Andrew George writes…After Coalition with the Conservative…participation in ‘Progressive Alliance’?

Should we be ‘once bitten twice shy’? After suffering the disastrous electoral consequences of Coalition with the Conservatives, should the Liberal Democrats avoid the risks of participation in any form of ‘Progressive Alliance’ with parties of the centre/left?

This year’s General Election was a triumph of strategy for the Conservatives. With accusations sticking, Labour was unable to throw off the encumbrance of perceived incompetence, crucially of economic incompetence.

Arguably bedazzled by high office, the Liberal Democrats were perceived to be naïve; not so much falling for the logic of Coalition Government, but appearing to compromise too much in what appeared to the electorate like an ultimately deadly embrace with the Tories.

All the Tories had to do was to identify and then mercilessly target a few hundred thousand ‘swing’ voters in ‘marginal’ seats with their unmatchable wealth and superior arsenal.

The extraordinary carnage in Scotland was merely an unplanned (but nonetheless welcome) windfall for the no doubt delirious Tory strategists. The Tory campaign was successfully executed with ruthless cynicism. Opposition Parties were out-manoeuvred.

While the Conservatives successfully exploited a strong sense of fear south of Scotland that a marauding SNP would boss a weak Labour leader, scores of seats held by centre/left MPs south of Scotland were lost not because the Conservatives won a majority in the constituency, but because the other Parties lost it by fragmenting the vote.  Can we learn lessons? Can we find a better way before the next General Election?

Emerging from electoral battering the centre/left appears demoralised, bewildered and, following the remarkable success of the Corbyn campaign, at risk of fragmenting.

The Conservatives now govern with the support of less than 1 in 4 registered electors – 38% of those who voted.  (Those whose natural response is to clamour for a fairer voting system have to accept that there’s nothing but a desolate environment for making any such advances whilst the Tories govern.)

Amazingly there’s still an assumption amongst many on the centre/left that the 2015 General Election is a ‘high water’ mark for the Tories; that the next General Election will see the pendulum swing back and that many Tory marginals will be comfortably picked off in 2020. A reality check is needed…

There are now more reasons why the Conservatives are now in fact more likely to improve their prospects and enhance their grip on power at the next election than there are prospects for the opposite. These include:

1. Implementing wholesale boundary changes – benefitting the Conservatives by at least an additional 20 Parliamentary constituencies;

2. Neutering Scottish MPs (so-called ‘English votes for English laws’) which would limit the ability of the overwhelmingly anti-Tory Scots to influence the majority of decisions and votes in the UK Parliament;

3. Reducing the impact of UKIP following the 2017 referendum. The Tories might hope to pick up from any prospect of UKIP support waning;

4. Whether the Corbynistas like it or not, the perception amongst many that David Cameron is the biggest ‘winner’ of the Labour leadership election and that the right wing media will inevitably undermine any chance of a Labour bounce back; and

5. The ‘give Boris a chance’ campaign in the lead-up to the next Election.

The 100 most marginal Tory constituencies have Labour in second place in 75, Liberal Democrats second in 21, SNP – 1. Though the Greens and Plaid Cymru are not in second place in any they represent an important section of the broad ‘Progressive’ spectrum and would reasonably anticipate some benefit from any cooperation amongst an anti-Conservative alliance. Even if parties of the centre-left did not establish any form of formal ‘pact’, any degree of ‘accommodation’ or ‘non-aggression’ agreement on a constituency-by-constituency basis would have the capacity of protecting some seats which still remain vulnerable and defeating the Conservatives in many, if not most of their 100 most marginal seats.  If such arrangements had been established before this year’s election we would be looking at a very different Government.

But is there is an appetite for formal or informal cooperation amongst centre-left politicians, parties and campaigners? There is no doubt that there are a number of key policy areas where the Farron-led Liberal Democrats will have more significant cross-referencing than with our former Coalition partners. On the other hand, as Tim has made clear, a Corbyn-led Labour Party opens up massive opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in the centre ground, so too close an association with the new Labour Leader could hamper that strategy.

Labour and Green Conferences will permit fringe meetings and conversations between the Parties to explore the appetite for, feasibility of and prospects for a degree of centre/left cooperation. Should we do the same? Or would this merely compound the challenges of regaining lost ground? Do the electorate share a view amongst the political classes that political Parties must at all costs retain their separate tribal identities, and that those which don’t are destined to oblivion?

I cannot predict where it may go, but I’d rather talk to the non-tribalists in other Parties to explore if a ‘common cause’ of seeking the defeat of the Conservatives in 2020 is a vital first step in building better prospects for the kind of Britain we would be proud to live in.

I’d welcome views…

* Andrew George was Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives until May 2015.

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  • Dave Orbison 19th Sep '15 - 12:57pm

    I agree that the most likely way of defeating the Tories is by the other parties working together. I suggest the word ‘coalition’ should not be used or presented as a gift to the Tories. But that requires, LibDems, Labour, SNP, PC and Greens to share platforms and accept that despite having differences in some areas of policy, nevertheless this does not preclude being able to work together on areas of commonality. But the LibDems need to face up to some hard truths. Lab have 258 MP’s SNP 56 LibDems 8, Green 1, PC, Sinn Fein 4, Plaid 3, SDLP 1. These are the likely parties that would need to work together. The idea that these parties would come under Tim Farron’s leadership is ludicrous. What’s more every day the LibDem’s join in attacks on Corbyn and his alleged policies as opposed to what he actually says and proposes, make it increasingly difficult for the LibDems to ever share common platforms. If you think a few defections of disgruntled Lab MP’s will provide a political earthquake you are mistaken. The LibDems face an uphill struggle, having been comprehensively chucked out of the Tory tent I see little mileage in attacking Corbyn – certainly in terms of addressing the concerns expressed re the Tory Government.

  • Dave Orbison 19th Sep '15 - 12:59pm

    Correction Lab have 232 – the point remains the same.

  • Conor McGovern 19th Sep '15 - 1:04pm

    I think some kind of informal cooperation could work. My only problem at the moment is that we’re obsessing too much about positioning (eg. the ‘centre’ which is meaningless for normal people), when our priority should be getting back into our communities, with clear policies and clear ideas of the kind of party we are!

  • What appears to be missed/ignored by those who refer to “Tories elected by only x%” is the fact that, if things stay the same, that x% will always be enough….

    What Corbyn has done is to, perhaps, engage those who didn’t vote for anyone…How many times have we heard, “I didn’t vote because they are all the same”?….

    We lost all but 8% of the voters; many of those will go (at least temporarily) with Corbyn… Corbyn will, no matter what he does, be labelled ‘extreme/looney left’ by the mainly right wing media…. If we repeat that mantra we won’t attract anyone from the right ( they’ll go Tory) and we’ll miss out on those who don’t find ‘rail re-nationalization ‘ and not replacing Trident as extreme….

    I’m so, so tired of hearing about this mythical centre ground just waiting for us…

  • The problem is that those in labour facing areas have to defeat Labour. The Party has to decide once and for all what it is – does it support a sort of social democratic programme or is it more merkelite? Those that say that the sort of policies and positioning we had at the GE was disastrous are right – only as so far that we don’t know what us not being part of a coalition in the final year of the last government and took a more left-win position would have brought. Just because something was disastrous doesn’t mean that the alternative wouldn’t have been worse in vote share.

    The lessons of the GE are clear – progressive politics as seen by centre ground mainstream voters is a preserve of the Cameronite right. They trust him to look after their interests and face the tough challenges more than they do other parties. If we don’t understand what that means we will never advance.

    The other point is that in Labour facing seats Labour are seen for what they are. Take Stockport for example – forever ranting in the council chamber doing token gestures due to the innovative action of our party. In my ward here where I helped the candidate a few years ago and the biggest push we’ve had here for a long time they used the fact that his children went to private school. Of course they never mentioned the fact that she is head of maths and music and they got through on a scholarship there.
    Given the literature that went through the doors at the local elections `all things to everyone` which they will now make into an art form where we lost many cllrs the only way to deal with Labour is to take the attitude of a sticker I see on some doors `dog attacks first asks questions later`.

    Supping with Labour right now has to be done with a very long spoon – preferably over your knee being spanked. People are far too nice in this party about Labour and live in some dream world where `if only others think like us`. Well they don’t and you just have to go where people are or they won’t listen.

    Want to ask how to defeat labour? speak to people who recently have – the last thing they’ll say is `let’s be nice to them`

  • Expats, well, you think that agreeing with Corbyn would attract anyone from the left? Those willing to re-nationalize railways will vote for Corbyn, anyway. But if there’s no difference between the Lib Dems and Labour, why not just merge Lib Dems into Labour?

  • For the next year or two …… at least, the Liberal Democrats have to revisit why & what they stand for. The Coalition blunted what the Lib Dems stood for, even for many members let alone the public. Then and only then should we look out to ‘fellow travellers’ , because if we are not clear who & what we want another disaster awaits. Don’t forget a week is along time in politics as we have seen (JC) and as to votes – its where you get them under FPTP that counts. Still all to play for – but the foundations must be laid, and ignore ‘short cuts’ for now.

  • John “People are far too nice in this party about Labour”

    Really? I havent noticed that here on LDV. Quite the opposite.

  • The blunt truth is the Lib Dems are going to beat Labour in Labour facing seats and contrary to popular opinion most of the tory seats went back by default because the vote split. The swing to the Tories was a little over per cent. In most of those seats the swing from the Lib Dems to Tory was so minimal it would have made little difference to the result.

    The middle ground is not a fixed position. It shifts and is basically a bit meaningless. We don’t know what the mood of the country will be in the next election. The one certainty is that there is zero point in concentrating attacks on a party that isn’t in power because it only strengthens the case of the one that is. IMO , the main problem is that too many lib dems are to attached to the coalition and can’t really accept that it’s over and with boundary changes is unlikely to happen again for a very long time. Also worth remembering is the fact that getting into to a position to form it was not based on support for the Conservatives. The centre Left and left unlike the right is pluralist because its roots are based in protest and pressure groups.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Sep '15 - 4:37pm

    It’s a polite and thoughtful article, but I think it makes an incorrect assumption by assuming the centre and the left can be one movement under the name of “progressive”. If there was any kind of pact between Lib Dems and left wing parties then I would be more likely to vote Conservative, because in many areas they are tacking towards “the centre”.

    Secondly I think we need to decide what being “progressive” means. Is Corbyn’s foreign policy, which pretty much every serious professional analyst disagrees with,”progressive”? It tries to give equal respect to far-right terrorists as it does established nation states and the only people that would help would be the terrorists.

    My prediction is Corbyn’s foreign policy will be so unpopular that its thinking will eventually be almost expunged from the left. The left is no longer soft on crime when it comes to oppressed groups and I think it will soon take the same approach towards the likes of ISIS.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Sep '15 - 5:42pm

    Also, if the main point of agreement is PR, as William Hobhouse says, then why not work with UKIP?

    I also had an article published on here that showed that the Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP won more votes than Liberal Democrats, Labour, SNP, Green Party and Plaid Cymru combined – 15,399,935 to 14,556,919. So I think the argument about the left losing because it is not united is quite weak, unless you consider arguably unfair boundary discrepancies.

  • ” The Tory campaign was successfully executed with ruthless cynicism. Opposition Parties were out-manoeuvred.”

    There in lies a lesson in how to run a successful campaign the LibDems would be wise to learn from. For there to be meaningful “formal or informal cooperation amongst centre-left politicians, parties and campaigners” and for this to result in anything meaningful, the parties will need form a coalition prior to an election and appear on the voting paper as a coalition, there is no other means for the electorate to actually vote for a coalition without it being a gamble…

  • paul barker 19th Sep '15 - 6:46pm

    We have seen a reasonably successful Alliance before, between the Liberals & a Party, The SDP, that was largely modelled on The Liberals. Even that wasnt easy, theidea of a Labour/Libdem Alliance would be fanciful even if Labour was led by a Centrist. If there was a 2nd breakaway from Labour that might be different but it would be much easier if Labour MPs simply joined us.

  • Eddie,

    You can’t just count all the UKIP voters as “right” At least 30% of them used to vote Labour, and some used to vote for us. They are voters who are either alienated from politics and like a guy with a pint in his hand, or for whom Europe and/or immigration outweigh all other issues. In the SW where they are not so many natural Labour voters they are more likely to be ex-Tory, but in Hartlepool they are more likely to be ex-Labour..

    Admittedly you can’t count all the Lib Dem votes as “left” either, but there were less of them than UKIP votes! …

  • Yes a case must be made for anti-Conservative co-operation especially in Parliament, but in the country this is more difficult. The Labour party is very tribal. As Paul Barker has pointed out it was difficult enough for the Liberals to work with the SDP because of their different traditions. However on the ground in most constituencies the members managed to work together well. I am not sure if this was because of an improvement after the 1983 general election or not.

    The question then arises, is it possible, even if desirable, to work with the Labour Party so we both maximise the number of MP’s we get elected in 2020? How much work did the other party do for the general election in the seat which either of us hold or in which one of us is second? Is it possible to agree a lower level of work so that the best placed party will win? Will the new boundaries make an agreement to resist work harder?

  • Sorry “to restrict work harder” not “resist work harder”. And seats not seat.

  • ” Should the Liberal Democrats avoid the risks of participation in any form of ‘Progressive Alliance’ with parties of the centre/left?”

    Yes. Next question.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Sep '15 - 10:46pm

    Andrew McC, good point. Excuse the delay in replying, I hit the new “comment flood protection” barrier!

    I was just trying to defend against the idea that the Lib Dems should enter into an electoral pact with left of centre parties alone.

    I’m very sympathetic to the centre-left’s current positions on welfare and migrants, so I’m not just against any idea that comes from the left.


  • Haha Eddie Sammon I’m glad it’s not just me who hits the “flooding” barrier!

    on the plus side it has made me see the need for me to “get a life”

  • George Kendall 19th Sep '15 - 11:57pm

    @paul barker
    “the idea of a Labour/Libdem Alliance would be fanciful even if Labour was led by a Centrist. If there was a 2nd breakaway from Labour that might be different but it would be much easier if Labour MPs simply joined us.”

    That’s very much my view. I think an SDP Mark II would eventually have to merge with us in order to beat the FPTP system, and only then could we hope to beat the Tories.

    Why allow the Tories an extra 5 years in government before we do that?

    But what we, in the Lib Dems, need to do, is think of tangible ways to demonstrate that Labour people can join us without sacrificing their social democratic heritage.

    It may (indeed will) be uncomfortable for the party to make those gestures. But the stakes for the country are just too high for us to fail to make them.

  • George Kendall “Joining us without sacrificing their social democratic heritage” . Remember, we have a social democratic heritage? Had we not been banging on about liberal, liberal, liberal for the last 4 years or more, we might have more trust invested in us by those who consider themselves social democrat.

    Also, remember that in the 60s, and early 70s, the likes of Tony Crosland were the original British Labour sds – a lot “further left than now!!

  • Public-School educated Tony Crosland, along with Margaret Thatcher, is most memorable for wrecking the Tripartite School System and replacing it with the hated comprehensives. Not someone we should be seeking to celebrate.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Sep '15 - 7:45am

    Michael BG

    As Paul Barker has pointed out it was difficult enough for the Liberals to work with the SDP because of their different traditions.

    It was those on the left of the Liberal Party who found it hardest to work with the SDP because they found the SDP too right-wing in economic policy and too conventional in the way they wanted politics to work. The idea that Liberals found it hard to work with the SDP because liberalism was all about right-wing economics and the SDP was more left-wing is entirely false, and is made up by the modern infiltrators who are trying to rewrite history in an Orwellian way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Sep '15 - 7:49am


    George Kendall “Joining us without sacrificing their social democratic heritage” . Remember, we have a social democratic heritage? Had we not been banging on about liberal, liberal, liberal for the last 4 years or more, we might have more trust invested in us by those who consider themselves social democrat.

    When the Liberal Democrats were formed, people wanted to call it “Democrats” and those who used the word “liberal” were looked down on as disloyal, former Liberals who didn’t really like the SDP, because at heart they were lefties who had more in common with the left-wing of the Labour Party that the right-wing who left it.

    Only when that effective ban on using the word “liberal” had been going on for long enough that many had forgotten all that, were the infiltrators able to come in and take it over and use it to mean something completely different from what those of us who proudly called ourselves “Radical Liberals” meant by it in the pre-merger days.

  • George Kendall 20th Sep '15 - 11:32am

    Indeed we do have a social democratic heritage. Hopefully, you’ve read my article

    @Phyllis “I’m glad it’s not just me who hits the “flooding” barrier!”
    Me too. It’ll be interesting to find out if it achieves it’s objective, of encouraging a wider range of people to comment. Although I find it frustrating, if it achieves that objective, it will be worth it.

    @Matthew Huntbach

    You’re right about leftwing Liberals. I too get irritated when ignorant journalists get the history of the SDP and Liberals completely wrong.

    Maybe our SDP heritage won’t help, but I’d like to think it might. We were, after all, also called the Social and Liberal Democrats.

  • When was the new “comment flood protection” introduced? When does it kick in? In which thread were we told about it? (Or was it introduced in secret?– a strange thing for a liberal site to do!)

    It always appears to me that the number of comments are lower during conference, and therefore to me it seems odd to introduce this new restriction on people who wish to post now and so reduce the number of posts further.

    @ George Kendall and Paul Barker

    If a new SDP was formed there might be advantages – hopefully they wouldn’t want any of the seats where we are second, and they would not be tarnished by being in coalition with the Conservatives and a New Alliance might distance us in the public’s mind as being Tory-lite. (But I don’t think it will happen.)

    @ Matthew Huntbach

    I wish you wouldn’t jump to conclusions about my comments. When I spoke about the difficulties of working together I was just accepting it as an historical fact. And maybe by “different traditions” I was thinking about working for all individuals rather than seeing society as groups that have be dealt with collectively. Also the SDP seems to have believed in a strong leader and centre, while the Liberals believed in decentralisation and power being in the hands of the members and local associations.

    @ George Kendall
    “We were, after all, also called the Social and Liberal Democrats.”

    We were called that once, but during the constitution review following the 1992 general election, I think in 1993 we changed our name to the “Liberal Democrats”. Please see Article 1 of the constitution (1.1).

  • Matt (Bristol) 21st Sep '15 - 11:18am

    I think I would want to make the following points:

    – We should definitely not be rushing with open arms into any coalition again without a significant rise in actual power in our hands in terms of MP numbers. Not until the proof is clear in 2020 will we be even in a position to have a coherent conversation among ourselves on that basis.

    – We should regard the Conservatives in particular – at this time – as having evidenced themselves as untrustworthy partners and test very carefully any offers from them in future (should they even deign to make them) as highly suspect.

    – We should be very sceptical about the ‘title’ any future Coalition is given whether ‘National Coalition’, ‘Progressive Coalition’, yadda yadda as their will essentially be an attempt by the leading party to co-opt any smaller party (or parties) into its own agenda. If in future we do serve in coaltion (and at this point we would barely be able adequately to staff more than one department with ministers whilst retaining the ability to function as an idependent parliamentary party) we should do so making clear we have our own agenda and we resent and resist being presented as or made to be puppets of the leading party, whichever party that is. Developing our own language, our own public narrative, our own rhetoric of Coaltion could help ensure survival.

    – Never again should we guarantee signing up for an entire term.

  • Stephen Hesketh 23rd Sep '15 - 7:42pm

    Matt (Bristol) 21st Sep ’15 – 11:18am

    Excellent conditions Matt. It is crucial we do not enter into formal agreements with others without having some very clear working ground rules.

    We should also set up an independent and intellectually heavy weight committee to review what went wrong in 2010-15. Ex-ministers and key colleagues should must be asked to take part but not serve on the actual committee. We need to write not rewrite history. The biggest crime would be not to acknowledge and learn the lessons of the last parliament.

    As suggested by William Hobhouse, electoral reform must be our key political demand. As we are seeing, other achievements, no matter how laudable, can very easily be repealed or ignored within months of a new parliament. PR is THE game changer British politics and the nation needs.

  • Stephen Hesketh 23rd Sep '15 - 8:10pm

    Simon Shaw 19th Sep ’15 – 3:21pm
    In reply to expats 19th Sep ’15 – 1:19pm

    “I think you’re missing the key point there. It’s not that we should move our position, it’s rather a case of who we expect voters, who might reasonably be termed centrist, those people that Tim refers to as “sensible, moderate progressives”. to primarily vote for.”

    Sorry Simon, I’m with Tim 100%. Everyone knows what a sensible moderate progressive looks like. They are people holding broadly centre-left liberal values of freedom, fairness, social justice etc.

    At best ‘Centrist’ reflects nothing more than economic values. At worst it suggests some unprincipled positioning relative to our opponents. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

    I would suggest ordinary people who vote or are likely to vote for us would tend to think of themselves as being sensible moderate progressives holding principled common decent socially and economically liberal values.

    The only place I hear centre party/centrism etc is in the media and, very sadly, on these pages.

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