A Romance with Labour? Say No to Hugs

This week’s New Statesman features a startling article by the Fabian Society’s Sunder Katwala, suggesting a pre-election coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Rather than speculating on the party’s intentions in a hung parliament – which has become the sport of hostile journalists keen to misrepresent our MPs’ pronouncements – he is advocating this as a desirable course of action. It would be impossible, Katwala accepts, for the Lib Dems to prop up a discredited Labour government after Gordon Brown had lost a general election. He suggests averting a plurality of Tory MPs completely by a revolutionary cooperation between Britain’s two progressive parties.

This is an old idea in new clothing: Katwala sees it as a chance to reunite the Liberal and Socialist traditions that have been split for most of the twentieth century:

Past economic crises have seen Britain’s progressives ­divided – and defeated. In 1929, Labour, wedded to Treasury orthodoxy, rejected Lloyd George’s Yellow Book Keynesianism. In the 1980s, the SDP split from Labour as Margaret Thatcher dominated.

In reviving the idea of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Katwala is of course resuscitating “the project” between Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair — a process that ended with Blair’s betrayal of Paddy, and was followed by ten years of Labour government highlighting precisely why liberalism would never have made an easy bed fellow with that party.

On a practical level, I think it would be adverse to principle and pragmatism for us to enter a coalition with Labour – or the Tories – before or after an election. Both have platforms that are fundamentally incompatible with Liberal values. Indeed, on many issues they have more in common with each other than we have with either of them. Aligning with one or the other would also lose us seats we are defending against one or the other party.

We are not obliged to enter into a coalition because of our commitment to voting reform and a more mature political culture than the one Britons currently suffer under. Under more enlightened voting systems, with fixed terms, it would be possible to imagine a more consensual and cooperative type of politics. Katwala’s article suggests those types of constitutional reforms would be part of a deal; a concession I can hardly imagine Labour making. Yet even so, we could hardly enter into a formal coalition under the current system even if Labour were to make the huge concessions on ID cards, electoral reform and an Iraq inquiry that he envisages.

Even if we would hold our noses to student fees and leave it to chance that we would find common ground on criminal justice issues, it is hard to see Lib Dems sharing the governing instincts of Gordon Brown’s Labour party – or indeed any Labour party.

The basic presumption of this proposal is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are natural siblings within a progressive tradition. I am proud to consider the Liberal Democrats a progressive and radical force in British politics; I’m just not convinced large swathes of Labour MPs are. From Militant to Progress, Labour has sustained a statist, bossy, authoritarian tradition that transcends both Old and New Labour. The class warfare of Old Labour is as distant from the Liberal Democrats’ traditions as the neo-liberal aspects of New Labour.

As a teenager joining the Liberal Democrats in the 1990s, I liked the idea of a Lib-Lab project. It appealed to my enthusiasm for a more mature political dialogue, and seemed a great opportunity to heal the factionalism of British progressivism. At the end of the last century, it was easy to see how awful the Tories were, and why we didn’t want them in power. To this day, I can pick out more Labour MPs I admire and agree with than I can in the Conservative party. Yet I’ve come to see that Labour has become so enthralled by anti-progressive forces that it cannot be meaningfully re-united with the Liberal Democrats. Those Labour MPs and supporters who share Britain’s social liberal tradition with us will for the foreseeable future be outnumbered within the Labour party’s institutions and leaders. Eleven years of Labour government have produced their own outrages, to teach us why we should never want to see the modern Labour party in power again.

A “left versus right” view of politics has been behind other attempts to ‘unite’ the “left-liberal” strand in British politics, including the Liberal Conspiracy blog discussed on this website when it was launched. While we share a common history, I am unconvinced that the Labour party – as an institution – can ever be an effective vehicle for Liberal traditions. Katwala sees the SDP as a fracture within a coherent British progressivism. I see it as part of the liberal diaspora coming home, after the Asquithian party’s decline saw Liberals split between the Conservatives, Labour and no party at all.

Shackling ourselves to the Labour party would hold back liberal progressivism as I understand it, not progress it. While the Lib Dems and Labour share a commitment to social justice and equality, we have different ways of pursuing them. I’d never say never to a union between our party and another; but both Labour and the Conservatives would need to change beyond all recognition.

In writing this proposal, Katwala shows himself to be a generous and broad-minded individual — as well as one who realises the New Labour project is heading for electoral catastrophe at the next election. Yet I do not think it is in the interests of liberalism (as I understand it) or the Liberal Democrats (as, I hope, a vehicle for that philosophy) to give much time to his proposition.

What, then, should we do?

I think we can respect that both Labour and the Conservatives find themselves supporting Liberal Democrat policies at times; indeed, some of their MPs have very liberal instincts. In those cases – when not bringing those individuals into our tent – we should enthusiastically work alongside them on issues where we agree. We should make common cause with them – and independent groups – where we have genuine policy agreements.

A really grown-up form of politics would work in a hung parliament or a reformed electoral system, even without formal coalitions. At present, the government’s majority means that it only needs to rely on Liberal Democrat, Conservative or other parties’ support when a large number of its own backbenchers rebel. In a hung – or balanced – parliament, parties would find consensus and a majority of votes on issues they agreed with. A Labour or Conservative government would rely on the other party to support many of its policies, and either would find Lib Dem support on those areas, respectively, of combating poverty or protecting civil liberties where we find common ground.

That’s change I could believe in.

UPDATE: In a debate on this issue at Liberal Conspiracy, James Graham sums up my opinion better than I have done:

I feel Sunder’s pain, but the problem with this idea is that it could only happen if Labour was not Labour. I think he is right to say that a coalition would be a prospect if Labour abandoned its transformational government project (ID cards et al). But the transformational government project is the modern Labour Party. To abandon it would be the single biggest u-turn in the history of u-turns …. Is there really much point in talking about any of this until any of those factors change?

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  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Jan '09 - 10:09am

    Sunder Katwala’s article indicates to me the real big thing I find wrong with the Labour Party and Labour Party people – underneath they believe in a one-party state.

    It used to be pretty explicit – the Labour Party line was that everyone should be a member of a trade union and the Labour Party is the political voice of all the trade unions. Therefore politics should be one big party representing nearly everyone, so it always wins, and one small party representing just the capitalists bosses, who are small in number so it never wins.

    They may not be so hot on trade unions now, but they still simply don’t understand the value of political pluralism. They really just cannot see at all why it’s a good idea everywhere to have competing political parties. It really just seems so natural to them that everyone, apart from those capitalist bosses, should just get together into one big political party which always wins, that they regularly trundle out this sort of article. It’s the sheer “duh, isn’t this obvious what we should do?” attitude in this sort of article which illustrates the complete lack of a mental capacity to value political pluralism.

    As ever, the foundation of the SDP in 1981 is raised, Labour Party people cannot get out of this bloc thinking, so they still repeat this, even though it became invalid within months of the SDP’s foundation.

    The Labour Party thinks there’s a block of people who will always vote Labour, so when some Labour MPs split from the SDP it was naturally assumed any vote for the SDP would come from this block. This also was the aim of the SDP – they essentially hoped they would become the Labour Party Mark II, leaving the old Labour Party as some fringe extreme left party.

    The point at which it became obvious this hadn’t worked was when the SDP started arguing with the Liberal Party for “its share of winnable seats”. By this they meant being given the ticket to stand in constituencies where there was already a significant Liberal vote – mostly through the effort of Liberal activists there. If they were what they had intended to be on their foundation, they wouldn’t have asked for that, they would have wanted to stand in strong Labour seats because of the claim they were able to attract Labour votes. It was, of course, the Liberals who at that time had actually worked out ways of competing with Labour in supposedly safe Labour areas and had successfully demonstrated it in Liverpool and Tower Hamlets, the SDP were clueless about this, and disdained those Liberal activists as “sleepy” or “sandal-wearers” or the likes. Thus was destroyed a brave political experiment, as the community politics activists retreated into their bunkers and it became just a neat tactic for winning elections – which the best of the SDP new recruits finally realised was actually quite neat about the time they also realised that it wasn’t David Owen that was winning them the votes, so let him flush himself down the toilet.

    Clegg and the Cleggies – if you are too young to remember this, learn from those who aren’t.

    Given that all polls at the time showed the voters thought of Liberal/SDP as just a pumped up version of what they thought the Liberal Party was before (i.e. “a centre party”), and that if asked what they would vote for as second choice they always split almost evenly between Labour and Conservative, it is quite obvious that the foundation of the SDP simply did NOT split the Labour vote. Had it not existed, those who voted for it would have gone evenly between Labour and Tories, so leaving exactly the same balance in Parliamentary constituencies. The Liberal Party wold have been left in peace to explore more interesting things, rather than tied up for a decade in negotiations and merger.

  • Anyone who considers that the Labour party has ever been a progressive party in any liberal sense is sadly not aware of its history. There are within it groups who with a bit of re-education, and an injection of large dose of common sense, could make a passing attempt at being liberals. However, they have subsumed themselves into small cliques, such as the Fabians, and ignore the authoritarian reality of the mass of the party, in particular its leadership. They can then console themselves with the fact that they are in power, until reality dawns and they become disillusioned with Labour’s manifest failures.

    Every so often there is someone who believes that the solution is for us to join with them. If it’s a Fabian we can ignore it and suggest they look for a better home, when it’s a party leader, we have to fight like mad to avoid the annihilation.

  • David Heigham 30th Jan '09 - 11:55am

    Politics up to the next election sums up to “Its the economy, stupid.” Labour have made a mess of the economy much like the Tories before them (see this from the IFS )only worse. The chance of a Labour majority in the next Parliament has become very, very small; and to link the progressive cause to the Labour record is to damn it.

    It follows that the only thing for a progressive to do up to the election is to work to strengthen the LibDems (who incidentally had and have good economic policy) and hope that the LibDems come out of the next election with sufficient MPs to insist on their policies.

    Sunder and others in the Labour movement need to face these realities. If they stick with Labour, the most they can hope for is Labour measures (which may or may not be progressive) six, ten or fifteen years hence.

  • David Heigham 30th Jan '09 - 12:09pm

    Politics up to the next election sums up to “Its the economy, stupid.” Labour have made a mess of the economy much like the Tories before them (see the Green Budget from the IFS )only worse. The chance of a Labour majority in the next Parliament has become very, very small; and to link the progressive cause to the Labour record is to damn it.

    It follows that the only thing for a progressive to do up to the election is to work to strengthen the LibDems (who incidentally had and have good economic policy) and hope that the LibDems come out of the next election with sufficient MPs to insist on their policies.

    Sunder and others in the Labour movement need to face these realities. If they stick with Labour, the most they can hope for is Labour measures (which may or may not be progressive) six, ten or fifteen years hence.

  • Richard Huzzey 30th Jan '09 - 2:36pm


    Thanks for your sensitive and intelligent reply. I should probably have made the piece even more autobiographical, as it is essentially a reflection on myown surprise at the journey I’ve been on personally in the past 10 years: when I joined the Lib Dems, circa 1997, I did so having considered Labour membership very seriously. In the 1999 Lib Dem leadership contest, I wanted to vote for a candidate fully behind “the project”. I really did want to see us co-operate or maybe merge.

    After seeing 11 years of Labour government that have made me as angry about your party as I was about the Tories, I find it hard to even consider the Labour party as fellow-travellers.

    As Alix reinforces, our view of the Labour party is rather different to “misguided fellow-travellers” (which is how I think many Labour people view us – as perfectionists who should get inside the big tent to end “the left” being split).

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Jan '09 - 3:16pm

    Huw Dawson,

    Assuming this is you:


    I note you were not there when what I wrote about happened. I was, holding various positions in the Liberal Party and then in the Social and Liberal Democrats in various places, regularly attending by-elections and party conferences, throughout the 1980s. What I wrote is my honest recollection based on my experiences and what I saw and heard. On what basis do you say what I wrote is “hogwash”?

    I do not see the contradiction between my claim – based on what I remember from the time – that the original intention of the SDP was to be a “Labour Party Mark II” and yours that it was not a party of “outspoken lefties”. Its founders believed that the Labour Party, as it then was, had moved too far from its historical centre-left position and that therefore their new party was a continuation of where the Labour Party had historically stood, as reflected in the governments of which they had been ministers. The original plan really was that the bulk of Labour support would move to them, thus leaving the original Labour Party as a small far-left rump. It became apparent very early on that this wasn’t going to happen, hence that got written out of history.

    Throughout the 1980s the SDP got written up by the media and the Liberals got written down. It’s easy to see why this happened – the SDP was based on establishment Westminster politicians with ready links through their previous ministerial positions to the media, the Liberal Party had attracted anti-establishment people working in the fringes in a sort of guerrilla warfare way which the political/media establishment never understood. So the SDP’s contribution to Liberal/SDP Alliance success was consistently overrated, and the Liberal Party’s was consistently underrated. Remember, Huw, what gets written as history is only the view of those who write it. Do you think even now that what you read in your newspapers and see on your television is an accurate report of what is really happening in the Liberal Democrats?

    The strength of the bias in media reporting only became obvious after the Liberal SDP merger when the bias meant the media supposed the minority of the SDP who followed Owen out of the merger were as powerful as all the rest of the SDP and Liberals combined, and reported it that way. Our movement was almost wrecked through this scandalous misreporting, Huw, and it took the Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election to show up the journalists who misreported it as lazy and as idiots. Still, that misreporting has tended to make its way into the history books – there’s a PhD for someone who rediscovers what really happened.

    I’m not denying that a few good people who remain with us in the Liberal Democrats came in with the SDP. I am saying that the role of the SDP in the 1980s was and is consistently over-emphasised in how it all gets written up.

    However, an important point is that the claim the SDP “split” the left vote and hence “let in the Tories” is wrong. This is a claim which only makes sense if you’re coming from the background that the SDP was the “Labour Party Mark II” and took the bulk of its support from Labour voters. It did not, and you agree with that, you dispute only my claim that that was its original aim, so why do you say what I wrote is “hogwash”?

  • David Allen 31st Jan '09 - 1:43pm


    I was there when what you wrote about happened, as an SDP activist and strong supporter of the Alliance and the merger. My memories are very different! The “Labour Party Mark II” jibe, which originated with our opponents, was picked up by ultras on the Liberal side who sought an excuse to hog all the winnable seats and exile the SDP to places like Glasgow Gorbals. Fortunately wiser counsels prevailed, at least in 1983.

    The SDP took the best people from Labour, and also some of the worst. They brought to the Alliance a genuine commitment to fairness and justice, a sense of realism, and the capability to make a serious bid for power at national level. It was those strengths, and not pavement politics, which took the Alliance to its high-water mark of 26% in the 1983 Election.

    Speaking as one of the first to put out an SDP Focus in my area (then Southampton), I am equally happy to acknowledge that it has been the Liberal tradition of local campaigning that has been our greatest strength more recently. As so often, if only we could combine the best of what we do rather than recriminate about differences, we might make more progress. Perhaps we could now recognise that as local councils lose powers, Focus is a somewhat declining political force, and a renewed emphasis on the national campaign might make sense.

    Certainly the SDP spawned the first of three right-wing renegades who have recently disfigured British politics. Owen was a brilliant publicist who knew how to capture the news. But our justified resentment of his disruptive rebellion shouldn’t make us dismiss what the great majority of the SDP contributed. We should not hanker for the good old days of Thorpe and his predecessors, when the Liberals were a slightly eccentric intellectual fringe party boasting of their “classlessness” and lack of ambition.

    The second right-wing renegade was of course Blair. The third, a lightweight by comparison with Owen and Blair but arguably the most “radical” in his thinking, is now leading our party toward Conservative government. Clegg is staking out positions to the right of Cameron on tax cuts, the erosion of the NHS via top-up charges and social insurance, and the extension of the market economy into “free” schools. This provides cover for Cameron to pose as a moderate, “progressive”, unifying figure. Once the Tories are elected, it will be for Clegg, Redwood and the like to make sure he commits to real reform, and doesn’t just do the pragmatic things that people like Ken Clarke will be urging on him. (Oh yes, I hear the next poster say, what about our tax cuts for the poor, the “people’s NHS”, etc etc. That’s just camouflage paint deployed to confuse our own troops.)

    Until Lib Dems wake up and small the coffee, the chances of our coalition with Labour are nil! Indeed, the chances of adopting an equidistant stance between Tory and Labour, as Cable has implied we should, are also nil.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Feb '09 - 9:23pm


    The rise of the economic-right liberal in the Liberal Democrats seems to have put an end to the remaining strains of Liberal Party – SDP division. As one who was opposed to the merger from the Liberal side, I now find myself on the same side in arguments within the party as people whom I once regarded as my opponents in party conflicts. We now together contest against those people who hold opinions which in those days would have been regarded as mainstream Conservative Party.

    I did not mean “Labour Party Mark II” as a jibe, but simply as a statement of fact. My understanding is that the SDP was founded with the idea that it would replace the Labour Party as the main party on the left, with the Conservative Party remaining on the right. All these lines about “re-unifying the left”, which have been heard many times, Sunder Katwala’s article being just the latest, are based on this premise. If the SDP was not, at least when founded, intended to be “Labour Party Mark II” why the claim that it “divided the left” and “let the Conservatives in”? Why not say it equally divided the right?

    In fact, the point I am making is that actually it did equally split the left and the right, it did not take its votes predominantly from the Labour Party, even if its aim on its foundation was to do so, it was apparent very early on it would not be a replacement Labour Party.

    You say the SDP “brought to the Alliance a genuine commitment to fairness and justice”, I am sorry David, but THAT is offensive to those like myself who were in the Liberal Party before the SDP was founded. You are accusing me of having no commitment to fairness and justice. David, do you honestly suppose a party which had as its main slogan “None shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” had no commitment to fairness and justice?

    You also say the SDP brought “a sense of realism” to the Alliance. My experience is that actually it did not. It brought many naive people who did not know how to play the third party game, and who thought the way to win votes was to put out glossy leaflets full of centrally-determined policy. It was the Liberals who had learnt how to fight and develop their corner in a realistic way, that is why it was the Liberals who were winning seats, local and Parliamentary, and the SDP were not.

    You say it was the SDP which “took the Alliance to its high-water mark of 26% in the 1983 Election”. Well, that was not very much higher than the Liberal Party managed in 1974, and I would actually date 1974 as the real turning point in which it became clear Britain would not be a plain two party system, rather than 1983.

    You say “we could now recognise that as local councils lose powers, Focus is a somewhat declining political force, and a renewed emphasis on the national campaign might make sense”, but that is to see the Focus style campaign as it became and to ignore (perhaps because you were not there so did not know) what was originally intended by it. The original idea was not that it was just about winning local elections by “pavement politics”, but it would show people that they really could change things by their own power. The winning of a council seat by the Liberals was not intended to be an end in itself, but rather a demonstration against the complacent attitude “you can’t change things” – by turning out complacent local Conservative or Labour party councillors, the idea was to show nothing should be taken for granted, the people really CAN get together and make things different. The “pavement politics” on local council issues was not intended to be all it was about, but a way of getting people to think about politics, starting from their immediate surroundings and working outwards. The sort of person who switches off from politics and thinks “it’s just men in suits, it’s nothing to do with me, I don’t understand it, I’m not interested in it” COULD be got to understand it take an interest in it, and work to change it if started off looking at it in a different way. The idea was that we would start local and move upwards, we would institute a whole new way of doing politics which would radically change the way it was played in this country.

    And then came along the SDP and smashed up our dreams, because they wanted to play politics in the conventional “people in suits in Westminster making policies, glossy leaflets distributed telling of these leaders’ wisdom to win elections” way. Those of us who were busy developing radical new approaches to politics now had to spend all our time discussing merger, and arguing with naive new SDP people about why their glossy leaflets approach wouldn’t work. The original radical aims of community politics were watered down, and it became just a technique for fighting council elections.

    You talk of “Thorpe and his predecessors, when the Liberals were a slightly eccentric intellectual fringe party boasting of their “classlessness” and lack of ambition”, well, there was that aspect to it, true. And those slightly eccentric intellectuals had some bloody good ideas, some of which were eventually picked up by the mainstream parties, but always in a way which missed out important liberal aspects of them. But what you say also ignores what was boiling up underneath with the development of community politics and its original radical intentions. The 1974 elections reflected a bit of this, though a lot of the impetus was lost in the Thorpe affair and the Lib-Lab pact. I feel it was coming back when the SDP stamped on it. Of course, you didn’t know you were doing this. The media, as ever, weren’t reporting it. It wasn’t public schoolboys in Westminster, so they weren’t interested in it. They reported the Liberal Party in terms of what they thought of it from what they saw in Westminster, rather than what was going on underneath. And if you didn’t live in an area where radical Liberal activity was going on, you would have known nothing about it, hence what you post here.

    There is plenty of importance here which is relevant in discussions about what we do today, not least in whether the sort of Labour/ LibDem agreement suggested by Sunder Katwala is a good idea. But also, I do see some of the arguments about how to play politics and get the interest and involvement of ordinary people very relevant to discussions about party tactics today.

    Much of the concern I have about Clegg and the Cleggies is that I do see them as I saw the SDP in the Alliance days – people too convinced that all you needed was the right sort of national glossy image and a charismatic communicator at the top and the votes would come flooding in. What’s our opinion poll rating now?

    How different things could be now if we’d played it more radical, a politics more about people being involved, a politics less about leaders in suits, a politics which was dedicated to explaining to people how the system really worked in their lives and how they could change it to something different, a politics which looked and sounded CONVINCINGLY as if it stood against the economic mess this country is in now and the politics that led to it.

  • Sunder Katwala 2nd Feb '09 - 1:28pm

    Thanks for your responses, and I appreciated the ability to disagree about the politics of this in an intelligenet way

    I have blogged a short round-up of reactions to the piece (and offering some pedantic political history for the benefit of Mr Iain Dale)


  • David Allen 3rd Feb '09 - 12:30am


    As you say, we should concentrate on the present rather than raking over the past. It’s just that when you told Huw Dawson he was too young to know what he was talking about, I couldn’t resist intervening.

    You say that you find it offensive that I should praise the SDP for bringing a commitment to fairness and justice. I think you need to develop a less thin skin. Yes, there were also many Liberals who believed passionately in similar principles. In my view the Liberals tended to major on idealism, global vision, and the really “big” issues like third world poverty: the SDP tended to major on practicality and injustice on the doorstep that politicians could more readily do something about. As I keep saying – what we needed was a synthesis of these different strengths. Both sides had plenty to contribute, in my opinion. I hope that’s a balanced view.

    It’s a long time since I last read the old-time arguments for radical community politics and the idea that Focus could be the key catalyst for major change. Well, if that concept was valid, why not resuscitate it now? You can’t now blame the SDP for stopping you!

    My own memory is that “radical community politics” was a stumbling block, because most SDP members thought it was hopelesssly naive, and wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting Focus altogether. To get my SDP Focus launched, I had to argue loud and long that we could learn a few things from those Liberals, and if Focus was never really going to foment a peaceful revolution, it might do a modest amount of good in the community and win us a few seats. And that’s what it did.

    Now, incidentally, I fear that things have moved against Focus. Look for instance at all the Post Office closure campaigns we ran (I did one). What did they achieve? They probably only achieved us a reputation for fighting losing causes. Nowadays, councils and corporations have simply set their faces against listening to the public. I don’t defend that at all, but it does pose us a campaigning problem. We need a new approach. Obama found one, maybe we can learn from him!

  • I seem to recall Obama’s approach was to talk about using tax cuts for stimulating the economy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Feb '09 - 2:28pm


    The offensiveness in praising the SDP for “bringing a commitment to fairness and justice” comes from the implicit suggestion that it was not already there in the Liberal Party.

    The idea that the Liberal Party was some right-wing party which had to be dragged to the left by the SDP really is nonsense, but I suspect it lies behind what Huw Dawson wrote from a position where to him it’s all ancient history. The right-wing free-market people in our party are trying to rewrite history to pretend the old Liberal Party was their sort of party, and I suspect Huw Dawson believes them and that’s why he wrote what he did. The reality is that where there was a left-right conflict between the Liberals and the SDP, so far as I recall it was always the SDP who were on the right and the Liberals who were on the left.

    To be fair, the Liberal Party had its left and its right, and I’m writing from the point of view of someone who was on its left. From that point of view it was particularly easy to regard the SDP with suspicion, because they did seem closer to the right of the party and were often used by the right to bolster their position in party debate.

    I also find it rather strange that you say “the Liberals tended to major on idealism, global vision, and the really “big” issues like third world poverty: the SDP tended to major on practicality and injustice on the doorstep that politicians could more readily do something about” alongside complaining that the Liberals were too concerned with “pavement politics” issues. Bit of a contradiction there?

    I think the situation is that we are approaching this from different experiences. You were not in the Liberal Pary, so your view of what the Liberal Party was tends to be based on how it was reported in the press. I was in the Liberal Party, and knew that what the press wrote about us was mostly rubbish, lazy sloppy journalism, and quite extraordinarily biased towards the SDP. Yet this is what has got written down in the records, so I suppose this press rubbish is what people like Huw Dawson read as “history”.

    It is interesting that on the community-politics Focus-campaigning issue, you regard the Liberals as naive, yet Liberal campaigners regarded the SDP as naive. From our point of view, the SDP were people newly arrived in politics, or from a Labour Party background where they didn’t have to campaign and win votes because they were used to the votes rolling in anyway. SDP people felt politics should be done as it was conventionally done, and they could not appreciate how we had developed new techniques that were working.

    In fact what we were doing was clever use of what was then new technology, cheap offset litho printing that made it practical to produce and distribute large numbers of locally produced leaflets.

    You don’t seem to have got my point that Focus-style campaigning wasn’t intended to be the be-all-and-end-all of community politics, but just one aspect of it. If you think what I am calling for is more emphasis on conventional Focus and campaigning for local elections, you are completely wrong. What I really want is to go back to the radical aims that were behind it, which is developing a new sort of politics which breaks the barrier between people and politicians, which fights against all those negative remarks we get when the door is slammed in our face while canvassing “politics isn’t for the likes of us”, “you people are all the same, just in it for yourselves”, “there’s no point, you can’t change anything”.

    Focus worked in its time to do that, but now that the Liberal Democrats are seen as just another bunch of conventional politicians, it doesn’t work so well, and we have also hit the problem that it was TOO successful at winning us local elections, so we have got stuck on just using it for that. But I will also stick to my guns that one of the reasons it got frozen in a particular form rather than developed further as the more radical orginally intended was the arrival of the SDP. We spent too much time arguing with the SDP trying to convince them this campaign technique worked, and had no time left to develop it further.

    You say “why not resuscitate it?”, and I agree, but I am not young free and single with lots of time on my hands as I was in the 1970s and 1980s. I post a few messages in this forum trying to suggest we could do things differently and we’re fundamentally going down the wrong way at the moment. But I don’t think anyone’s listening.

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