pounding that the Lib Dems are going to get and wouldn’t want to spend many years helping to fix matters. The Coalition ended that sort of thing and now were left with the two big parties and a strong third UKIP. That my friends is ‘Grown up’ politics post Nick I’m sorry to say.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Mar '16 - 8:20am

    I think the centre-left needs to have a bit of an argument with the Guardian. This is already partly happening with the rise of Corbynism. A lot of Corbyn’s supporters, such as the hundreds who regularly comment on Guardian articles, do not appear to be far left, but simply want to go back to a greater emphasis on class issues and when it comes to foreign policy they seem to be against military adventurism, which I imagine they view as a waste of money and partly provoking more attacks, and they seem to want a return to greater border controls to stop any potential terrorists arriving. But that can “provoke” attacks too, if they wish to see it as such.

    Ideally the left should look at Clement Attlee more and ditch Corbyn’s ideas on foreign policy, but maintain some of the rest, either way a return to more traditional left wing issues is what I think will be required.

    Alternatively, it could stay as it is and focus on changing the electoral system, but it will struggle to get elected in many former industrial heartlands.

    Another approach is to copy Trudeau and a lesser extent Obama, who rather than centre-left, simply seem to be slightly left wing.

    I like Obama, but Trudeau comes across as a bit too left wing for me. But we all have our tastes.

  • But should the Lib Dems want them? Take a David Milliband character who said nothing while his brother was being criticised for “stabbing his brother in the back” only to fly in once his brother had lost to say that he would have done a better job and to fly away again. Accepting all would do this party’s reputation no favours.

    Besides, perhaps we should focus on the actions of the conservative party as they are the party attempting to make democracy work for them more than any other which is leading to the boundary changes and decisions that will take place because of it.

  • Right now we have an excess of “known unknowns”, we can be fairly sure of splits in both major Parties but we have no idea about the scale or timing. So far we know very little about any Libdem recovery -the signs from local byelections look promising but they have looked good before & not delivered, we will know a lot more on May 6th.
    From our point of view simple defections to us would be the best option but if that happens it will be a complete surprise.

  • Not sure how many would want to jump ship onto a small life raft already overcrowded with eight other survivors.

  • Sounds a bit like a loveless marriage between two lonely souls on the rebound. The Lib Dems have been spurned by the Tories and the voters, while the Blairites and Brownites have been spurned by the Labour activists and the voters.

    Sorry to be unsympathetic, I am centre-left myself. I tend to hark back to a golden age under people like Jenkins, Ashdown (as he played it when leading the party), and Kennedy, when we mostly did things right. I suppose that nowadays, this is just unproductive nostalgia. So between me and George Kendall, I suppose it’s a bit of a goalless draw!

    We really need a new start of some kind, don’t we?

    Of course, that’s why we have Corbynism. Corbyn said “You want something different. I’m different. Therefore you want me!”

    OK then, we need a new start of some other kind!

  • I think the question still unanswered is what the Lib Dems offer to the “Centre Left” (where I certainly see myself) post 2015.

    Under Clegg many supporters like me felt pushed away, the soft Tories were going to replace us – they didn’t. The amount of times on this site myself and others who were pushing ideas, totally in line with the Lib Dem approach under Charles Kennedy, were dismissed as Labour Trolls demonstrated this. Since the 2015 election disaster I’ve not seen too much to point to significant changes.

    The truth is that to succeed electorally any Party need to appeal beyond it’s membership, Corbyn won’t do that especially not with the Centre Left. The Lib Dems may pick up some traction as the “least worst option” but what happens if Labour see sense and elect a moderate leader – especially one with more charisma than Millibland?

  • Am I the only one tired of trying to find our place on the left/right spectrum?

    I heard Tim describe himself as “centre left” at a meeting a few weeks back, but I don’t consider myself to be so.

    The issues that I care about, and moved me to join the party, things like fairness, equality of opportunity, civil liberties, internationalism and so on, aren’t left v right issues. I can pick any of them and find common cause with selected labour or tory MPs.

    Do we really want defectors just because they are disgruntled and from the “centre left”? Surely we want people who generally agree with our policies regardless of where they come from?

  • I think a lot depends on what happens in the EU referendum. I see a vote for in as a significant defeat for the right. It will put them on the back foot for some time, and they may descend into internal conflict.

    A vote for out and the Tories / UKIP are in for the next twenty years.

  • …oh and the UK will probably break up, which leaves England as even more of a Tory / UKIP fiefdom.

  • John Mitchell 11th Mar '16 - 4:02pm

    @Eddie Sammon

    I certainly would not characterise President Obama as even slightly ‘left wing’. His flagship policy of Obamacare still leaves around 30 million Americans without health cover and furthermore is a boon for the insurance companies. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts was the real architect of the legislation having already trailed it and put it in place.

    I could also not support President Obama from a liberal standpoint. He’s failed liberals tremendously on national security and civil liberties with his targeted assassinations through drone strikes which are higher under his presidency than his predecessor. I could go on with criticisms, but for brevity will not.

    As you say though, this is something where perspectives may differ.

    As for the question within the article, I believe that nationalists and conservatives will continue to thrive. Until many more people feel an economic recovery which hasn’t happened yet, the left and centre-left will continue to suffer.

    I don’t want to see this happen. But it seems to be the political climate. If UKIP end up replacing the Liberal Democrats as the main opposition to Labour and the Conservatives in England and Wales especially, it will be disastrous but I believe it is quite possible in the immediate future.

  • ‘If we lose the referendum’… Can we devote time, passion and energy to winning the argument for staying IN, please, and debate this later ?

  • Vince Cable is quoted as saying that others need to ‘come together’ to stop the Conservatives. In one form or another that’s a frequently expressed sentiment – and one I disagree with.

    It assumes that voters are somehow at the disposal of party chiefs to do their bidding rather as feudal peasants had to do military service for the great lords. Not so. They will do what they want except perhaps in the very short term. This is politics not arithmetic.

    Putting two failing parties or factions of parties together doesn’t make a winner.

  • The centre left is certainly in a mess and that has opened the door for the Tories even though it’s pretty obvious they are making a hash of things.

    The Lib Dems have shown themselves to be rather effective as a ‘National Coalition of Residents’ Associations’ but as a national political party they are non-starters as the voters concluded last May. Despite (or probably because of) having an elaborate process of party governance and policy making they do neither well.

    It’s typical that LDV’s intense focus on ‘diversity’ over the last few days has been entirely and predictably on diversity in terms of identity thus missing the elephant in the room, namely that the party’s approach to almost everything is monoculture – more Stalin than liberal. The party’s elaborate processes are well intentioned for sure but actually work against it. Like a kitchen blender they reduce everything fed into them into a liquidised uniformity.

    So my answer to the title question is that either the Lib Dems become the party they ought to be or another will emerge, UKIP style, to take their place – and much of Labour’s too.

    For example Tory divisions on the EU are seen as weakness and to a point they are. But they are also strength. Whichever way the referendum goes, some Tories will be leading players on the winning side. That’s bad, probably career endingly so for some on the losing side, but most will note who has the rare political instinct to catch the public mood and follow them. It’s survival of the fittest in a political context and evolution is, of course, by far the most powerful way ever discovered to maintain fitness at the species level.

    In contrast the Lib Dems inability to accommodate different view on the EU has meant that over the years those who wanted, for instance strong reforms, found the party unwelcoming and many left creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a (rather small) party that is mostly united in supporting a EU bent on extending its powers while at the same time the party thinks it believes in subsidiarity.

    So I finish up agreeing with Jonathan Todd’s opening line (linked above): “I am a liberal social democrat in a country full of liberal social democrats with no liberal social democrats to vote for.”

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Mar '16 - 1:24am

    Gordon
    Stay the course on this one , I and others yearn for some coverage and expression of critical views on the Eu !

  • By and large, I agree with Nick Baird.
    The big problem for Labour’s centre Left is that it’s not really in the centre and certainly not on the Left. It mostly seems like a heavily pro establishment grouping reliant on being elected in safe seats despite what they believe rather than because of it. This is why they were booted out in Scotland. Rather than courting these unprincipled failures, why not just be liberal.

  • Simon Banks 16th Mar '16 - 4:43pm

    Well, Silvio, you’re obviously a time traveller and know the result of May’s local elections. Since we’ve been doing consistently well in local by-elections and have lots of keen new troops to deploy, your confidence that we’ll be hammered is a little surprising. I do agree, though, that at present most Labour MPs and activists will wonder if we’re still a force and will hang fire.

    As for the opening question – as always with right-left language, I think it would be useful to question what we mean: in the centre-left of what precisely. There are points on which Liberals are very far indeed from the traditional Labour Right with its faith in central planning and indifference to civil liberties and citizen power.

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Mar '16 - 5:04pm

    I think we should be wary of any split in any party automatically producing people we can locate and work with. When politics changes, the pieces don’t fall where you want them to.

    For an example – in the US, centrist Democrats have probably been praying for years for a Republican split that would allow them to pick up centre-ground moderates. Instead, the current Republican civil war seems to be forming into three groups:
    – economically centrist group, liberal on limited issues (eg abortion) but protectionist, isolationist and possibly racist (forming around Trump)
    – An aggressive, radicalised traditionalist right wing (forming around Cruz)
    – The rest are a pro-business, ‘establishment’ group that as yet seem to show little or no motivation for bi-partisanship, and have moved right in most areas themselves since George Bush. They might not have tried to bring down the government over Obamacare for eg, but they don’t want it or like it.

    Where are the Democrats’ allies in that lot? Nowhere.

    In the same way, we might wish for social democrats to spontaneously emerge out of Labour’s mess and recognise us as brothers and sisters in arms … but they might not.

    The IP vote illustrates how fragile the alleged ‘progressive coalition’ on the Left really is, how good the current government are at exploiting its fractures, and how well-placed any British government is when it is faced by a divided Opposition.

  • I’m a Labour Party member. I just want to say that George is peddling a dream here, and a pretty unprincipled dream it is too.

    He’s imagining a bunch of essentially careerist Labour MPs being deselected due to the boundary changes and then casting about for some political vehicle to save their skins. Based on no political principles except their salaries! They sound like a great catch, if they existed!

    Seriously, it’s not going to happen. Firstly the awful example of the SDP tells anyone thinking of it what the likely outcome would be – they’d all lose their seats and cop the blame for another Tory government.

    Secondly they’d be turning their backs on the official opposition which has other circles of influence and patronage than just Parliament, for what?

    Thirdly some would just take their pensions and go.

    Fourthly the most ambitious and able would fancy their chances in a range of selection processes in the Labour Party.

    If there were to be any cross party MP defections from Labour, which I doubt, they would be more likely to go to the Tories – they’ve got the most careers to offer, after all.

    Lastly – what have you got to offer them, as George describes them? Nothing.

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