New leader should be banging on Starmer’s door on day one

The election of Kier Starmer as leader of the Labour Party, and therefore the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, presents a challenge for us as Liberal Democrats. On the one hand, it’s good news for our democracy that there’s now a serious Leader of the opposition who will be asking probing questions of this terrible Conservative government.

On the other hand, it presents a threat to us. A Starmer-led Labour Party will be fishing in the same pond of voters that we hope to seek support from. Some who had fled Corbyn’s Labour may now return to them. Our chances of making inroads into Labour-held seats that voted Remain in 2016 will have significantly diminished.

We are probably never going to see an overall Labour majority in this country again. They’ve lost Scotland to the SNP, and the Tories have breached the so-called ‘red wall’ in the north of England. It seems unlikely that many of those seats are coming back to them any time soon.

The big opportunity here for our incoming leader is to open discussions with Starmer and his team about what the political future looks like in this country. We’re only at the beginning of the Johnson/Cummings vision for this country, and anybody who read the Conservative manifesto in December’s election will know that, that is a very disturbing conception of our democratic and legal future.

For me, the opportunity that Starmer’s election represents outweighs the threat. We have to engage with Starmer on how we wrestle back control of our politics from the populist clique running the government. The place to start is electoral reform. Labour need to realise that the most likely route into Downing Street for a non-Conservative government is via an alliance of parties. This can be achieved under our current system, but it can only be entrenched by disposing of First Past the Post and replacing it with a fair, proportional system.

We also need an honest conversation with ourselves about what we want to see happen at the next General Election. We are now in second place in a lot of seats, and overwhelmingly our opponents in those seats are Conservatives. Tactical voting by Labour supporters in their seats would unseat a lot of Conservative MPs. There is a clear agreement to be reached here, and we need to be prepared to make some real electoral sacrifices in areas important to Labour to achieve it.

This is not a call for us to become uncritical friends of the Labour Party or look to align our policies. In some areas, they are as far away from us politically as the Conservatives. However, it is a call for electoral pragmatism in the face of a dangerous, populist government that threatens to dominate British politics for a generation.

Many in the Labour Party would rather call us ‘Yellow Tories’ and continue shouting ‘Tuition Fees!’ at us at every opportunity, so it will not be easy. Serious people in Labour know though that Lib Dems doing well against the Tories is vital to them finding their way back into government.

If we are serious about building a liberal, fairer future for our country, then we need to find our way back into government too, and to do that our new leader needs to be banging on Starmer’s door on day one.

* Cllr James MacCleary is the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Lewes District Council and Deputy Leader of the Co-Operative Alliance that runs the council

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34 Comments

  • Peter Martin 29th Apr '20 - 12:19pm

    “….. they (the Labour Party) are as far away from us politically as the Conservatives.”

    So, if this is true, why bother “banging on” any doors? By your own argument it can’t matter either way if it’s a Labour or Tory Govt. If the last election was anything to go by, I’d have said you actually preferred the Tories. You gave BJ an election when there was no need to. Once the campaign started you were more hostile to Labour than Boris Johnson and the Tories.

  • I agree with the general approach your calling for but we must be cautious-banging on the door sounds a little desperate. Moderation is returning to Labour and Starmer will be much more effective but they will need a year at least to return to where they should be.Talks at local level for next year can be held but we must sort out our own mess out first and I am sorry to say that SirEd may no longer be the best choice for leader after his lack of action over coronavirus nationally.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Apr '20 - 1:09pm

    The number of seats where we are currently serious challengers to Labour can be counted on one hand. There’s a possibility of us coming in through the middle if Momentum splits off and starts standing against official Labour candidates. But otherwise, we should probably park seats like Hornsey & Wood Green to focus on the much larger pool of seats winnable from the Tories, where we might benefit from tactical voting, no Corbyn as a bogeyman to frighten the electorate, and perhaps a new Lib Dem leader from the 2017 or 2019 intake untainted by the Coalition.

    Peter Martin: The OP wrote “on some issues”, so you are quoting him out of context. We were equidistant at the last election,. We didn’t prefer the Tories, that’s just how some Labourites deliberately misinterpret our stance.

  • Richard Easter 29th Apr '20 - 1:20pm

    The party still needs to decide what direction it will take before working with anyone else can be considered.

    Equally what does the party plan to do to appeal to its old heartland seats in the West Country? Are these just as lost as the Red Wall seats are apparently for Labour?

    I’d like a rural style Lib Dem party working with an urban Labour Party – a bit like how the Australian right have a coalition of their Liberal and National party. However I do fear that the Lib Dems have become too focused on one issue “Remain” and seem to have been a bit of a dumping ground for unwanted Westminster politicians and their often corporate interests. I’d much rather the party was appealing to the people of Wells and Torbay, than the City of London.

  • Julian Tisi 29th Apr '20 - 1:37pm

    We’ve got to be realistic about this. Labour have shown no sign of wanting to work with us for a long time. Starmer’s leadership isn’t suddenly going to change all that. Good luck convincing Labour on electoral reform; we’ve been there before and they’ve proved to be untrustworthy time and time again. We need to stop being a wannabe little brother party to Labour and start setting out our own stall as a party. For me, we should aim for BOTH soft Labour and soft Conservative votes, by being the party of freedom and opportunity for all. We need to combine strong social policies with a hard-nosed approach to the economy, stepping over both Conservative and Labour toes on the way. Crucially we need to be unapologetic about this, protecting us from Labour attacks on us which will come. That way Starmer might end up knocking on our door, because we will be in a position of strength, not a supplicant little brother.

  • I’m glad Mr MacCleary recognises the issue (pity he refers to ‘Starmer’ – and it’s Keir not Kier).. But to me as a Lib/Lib Dem supporter for near on sixty years it’s much much more than just shouting ‘Tuition Fees!’ at every opportunity”.

    It’s the poor getting poorer, the rich getting richer. (see, UN Report on Poverty in the UK). It’s the 31% cut back on social care (pre-epidemic), the bedroom tax, the attacks on local government services and the public service, the so called Welfare Reform Act, and countless acts of meanness hitting the less fortunate leading to the exponential growth in food banks.

    I nearby areas in Sussex why are there these foodbanks ? Eastbourne Food Bank. Fitzjohns Food Bank. Lewes Food Bank – Landport. Lewes Food Bank – Malling. Newhaven Food Bank.Ringmer Food Bank.Seahaven Food Bank.Seahaven Storehouse.

    Councillor Mr MacCleary says, “If we are serious about building a liberal, fairer future for our country, then we need to find our way back into government too”.

    Yes, talk to the Leader of the Labour Party to find a way forward…. but with something serious to say about how to do it and to repair the damage. At the moment there’s just a very small vacuum.

  • Richard Easter 29th Apr '20 - 1:47pm

    The question is “what is a hard nosed approach to the economy”. If it means Austerity 2.0, or the same old privatisation, outsourcing, globalisation and so on, outside of maybe executives living in the Home Counties, who would that appeal to?

    Soft Tories and Soft Labour aren’t necessarily free marketers – nor socially liberal either. The fiscal conservative, social liberal combination doesn’t particularly chime with the bulk of voters, even if it appeals in the City or Westminster.

    Starmer will gain wavering voters that Corbyn never could, but he won’t do it on a platform of support for privatisation and support for gender fluidity.

  • Simon Hebditch 29th Apr '20 - 2:28pm

    Of course, Lib Dems should be talking to Labour, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymrw about creating a real alliance that can contest the Tories. But electoral reform, whilst important, can’t be the only issue we “bang on ” about. Given the state of the economy as well as society t the moment, we should be talking about the political programme we should jointly adopt for our recovery and civic renewal. None of the parties can do it alone.

  • Peter Martin 29th Apr '20 - 2:33pm

    @ Alex MacFie,

    Not just “some Labourites”. I do believe that Wera is one of your MPs.

    “The Lib Dems shot ourselves in the foot by attacking Labour.”

    “Those choices were strategic, not merely tactical. They were rooted in a misjudgement…”

    https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/the-lib-dems-shot-ourselves-in-the-foot-by-attacking-labour-we-must-fight-from-the-centreleft

  • Paul Barker 29th Apr '20 - 2:38pm

    I dont see why we need to wait for a New Leader just to start talking to Labour, if they will talk to us that is. Yes we should be pointing out to Labour the advantages for them of backing Electoral reform; they have never listened before but perhaps they will now.

    While we are at it, we should be talking to The Greens (outwith Scotland) & maybe Plaid as well.

  • Julian Tisi 29th Apr '20 - 2:58pm

    @Richard Easter “The question is “what is a hard nosed approach to the economy”… who would that appeal to?

    Very simply, the large swathe of the population who have voted in pretty much every government in modern times. Labour were only elected under Blair and Brown when they were finally seen as competent on the economy.

  • @James Macleary “it can only be entrenched by disposing of First Past the Post and replacing it with a fair, proportional system.”

    Here’s your problem. Labour might talk a good game on PR, but never have and never will deliver.

    “Many in the Labour Party would rather call us ‘Yellow Tories’ and continue shouting ‘Tuition Fees!’ at us at every opportunity”

    It’s not just Labour Party members either; we have a problem with a minority of our own members using such tired tropes.

    @David Raw “pity he refers to ‘Starmer’ ”

    Why? It’s his name.

    “and it’s Keir not Kier”

    It’s actually Sir Keir.

  • Richard Easter 29th Apr '20 - 3:39pm

    I doubt there is much demand for the “Third Way” or economic liberalism. Even the Tories effectively ditched that in 2019 under Johnson. Also the fac that there was support for Brexit and for that matter many of Labour’s economic policies (even if the whole package was unappealing) should put pay to the idea that the public are gagging for a return to Osbornism.

  • Julian Tisi 29th Apr '20 - 3:51pm

    @Richard Easter You may doubt it but there’s certainly room for a party saying that open markets and an economic-led liberal immigration policy are good things. Particularly if Brexit doesn’t go quite so well once we’re out of the transition presumably next year. This will link rather well to our opposition to Brexit. I don’t think this is about Osborne or other labels we could add, nor does being hard-nosed about the economy have to be a bad thing – as you say, the Conservatives have abandoned economic prudence by pulling us out of the EU and closing the door to immigration.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Apr '20 - 3:58pm

    Peter Martin: Wera’s analysis and suggested strategy would make sense if Labour had a leader from the soft left (such as Keir) but not under the hard left leader that we were up against. The idea that we “strengthened the Conservatives” by attacking Labour is based on the mistaken belief that most voters cared what we thought about Labour that we (as a minor party) could influence voters to reject its leader. We didn’t make Labour toxic. Labour did that all by itself.

  • Alex, I agree with you. In GE2019 Lib Dem attacks on Labour had insignificant impact compared to national treasures such as Joanna Lumley urging people not to vote Lobour. Also Labour Mps such as Ian Austin urging voters not to vote Labour and the media amplifying this was much more significant than any Lib Dem attacks.

  • @Julian Tisi has it right. We need to decide what kind of party we want to be in the 2020s and beyond. Once we’ve done that, we can set out a strategy – including our approach to other parties. But not before.
    But as a general observation, it never ceases to amaze me how we LibDems seem so permanently obsessed with the Labour party and whether/how we should work with them. And how we constantly fall into the trap of thinking the Labour leader *is* the Labour party.
    Starmer has been leader for just over two weeks. Can we at least see what kind of party he ends up leading before we start banging any doors? And in the meantime, can we concentrate on making some decisions about our own party too? Like leader, priorities, strategy… It would be nice to have some of those.

  • Peter Martin 30th Apr '20 - 10:22am

    @ Alex Macfie,

    What are you telling us? That you didn’t like the Labour Party that fought the 2019 election? OK, but I knew that already.

    I must admit I did think, prior to the election, you would appreciate that the only possibility of staying in the EU was via Labour’s second referendum and, given the choice between a hard Brexit under Johnson and the Tories, and very likely no Brexit under Corbyn and Labour, you would have chosen the latter. Maybe that wouldn’t have suceeded, I don’t know. Mike Read thinks the voters would always listen to Joanna Lumley in preference to you! He could be right.

    However, I did think you would have at least tried for that by at least ignoring Labour and directing your fire towards the Tories.

    I was wrong. I won’t be next time. Now I know you preferred the Tories and a hard Brexit to Labour and very likely no Brexit.

  • Jane Ann Liston 30th Apr '20 - 3:00pm

    It wouldn’t be clever of Labour to shout ‘tuition fees’ at us given their own record on that subject. Also, it appears to be the case that potential LibDem voters flee back towards the Tories if the Labour candidate for PM is perceived as very left wing. I believe the 1983 election followed that pattern, when Labour was led by Michael Foot. If so, then voters will be less fearful that a vote for us will ‘let in’ Labour, so we should do better with Labour led by Keir Starmer.

  • Ah, Joanna Lumley, the other side of Johnson’s bridge botch up…Given her association with Johnson I’d bet that, even if the other JC had been Labour leader, her advice would’ve been the same

  • Alex Macfie 30th Apr '20 - 4:34pm

    Peter Martin: Make up your mind. Either we are more influential than Ms Lumley or we aren’t. I suspect that what Mike Read says is true, in which case what we said about JC made little difference to what voters thought of JC. And anyway, logic would tell you that if voters did listen to us Lib Dems over JC, then they would have voted for us in greater numbers than they did. That they did not, suggests that they were not taking their cues from us, but from the Tories. So the only difference that Lib Dems attacking Labour made was to persuade a few soft Tories to vote for us instead of the Tories.

    It wasn’t a question of “preferring” Johnson (Lib Dems considered both options to be equally bad), it’s that your characterisation of the choice on offer is wrong. Due to the likely strong influence of the pro-Brexit poshboy revolutionaries Milne, Murray et al in any Corbyn-led Labour government (Seumas Milne was Corbyn’s Dominic Cummings), the many open Lexiters on the Labour benches and Corbyn’s own pro-Brexit sympathies, the referendum would either have been shelved or fixed. And it was either the election, or Johnson’s deal passing on the back of Lexiter Labour votes.

  • Peter Martin 30th Apr '20 - 6:27pm

    @ Alex MacFie,

    As Wera Hobhouse rightly says:

    “We Liberal Democrats cannot pass off all responsibility for this outcome.”

    But you very much want to pass most of it off to Joanna Lumley! There may not be much in it but I’d say you were somewhat more influential. I’d hope it was more you influencing her than vice versa.

    “And it was either the election, or Johnson’s deal passing on the back of Lexiter Labour votes.”

    So why not the latter? We’d be due another election before 2022. Brexit would be out of the way. The Tories wouldn’t have an overall majority. So, we could have had that, as you acknowledge. But, no, you obviously preferred what we have now!

  • John Marriott 30th Apr '20 - 7:20pm

    If the Lib Dems are really serious about shaping events they need to stop feeling sorry for themselves, agonising about what they stand for, where they stand on the political spectrum, and stop turning up their noses at Labour, as, if we really are going to find a viable alternative to Johnsonism, both parties actually need each other to achieve it.

    It won’t be easy; but in Keir Starmer, we might at last have a Labour leader who might be amenable to real cooperation. Under FPTP the Tories win every time with well under 50% of the popular vote because the opposition is divided and, given the evidence of last year’s General Election, basically naive enough to be suckered into a fight, which, if they had used the parliamentary rule book, they might have avoided.

  • Alex Macfie 1st May '20 - 7:51am

    Peter Martin: If Brexit had passed in the previous Parliament (before a general election), then there would most likely have been an election immediately afterwards, and Johnson would have won a landslide then (especially, although this wasn’t known last December, with the looming Coronavirus crisis that would (in tandem with Brexit) have enabled Johnson to play Churchill). Either way we would most likely have got Brexit and a Tory majority government.
    And BTW Lib Dems didn’t vote for the December election (our MPs abstained because the eventual election Bill lacked the conditions they had sought). Labour did vote for it. Corbyn was itching for an election.

  • Peter Martin 1st May '20 - 12:16pm

    @ Alex Macfie,

    The Labour strategy was to keep the Tories on the ropes. Johnson scored points consistently by pointing out that Jeremy Corbyn had stopped calling for an election. The SNP wanted an early election both because they knew they would do well and because they didn’t want the Alex Salmond trial (recently held) to create negative publicity.

    The only chance of keeping the Tories on the ropes was to oppose the election. That meant voting against it. Once the Lib Dems decided not to do that, and it didn’t matter a jot if they just abstained, Johnson had got his wish. In those circumstances all the Labour Party could do was make the best of it and vote for an election too.

  • @Alex Macfie

    ‘So the only difference that Lib Dems attacking Labour made was to persuade a few soft Tories to vote for us instead of the Tories.’

    Having lived in the Yeovil constituency for the last few decades, the effectiveness of a broad coalition against the Tories was proven time and time again. I suspect Yeovil isn’t unique in the South West in that regard.

    Lib Dems attacking Labour, post-Coalition, isn’t the most effective way to convince natural Labour supporters to return to the pragmatic voting fold.

    If there’s evidence of the attacks on Labour taking soft Tory votes in Yeovil, the election results don’t provide it. In fact I see little evidence that attacking Labour delivered any seats to the party in the South West, full-stop.

    What always struck me as impressive about the party’s success in the South West was this intelligent pragmatism. Pragmatism has been replaced by ideology, it appears.

  • Alex Macfie 1st May '20 - 11:47pm

    Bolano2: A “broad coalition against the Tories” only works when Labour is willing to play its part also. It could not have worked at the last election, when Labour was run by people who prefer the Tories to win rather than the Lib Dems, because to them, we confuse the class war.

  • Peter Martin 2nd May '20 - 7:58am

    @ Alex Macafie,

    You’re assuming a greater level of Lib Dem importance than is warranted. Labour had very little to say about the Lib Dems at the last election. Labour fire was almost entirely directed at the Tories.

    It’s not Labour that prefers a Tory win. What was the point of standing a Lib Dem candidate against Rosie Duffield in Canterbury for instance? Especially when your first choice candidate had resigned and recommended Lib Dem voters to support her. That was only ever going to increase the Tory chances of winning the seat.

  • Seconding this:

    “And in the meantime, can we concentrate on making some decisions about our own party too? Like leader, priorities, strategy… It would be nice to have some of those.”

  • Alex Macfie 2nd May '20 - 9:35am

    Peter Martin:

    “What was the point of standing a Lib Dem candidate against Rosie Duffield in Canterbury”

    To give us a chance of winning in Richmond Park and Oxford West & Abingdon. Standing aside for Labour anywhere would have increased the perception that we were “Corbyn enablers” and would have driven many of our supporters in our target seats to the Tories. Unilaterally standing aside for any party would have been especially damaging for us (as it was for the Brexit Party).
    And the effect of the Lib Dems in Canterbury and similar seats is not at all clear-cut. Canterbury swung to Labour in 2019, and anyway it’s not clear where the 5.7% Lib Dem vote would have gone had the Lib Dems not stood. Lib Dems were running a token campaign there, and a lot of the residual Lib Dem vote would have been soft Tories, who would never have voted Labour under Corbyn. As Labour won on 48.3% of the vote, the Lib Dem presence may have helped Rosie Duffield win by taking votes that would otherwise have gone to the Tories.

  • Richard Malim 2nd May '20 - 11:46am

    Starmer ( even if he is still en poste) is likely to have his hands far too full with the Corbynites at his door to pay attention to the knock of the new LD leader. The LDs were quite right to bash Labour whose leader the electorate saw as fundamentally anti-British. Hobson doesn’t seem to realise she has squeezed the Labour vote extinction. She shd be encouraging every LD candidate the same. There are only 6* strong LD holds now and each has done its share in Labour squeezing. Every LD shd be doing the same: being mealy mouthed about Labour is the road to extinction. The effort shd be into provoking a Labour split not buttering the up the unacceptable

    *Perhaps I shd add Orkney and Shetland where the electorate being so small disguises the LD success

  • John Littler 2nd May '20 - 8:44pm

    There are people advocating squeezing down the Labour vote, which is fair enough but it is not going to win hundreds of seats any time soon and the best way to win a realistic few dozen seats would be for Labour to agree not to stand in them and advocate Labour voters to vote LibDem in those seats.

    Starmer seems a rational and moderate man, serious about power. Corbyn was none of those. Starmer will realise that his best way to power will be in leading a broad coalition of parties able to take down the Tories with minimum of competition within the progressive side and for the progressive parties to coalesce around political reform. Whether Labour allows him to lead that Progressive Alliance is another matter?

    A Progressive Alliance of serious progressive parties working together for the public good around political reform, might capture the public imagination and add up to more than the sum of the parts. With Johnson in a 60 odd seat overall majority; with massive Electoral gerrymandering on the way and the power of fake news being weaponised; this may be the only serious chance of taking them down.

    Unless the Tories are beaten, there will be no political re-boot reform and the politics of incompetence, economic failure and public realm rundown by the Tories, will continue, while continually re-inventing their presentational style, ad nauseum. Johnson wanted to be “world king” and he’s never intended to abdicate.

  • John Littler 2nd May '20 - 9:01pm

    The Liberal Party gave birth to Labour’s leadership via it’s turn of the previous Century “Labour Representation Committee”.

    The LibDem party was formed out of a merger by the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, which itself broke off from the Labour Party.

    The LibDems are clearly forged out of that side of politics and the broad internal coalition of various right wing forces that is the Tory Party is too big, rich, successful, massively dug in and toxic to get too close to, as the Coalition proved. I am astonished that people here would consider repeating the folly of going in with them. LibDem ministers were continually thwarted by more senior Tories and the Treasury and they nicked the best LibDem policies as their own.

    Even Ulster Unionists were cheated and trashed by the Tories just months ago and only a couple of years after Johnson staged a hollow love in at the DUP Conference.

    The only place in the UK’s present politics to begin to prosper for the LibDems is in a radical centre left with a maverick view that departs from much of Labour’s but agrees pragmatically on occasions. Jenkins, Ashdown and Kennedy all occupied that political space and were all more successful than the floundering non position now. I am afraid that nice Mr Clegg took that political capital and blew it

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