Andrew Rawnsley on the Lib-Lab flirtation that could yet get serious

Well worth reading Andrew Rawnsley’s column in today’s Observer – Labour is blowing kisses at the Lib Dems. But don’t buy a hat yet – taking a look at Lib-Lab relations in the light of Ed Balls’ much commented on chumminess with Nick Clegg.

He rehearses two points familiar to readers here. First, that almost all Labour’s policy announcements in the past year (it’s not a long list) are in tune with existing Lib Dem policy: reducing taxes for the low-paid, a mansion tax and ending wealthy pensioners’ benefits are just three of the ideas that started with the Lib Dems and have now been picked up by Labour:

It has also struck people on both sides that there is an increasing number of policy areas where Labour and the Lib Dems are converging. Ed Balls has adopted the Lib Dem mansion tax, partly to drive a wedge between them and the Tories and partly because he just likes the idea. The two parties are broadly in the same place on green energy, more housebuilding, the minimum wage, boosting capital spending on infrastructure and industrial strategy. They are getting within touching distance on other issues such as childcare. Labour’s plan to require teachers to have a regular “MoT” to check on their skills parallels Nick Clegg’s recent emphasis on teacher qualifications.

Both parties have strongly suggested that they would ask richer pensioners to surrender some perks, such as the winter fuel payment, which was, ironically, introduced by the mentor of the two Eds, one Mr Brown. They could almost certainly compromise about the top rate of tax. There is a division between them about how best to help the lower-paid. The Lib Dems want to increase further the personal allowance; Labour says it would restore the 10p band. That is a divide, but hardly an unbridgeable one. In the current coalition, constitutional reform has been a miserable disappointment for the Lib Dems: they have secured none of the big changes that they hoped for. While Labour would be highly reluctant to endorse changing the electoral system for the Commons after its rejection in the 2011 referendum, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg ought to be able to find an agreement on Lords reform and possibly proportional representation for local government elections. The wording of whatever they say in their respective manifestos will be very important.

Andrew Rawnsley then goes on to make a related point, one I explored in Octoberthat Labour could be tricky coalition partners for the Lib Dems precisely because there is broad agreement on a range of policy issues. ‘However much we raised the fairness stakes, you can bet Labour would out-bid us. Though perhaps they’d make some concessions on civil liberties to ensure they can blame us for any terrorist outrages,’ I noted. Here’s Rawnsley with a different-but-related point…

There is so much convergence, in fact, that the Lib Dems’ problem with going into government with Labour might be not be the number of disagreements, but the absence of them. There is now something close to a consensus view among leading Lib Dems that they should have done more to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives in the early phase of the coalition’s life. They believe lack of differentiation cost them their identity and with it many supporters. Hence the strategy they are pursuing now of being increasingly aggressive about asserting their divisions with the Tories. Maintaining a distinctive personality for the Lib Dems could actually be harder in coalition with Labour because they agree on too much.

But you know the old saying: the closer they are, the louder they shout. The only significant additional support Labour has picked up since 2010 has been from former Lib Dem voters (there has been remarkably little direct Labour-Tory switching) so the two Eds will be wary about being seen to be too friendly – at least this side of 7th May 2015.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Eddie Sammon 12th Jan '14 - 5:32pm

    All the parties are very different, until we smell power then we kind of morph.

  • Paul Pettinger 12th Jan '14 - 6:19pm

    “There is now something close to a consensus view among leading Lib Dems that they should have done more to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives in the early phase of the coalition’s life. They believe lack of differentiation cost them their identity and with it many supporters.” – if true, how extraordinarily disingenuous – many, esp from the rank and file, told them (the leadership) so at the time. *Not* looking like the leaders have gone native is (or rather should be) a basic requisite of any coalition.

  • Tony Dawson 12th Jan '14 - 6:35pm

    The latest Nick Clegg position appears to be ‘Vote Lib Dem for Coalition just for Coalition’s sake. It’ll do the country good’. This seems remarkably like the German FDP (remember them?) position last year without the benefit of a proportional representation system.

    Most people will only vote for you if you give them something clear to vote for.Institutional and constitutional changes do not ‘wash’.

    I hear that there is a EU Commissioner post needs filling soon.

  • But how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    Meanwhile, Labour’s lead in the polls has increased to around 6.6% this month so far.

  • Peter Watson 12th Jan '14 - 6:57pm

    @Joe Otten “It’s very easy with hindsight to demand more differentiation from the outset.”
    I think a lot of people demanded this with foresight, something the leadership was sadly lacking.

  • Another article about possible coalitions after the next election.

    If present trends continue, by May 2015, just over 370% of LDV articles will be about hung parliaments and coalitions…

  • Steve Comer 12th Jan '14 - 8:02pm

    Quite a thoughtful article from Rawnsley I thought. The only thing I would take issue with is this.: “Britain could not be left in limbo waiting for a government while the Lib Dems spent six weeks or so choosing a new leader.” This restates the argument we had back in 2010 that there had to be a Government formed quickly to ‘satisfy the bond markets.’ Well haven’t we just seen it take about twice that time for the new Coalition Government to be formed? Has the German stock market crashed? Have the bond markets imploded? No of course not!
    I feel if we hadn’t had the media pressure to get a Government quickly, then some of the mistakes of the first 18 months of the Coalition might have been avoided.
    Andrew Rawnsley makes the point that there have not been many voters moving from Tories to Labour, given that and Tory losses to UKIP, it could get increasingly difficult for any one party to get an overall majority. If that is the case, then we’re going to have to get used to the fact that we may not know who the Government will be immediately after an election. we’ve got too attached to the nanny state in the UK, I went to Belgium several times in the year they were without a government and nobody was panicking!

  • Is Nick now suggesting that the next government should be a coalition government including the Lib Dems, regardless of whether the plurality of seats is held by Labour or the Conservatives, or perhaps even if one of them has an outright majority?

    I admit that, as quoted, his words are vague and could admit of different constructions; but if the intent is as I characterised it above, isn’t this a new party policy? And if so, when was it agreed to? And by whom? Or does the Deputy Prime Minister now make Lib Dem party policy just by opening his mouth?

  • Paul Pettinger 12th Jan '14 - 9:14pm

    Who is demanding differentiation with hindsight Joe Otten? Many members rejected, from the beginning, the notion that the Party (as a junior partner) should own everything the coalition does. Are you only now coming to a similar view, or do you still stand by it – if the Party also enters coalition with Labour should it also own everything the Government does?

  • David Evans 12th Jan '14 - 9:45pm

    Absolutely Paul. We should have had DCLG (i.e. local government) with a clear agreement of reasonable funding (i.e. no more cuts than the average across the board); plus maybe one other area and Danny or David Laws in the Treasury to keep an eye on Osborne adhering to the financing agreement.

    As for Joe’s idea that sticking to a bad deal even when it was clear we had been skinned alive having some merit, I wonder if one of the fundamental problems with people in politics is that they can never go back on a bad decision for fear of having to admit they got it wrong. Hence the only time bad decisions are changed is when there is a new government i.e. when the damage has been done.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Jan '14 - 7:31am

    Joe, Paul is right here – the way that the ‘not a fag paper between us’ strategy was used, and expressed symbolically in the Rose Garden, was totally at variance with the lessons learned in local government and in Scotland and Wales over 40 years. It is not as if ‘Life in the Balance’ (first published in the Maggie Clay edition by ALDC in 1985 and never out of print) is very expensive.

    The inner team were dismissive of that experience. And as I understand it all but Reeves are in place. So, why should they be getting the big decisions right now when the same group were so wrong in 2010?

  • Joe makes the point – which is demonstrated daily in the comments on this site – that there can never be enough differentiation to satisfy some party members; and also that there was a clear need in the fraught economic circumstances of 2010 to establish the governing credentials of an unfamiliar arrangement (in Britain).

    Granted there is an obvious danger of the smaller coalition partner losing its identity. But I’m not sure the public pays nearly so much attention to ‘differentiation’ as Lib Dems like to imagine.

    My impression is that people tend to form a view of the government and its policies as a whole, and aren’t much impressed by squabbling from the sidelines, briefings to journalists or anguished hand-wringing and professions of tribal hostility to the coalition partner a la Vince Cable, seeing it as essentially stage-managed. If they were then Cable’s stock would presumably not have slumped since 2010 (along with other senior figures, to be sure, but the halo has well and truly slipped) and talk of his replacing Nick Clegg would be gaining traction rather than receding.

    If anything, by making government look increasingly dysfunctional, constant noisy differentiation – and the attendant U-turns and incoherent policy-making – simply alienates the public and discredits the idea of coalition, whose proponents claim it delivers better government (presumably in normal times as well as moments of national crisis).

    This is all the more so given the persistence of the naive but fondly held belief that the solution to the malaise of modern politics is for politicians to ‘get together rather than fight among themselves’, to subsume their differences rather than assert them proudly.

    Of course, you might think (as I do) that such a Kumbaya style of coalition is a mirage, a negation of politics rather than a higher form of it. But its superficial allure is undeniable. Indeed, the idea of politicians ‘putting differences aside and working together’ may be the only aspect of coalition that has survived in pulic esteem experience of its other aspects.

    So the uncomfortable irony for the Lib Dems might be that differentiation is (1) indispensable to maintaining party identity, morale and esprit de corps (perhaps all the more so in the scenario of a Lib-Lab coalition) and (2) unpopular with a public whose tolerance of coalition, such as it is, is based on the misguided idea that is the antidote to political conflict.

  • Obviously the Conservatives and Labour do not face the same dilemma, since they don’t have the same stake in the idea of coalition government and regard it as the unfortunate consequence of indecision by a schizophrenic electorate!

    That insouciance may become harder to sustain if they continue to be unable to win majorities on their own, but for the time being it if anything strengthens their appeal for a clear mandate to the electorate.

    I’m sure we will see a lot of this from both of them next year; in effect, their opening pitch to the public will be ‘you don’t like coalition as much as you thought you would, we told you it would lead to squalid compromise, now make your minds up and give us a proper mandate to implement a manifesto’.

    Of course the problem with this is that the electorate isn’t a single entity with a collective will, but millions of individuals with their own reasons for voting for one party or another; and the numbers might not stack up for either Labour or the Tories to govern by themselves. In which case the rhetoric will change on formation of the new coalition, and it will be presented as faute de mieux Responsible Government etc etc.

    Until then it will be a potent electioneering tool to the detriment of the Lib Dems – unless, that is, the Lib Dems can rescue the idea of coalition from its current low standing.

    Carefully calibrated differentiation within an overall framework of agreed policy and day-to-day delivery might go some way to doing that, oiled by the wheels of a recovering economy. Daily bickering and points-scoring between the coalition partners will not… and to the extent that it discredits the idea of coalition it will obviously hurt the Lib Dems more than the Tories.

  • David Allen 13th Jan '14 - 6:28pm

    Alex Sabine is right to point out the limits of “differentiation”. How do you differentiate yourself from a senior coalition partner who believes in something you really dislike? To choose a fanciful example, suppose your prospective partners are the Gambling Party, and the policy you dislike is gambling away all the government’s money.

    Do you say “We can work with you, provided you only gamble on Fridays”? Or “We can work with you, but whenever we run short, we’ll point out that we keep trying to stop you gambling”? Or even “Now that we’re skint, we have had a big row, and you have promised not to gamble any more”?

    Telling people that you had to go into coalition with a bunch of crazy gamblers because the country needed stable government, or because you had to pick on somebody to work with, or because the other side might have been worse, or because you were scared the bond markets might tank if you didn’t sign a coalition agreement pronto – Well, it’s not going to impress the public.

    As Alex points out, the public “tend to form a view of the government and its policies as a whole, and aren’t much impressed by squabbling from the sidelines”.

    I think there are only three things you can do:

    (1) Tell the Gambling Party that it’s a sticking point: no betting, or no coalition

    (2) Think of something tangible and important, to you and to the voters, that you really want. Offer the GP a deal, before you form the coalition, such as “Promise us free prescriptions and PR for local government, and we’ll let you play cribbage on Sundays”. Then, either the voters agree that it was a reasonable deal, or they don’t. If they agree that free prescriptions are a big Lib Dem win, you can remind the public of that fact, every time they see George Osborne losing his pennies to Aunt Maud.

    (3) Don’t make a coalition with the GP. Let them run things, or ruin things, on their own. Make them take responsibility for what they do.

    Differentiation doesn’t work. It’s basically just an attempt to kid the public, and they’re not very kiddable.

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