Antony Hook MEP writes… Co-operation to win in 2024? It comes down to four questions

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The 2019 General Election was the sixth since I joined the party as a student in 1998 and its result was by far the most frustrating. The consequences of the 2019 election will be more considerable and long-lasting for our country than any I saw before.

How this happened, and what needs to change to do better next time, will be subject of a General Election Review, which I expect will be rigorous and take an objective, honest view based on evidence.

If I quote a football manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, do not think I am trivialising. Sir Alex understands more about successful leadership (including managing resources and dealing with the press and a support base) than many people in politics. One of his maxims was “defeat does not matter, what matters is how you come back from defeat.”

Of course, the consequences of defeat do matter. But the art of leadership is how you focus the minds of your people and on what you do next.

There is much talk about the unfairness on the people of the British electoral system. Conservatives have manipulated a win of 56% of the seats, and control of both the parliament and executive, with only 42% of the vote. Brexit is being pursued against the wishes of 53% who voted for parties that backed a People’s Vote.

The pro-Brexit vote only had one place to go: the Conservatives – after the Brexit Party’s withdrawal. The pro-European vote split between Liberal Democrats and Labour who stood against each other everywhere, invested ground campaign resources in the same seats and used significant portions of their air capacity (broadcast media, press and digital content) to attack each other, each aiming unsuccessfully to become the sole home for overlapping pools of voters.

The beneficiaries of the approaches that Labour and Liberal Democrats took towards one another were the Conservatives.

There is renewed interest among non-Conservatives about electoral reform. But you cannot change the system until you win power under the current system.

There is also much talk of whether there should be closer co-operation between Liberal Democrats and Labour. The possibility of that is surely contingent on leadership elections.

In 2019, there was an absence of co-operation. Liberal Democrats and Labour:

1. Took chunks out of each other over their past records and future plans. Activists followed their party leaders in doing so.
2. Stood against each other in every seat.
3. Targeted ground resources into many of the same seats, and
4. Ruled out working with each other, either at all or under their present leader.

It has not always been this way.

In the 1997, the parties stood against each other in every seat but generally avoided attacking each other in the air war. Their fire, at a national level, was overwhelmingly directed their attacks on the Conservative government and presented their policies as better alternatives to the Conservatives.

In addition, there was co-operation on the targeting of ground resources. Paddy Ashdown’s diary records how the parties’ campaigns exchanged lists of seats that each was targeting against the Conservatives and directed their ground resources (e.g. funding and requests for activists to help in certain seats) to avoid getting in each other’s way. Of course there was intense competition in some seats, but the national picture was co-operative.

The Liberal Democrats doubled our seats and New Labour won a landslide. It was the first non-Conservative government of my life and, although I was too young to vote, I remember watching the new dawn on a TV with other sixth formers in my school. We all felt excited by this change.

By 2005, the Iraq War had opened up a major difference between the parties and there were mutual attacks not seen in 1997 or 2001. In 2010 and elections to 2019, with social media complementing traditional media, Labour and Liberal Democrats attacked each other, perhaps as much as they attacked the Conservatives, and far from sending their resources to different seats, targeted many of the same constituencies – often to the benefit of the Conservatives.

Looking at Canada, one of the other two countries that uses the first past the post electoral system, it was 2015 when a Conservative government was most recently put out of office. There was intense rivalry between our sister party, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, and the NDP, who are internationally affiliated with the UK Labour Party.

A hung parliament was considered to be a significant possibility. Both Liberals and NDP ruled out working with the Conservatives. Doing so implicitly conveyed that they would work with each other if they did not win outright. The Conservatives lost by a landslide.

After 22 years experience as a Liberal Democrat campaigner, I am certain the party’s position will improve. But I want the Conservatives out in 2024, not later. I think that becoming a parent last year has made getting a progressive government feel more urgent to me.

I cannot, at present, envisage the Conservatives being put out of office unless there is some co-operation between non-Conservative parties. But I accept that whether that is possible is very dependant on who becomes the next leaders of the each party.

In conclusion, there are four strategic decisions for parties that might co-operate:

1. Do you avoid spending substantial time attacking each other rather than the government?
2. Do you direct ground campaign resources and people into different seats?
3. Do you, to some extent or another, indicate that you will work with each after the election?
4. Do you avoid standing candidates in the same seats?

Debates about possible co-operation between Labour, Liberal Democrats or other parties come down to whether the answer is “yes” or “no” to those four questions.

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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  • Steve Trevethan 15th Jan '20 - 1:07pm

    Thank you for a most important article!
    Perhaps we might help our country more by using the practicalities of cooperation and indirect power rather than the pursuit of theories of solo power ?

  • David Warren 15th Jan '20 - 3:21pm

    Cooperation on some level with Labour is a must, a point I made in a recent article for LDV.

    It gets easier the further away we get from the coalition with the Tories. That was a major barrier and put off a lot of our loyal voters, something I saw at first hand when I campaigned in Guildford at the 2015 General Election where a lot of Lib Dem supporters switched to Labour in a seat we can and have won in the past.

    Positioning ourselves as a progressive centre left force will help a lot. In most of our target seats we are taking on the Tories and in many of those we also need to really squeeze the Labour vote to win.

    Of course in a lot of places where they have no chance Labour have energetic and enthusiastic teams. I led one of those in Newbury back in 1983 and witnessed it again last winter here in West Sussex. Local cooperation in some places at local elections should be looked at with the aim of removing Tory majorities.

    Finally we musn’t forget the Greens who are clearly up for deals and who I believe we can work with in the future.

  • Tristan Ward 15th Jan '20 - 4:04pm

    Cooperate with Labour ? When you sup with the devil you need long spoon. And the same applies to the Tories. Both will shaft us as soon as look at us.

  • Peter Watson 15th Jan '20 - 4:11pm

    @David Warren “Cooperation on some level with Labour is a must, … It gets easier the further away we get from the coalition with the Tories.”
    Given that even preventing Brexit was not enough to enable this it is really difficult to imagine it happening in the future.
    Lib Dem strategy at the moment just seems to be a reactive “wait and see” in the hope that Labour moving to the right will allow Lib Dems to take Tory seats or Labour staying/moving leftwards will produce more defectors (though given the fate of the pre-election independents/defectors under relatively favourable circumstances I can’t see many MPs giving up safe seats).
    If a Lib Dem MP looks interchangeable with a Tory MP (Brexit-aside, a difficult impression to shake off since 2010) then there’s not much incentive for Labour to back one against the other, so perhaps the post-Coalition post-Brexit (kind of!) challenge for Lib Dems is to reassert their independence without continuing to appear more anti-Labour than anti-Tory.

  • Paul Barker 15th Jan '20 - 5:46pm

    The first big lesson that I would like The Party to learn is never to be the Junior Partner in a Westminster Coalition again.
    I would not be against Our MPs abstaining in a Confidence Vote to allow a Minority Government to take Office but after that we should Vote on each issue purely on its merits.
    It seems to be pointless talking about possible Co-operation with Labour, in an Election at least 4 Years off, when we dont even know who Their Leader will be.
    We already have a record of Co-operation with The Greens (GPEW) & Plaid Cymru, we should be building on that. I would like to see the 3 Parties in an Alliance for 2024, with Candidates listed as “Alliance (Libdems/etc) & a Program for Government. That is an acheivable objective with 4 Years to work on it.

  • John Marriott 15th Jan '20 - 8:42pm

    Cooperation with Labour? If only.

  • “In addition, there was co-operation on the targeting of ground resources. Paddy Ashdown’s diary records how the parties’ campaigns exchanged lists of seats that each was targeting against the Conservatives and directed their ground resources ”

    I think we need to be very careful how airbrushed this version of history becomes. There was a lot of hostile competition in the south and south west – and remember Labour’s vote rose in every seat the Lib Dems gained bar one.

    If you read vol 2 of Paddy’s diaries there is a huge thread of his self-delusion running through them about just how co-operative Blair actually was and how often he would agree to things and go back on them.

    “a General Election Review, which I expect will be rigorous and take an objective, honest view based on evidence.”

    Why do you expect that when the record of previous such reviews is somewhat short of that?

  • Yousuf Farah 16th Jan '20 - 2:35am

    This article just proves that this party will never learn from its lessons.

  • Graham Jeffs 16th Jan '20 - 8:56am

    There seems to be an assumption that in the absence of a LD candidate their voters shall migrate to Labour. Maybe some but even in the unlikely event of reciprocal arrangements I doubt that this would be exciting enough for Labour to contemplate. They hate us more than the Tories.

    The bottom line is that the LDs need to re-connect with the voters they have lost. That’s achieved by sensible policies to which they can relate, trustworthy leadership and lots of hard work. How much better would we have done in the GE if we had had a leader who was actually liked by the electorate at large? Let’s not duck these issues by waffling about alliances that are never going to happen.

  • Given that Layla Moran, Vince Cable, and Tim Farron have all spoken or written with enthusiasm in recent weeks for the idea of working more closely with Labour, it appears to have become ‘official policy.’ That seems premature, since the one candidate in the Labour leadership contest to have spoken positively about the need to work with other ‘progressive’ parties, Clive Lewis, sadly didn’t make the cut. I suspect that the remaining candidates are either actively hostile to the idea, or see the Lib Dems (and others, such as the Greens), as politically irrelevant, and think that they can be safely ignored.

  • Tristan Ward 15th Jan ’20 – 4:04pm……………..Cooperate with Labour ? When you sup with the devil you need long spoon. And the same applies to the Tories. Both will shaft us as soon as look at us……………….

    Such sentiments will ensure that this party never recovers.

    Firstly this party needs to decide who the REAL enemy is;. IMO that is an ever more right wing Tory party whose ‘slash and burn’ attitude to social care, employment legislation and the evironment are light years away from liberal values. If Churchill could work with Stalinist Russia to defeat Hitler’s Germany then this party could work with any ‘shade’ of Labour to remove Johnson.

    Repeating Jo Swinson’s knee jerk response to even talking to JeremyCorbyn is counter productive. Some in this party blame Labour for their lack of co-operation but, when even their suggestion of ‘talking’ is rebuffed, who is really at fault?

    There is nothing inherrently wrong in coalition or co-operation on an issue by issue basis; it is how the junior partner behaves that is important. If minority governments are unable to pass extreme policies that might unite the opposition how much more carefully must a senior partner tread when their ‘allies’ have the power to break them?

    Lord Palmerston’s, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Only our interests are eternal and perpetual”. are as true today as ever they were.

  • Graham Jeffs 16th Jan '20 - 9:58am

    Let’s be clear that not standing down in seats but being open to cooperation after an election are very different issues.

  • Gwyn Williams 16th Jan '20 - 10:04am

    In much of the North of England and Wales Labour is still the largest Party. The Labour Party in Canterbury is very different from the Labour Party in the Valleys or Sunderland. A South East of England view sees Labour as the challenger. For many of us in the rest of the country if Labour is the answer, it’s a really silly question.

  • The problem with cooperation surely this time was Jeremy Corbyn. Not only was the prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn so horrifying that many voters held their noses to vote tactically against Labour, he also refused to countenance any deviation from the idea that Labour would win big.

    Cooperation cuts both ways, we cannot be the unilateralists, supplicant to a larger party who refuse to honour their end of the deal

  • Julian Tisi 16th Jan '20 - 4:59pm

    All four questions would require both sides to agree, otherwise it won’t work. There are at least two problems: one is that Labour have been utterly against cooperation which involves them standing down or failing to campaign anywhere. Some of the comments above still blame us for “failing to cooperate” despite this. The other is it assumes that we are each broadly comfortable with the other’s agenda – but we aren’t dealing with Tony Blair, this is now a far left party that is nauseating to many of us; talking to many of my Labour friends they feel similarly repelled by us (calling us “Yellow Tories” and the like). Yes things might change with a new Labour leader – but let’s not hold our breath.

  • We need to stop chasing chimera and get down to the hard graft of developing and promoting policies that are relevant to the electorate. The Labour Party is not interested in co-operating with us and we need to wake up and realise that their aim is to destroy us as a party. Did their 2019 election campaign against us not make that clear enough for those of you advocating co-operation?

  • James Fowler 16th Jan '20 - 9:48pm

    While I’m a firm believer in more co-operative politics I find it very difficult to see a the Lib Dems doing any deals with either Labour or the Conservatives at the moment. While I enjoyed Anthony’s article, I also thought that some of analysis of voter behaviour/movement was quite flawed. 1997 saw a huge collapse in Conservative support everywhere, a slight fall in overall LD support and some tactical voting. Our success was built on a Conservative collapse, not a change of allegiance by Labour voters. As things currently stand with the Labour Party, I think it’s worth reiterating that liberalism has little in common with socialism because of fundamental disagreements about the sanctity of the individual. To that end, my answers to the four questions run as follows:
    1. Do you avoid spending substantial time attacking each other rather than the government? A qualified yes.
    2. Do you direct ground campaign resources and people into different seats? Again, a qualified yes.
    3. Do you, to some extent or another, indicate that you will work with each after the election? Absolutely not.
    4. Do you avoid standing candidates in the same seats? Absolutely not.

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