How not to woo the Liberal Democrats, lesson no.94

A Guardian story shows perfectly how badly the Labour Party is approaching the question of trying to persuade Liberal Democrats that a deal should be done with it:

One of the most enthusiastic proponents of electoral reform in the Labour cabinet argued: “The Liberals have got to realise two things. First, the chances of winning a referendum with a Cameron-led government are minimal. Labour will sit on its hands, the media will be against, and so will the Tory party.

“Secondly, the Lib Dems have to realise they cannot have anything more than the alternative vote – if they ask for more, such as the single transferable vote or the AV plus, that will require a redrawing of constituency boundaries, and that will not be possible before the next election.”

So what’s wrong with this Cabinet member’s views?

First, there’s the silliness of getting the party’s name wrong. Look, it’s not exactly the most important thing in the world, but it reeks of arrogance not to even both showing the modicum of respect involved in getting someone else’s name right. It’s like turning up to a job interview and getting the name of the firm wrong. Why do that unless you’re daft or don’t really want it?

Second, the utter lack of recognition about how many Liberal Democrats view Labour on electoral reform – i.e. Labour is the party that made a manifesto promise in 1997, broke it and then showed scant remorse about breaking it until facing electoral defeat in this election. If you really want to persuade others you are sincere, at least show the smallest of acknowledgements that the reason electoral reform is even having to be debated now is, you know, down to Labour failing to stick to its manifesto commitment.

Third, if you really want to persuade the Liberal Democrats you are sincere about electoral reform, how is talking up the idea that Labour might not campaign in favour of electoral reform in a referendum a smart move? It just plays into all the fears that Labour is no more committed to electoral reform now than it was in 1997.

Fourth, the idea that it’s AV or nothing. STV or AV Plus both in fact could be introduced without redrawing constituency boundaries in a significant way (by grouping together existing constituencies). But more than that, AV is far from an uncontroversial choice. Presenting it as if it’s AV or you’re not serious (pretty much Peter Hain’s comments over the last few days for example) again just needlessly puts backs up and cuts off what should be an important area for talking.

Or in summary: if that’s really the best Labour can do, Labour members should fully understand it is their own party writing itself out of any possible deal. If you’re serious, up your game.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Tony Butcher 10th May '10 - 12:30pm

    Why the fringes of both parties should stop trying to influence any deal – Shouting From The Centre:

  • Personally, I rather like it when the other parties get our name wrong. I like the name “Liberal” – it sums up our principles nicely. Whereas “Liberal Democrat” is a rather meaningless term, because all three parties could claim to be small-l liberal small-l democrats to some extent.

    Sorry, a random tangent, but I thought it worth nitpicking on this. Other than that, a perceptive post, Mark – the tribalism within the Labour party makes it very difficult for many of them to see things from our point of view.

  • “that will require a redrawing of constituency boundaries, and that will not be possible before the next election”

    Funny that. All 3 party manifestos propose re-assessing the constituency boundaries to make the system fairer. Someone not been reading their own manifesto? (I don’t blame them because the Lib Dem manifesto is the only one that is easy to read, indexed and easy to grasp IMHO!)

  • Anthony Aloysius St 10th May '10 - 12:41pm

    Maybe after all too many people in the Labour party would prefer to go into opposition now, and look forward to a crushing victory over an unpopular Libservative government in five years’ time. It probably is the smart thing to do, from the point of view of pure self-interest.

  • If, having promised a referendum on electoral reform just a few days ago, the Labour Party were to “sit on their hands” when it gets to Parliament, they will be exposed to everyone as liars.

  • Theyve already been exposed as liars repeatedly, it doesnt seem to make much difference to those people who support them as the anti-Tory party.

    Even though they arent even that.

  • David Thame 10th May '10 - 1:06pm

    As a craddle Liberal (raised in the old Liberal party and my name has appeared on council ballot papers for the Lib Dems) it begins to seem that far too many Lib Dems think of themselves and their party much the same way as old Commies thought of the GB Communist Party, e.g. as a kind of half-party, there to keep the Labour Party honest.

    I’m afraid too many of the same people have also fallen for the Labour Party’s cherished self image (the big Labour lie) that they are on the side of the angels, angels with dirty faces maybe, but angels all the same. It’s rubbish, of course.

    Labour has been awful over the last 13 years – as illiberal as a government can get. Have they forgotten that so very soon?

    I’m not at all fond of the Conservatives, no no no, but I can’t see any sense in supporting a failed Labour party. A coalition – which promises to give Liberals some of the serious political exposure which we’ve long lacked – would be best.

  • This is the ideal time for Clegg to insist on for media reform.

    Whatever deal Cameron did with Murdoch, enough of having our media hijacked from abroad

    Give Murdoch and The Barclay Brothers the finger once and for all.

  • LiberalHammer 10th May '10 - 1:27pm

    Neither the CP or LP want PR as a whole even if there are individual MPs who do. If we had genuine PR then Labour would be on 190 or so seats, not 250. Asking 60 of their MPs to vote themselves out of a seat is pie in the sky.

    Best thing – and in recognition of the limited support that the LDs have across the UK as a whole – would be to allow the CP to govern as a minority. I’d guess that there are just as many voters who vote LD as a more pleasant alternative to the Tories as there are ‘alternative Labour’ voters.

  • The idea that an “enthusiastic supporter of electoral reform” would say “AV or nothing” at this stage is ridiculous. I think the Guardian are quoting a Labour anti-reformer — perhaps Ed Balls, Jack Straw or Peter Mandelson.

    My view is that further-reaching electoral reform is very attainable at the moment, but probably in the form of a semi-proportional system like AV+. Anything less would be a missed opportunity. I think people like Ben Bradshaw, John Denham, etc. understand this, as of course do Chris Huhne and Andrew Stunell.

  • David Thame 10th May '10 - 1:30pm

    As a craddle Liberal (raised in the old Liberal party and my name has appeared on council ballot papers for the Lib Dems) it begins to seem that some Lib Dems think of themselves and their party much the same way as old Commies thought of the GB Communist Party, e.g. as a kind of half-party, there to keep the Labour Party honest.

    I’m afraid too many of the same people have also fallen for the Labour Party’s cherished self image (the big Labour lie) that they are on the side of the angels, angels with dirty faces maybe, but angels all the same. It’s rubbish, of course.

    Labour has been awful over the last 13 years – as illiberal as a government can get. Have they forgotten that so very soon?

    I’m not at all fond of the Conservatives, but I can’t see any sense in supporting a failed Labour party.

  • Michael Kay 10th May '10 - 1:32pm

    The Lib Dems will look completely ridiculous if they accept GB’s deathbed conversion to PR as genuine.

    They will also look ridiculous if they continue to support PR but get all pious about forging tactical alliances after an election. This kind of haggling will happen every time under a PR system: if you don’t like it, then it’s time to think again about whether you want PR.

    And frankly, they will look ridiculous if they keep the discredited Labour government in power. A government under Gordon Brown is unthinkable given his decisive rejection by the electorate; a government under anyone else is unthinkable as the outcome of an election campaign in which all the focus was on the party leaders.

  • Suzanne Armstrong 10th May '10 - 1:39pm

    I vote according to the party that has what I see as the majority of the policies which accord with my thoughts.
    The Lib Dems do have a lot of policies I like – but a lot are rather flaky ( and lets face it Lib Dems have never been in power nationally so its easy to come up with untested policies). HOwever, because of the poor electoral boundaries etc I knew that if I votedLib Dem I would be wasting a vote and I wanted Labour out. For the life of me I dont know why people are seduced by Labour- they have just led us into a huge financial deficit which all of us will be paying for for decades. Profligracy unlimited if you ask me. 29% economically active now on benefits since Labour came to power. Quangos multiplying like rabbits. Tax payers money wasted left right and centre. And they ignore environmental issues.
    So I voted for the Conservatives. But you see Im a floating Lib Dem/Conservative voter NOT a Lib Dem/Labour voter. I think there’s lots in common- Lib Dems could soften harsher Tory policies and Tories could sharpen woolly Lib Dem policies. Personally I think they could work well together if the old brigades on both sides thought less idealistically and more pragmatically. So, please Lib Dems – get your act together and follow what the election voting showed you- Labour OUT.

  • The Lib Dems will look completely ridiculous if they accept GB’s deathbed conversion to PR as genuine.

    By whom? The Tory press? The Tory voters? If they make the case strongly enough that there is a very strong, fixed timetable on electoral reform, and a strong plan to sort out the deficit backed by Cable and Darling, and that if Labour start to slip on electoral reform they will force a collapse of the Labout government, well, I see this as a great opportunity for the Lib Dems. Perhaps THE great opportunity.

    I don’t know what Mandleson et al.’s really agenda is in supporting this, but if they can also throw into the deal getting rid of Brown (as seems likely) and we can twist their arms from AV to AV+, this seems like a much more juicy deal than propping up the Tories and losing most of our core vote.

  • STV for the reformed house of Lords is a lovely idea. Not only do all voters get to find out how STV works, after a while people will start asking why the Lords is so much more sensible and representative than the House of Commons.

    No need to redraw the boundaries for STV, just group existing seats together. (Not the case for AV + I’m afraid Mark)

  • Paul McKeown 10th May '10 - 2:18pm

    I don’t hear Mandelson in any of this; if Labour seriously wanted government, he would be out there, putting his gloss on the story. Labour is too divided, too many turkeys don’t want the PR Christmas, too many tribalists talking hatred of the Liberal Democrats to each other. I remember clearly how in 1987, when I was leafleting in York for Vince Cable, one character with a red rosette harangued me for being, “a yellow-bellied, yellow Tory.” Sad to say, but despite the many polite, commonsense Labour members, there are still very many foaming maniacs as well.

    It is clear that if Labour were to say, “Yes, Brown goes, yes fairer taxes and education, yes fair votes and thorough democratic institutional renewal,” then the Liberal Democrats would accept such an offer. But it is equally obvious that Mandy thinks it isn’t a goer, due, no doubt to Labour’s internal divisions.

    I knew it yesterday, when Emily Thornberry was allowed out of her kennel and barked her way for five minutes over the top of anything that Ed Davey had to say. What an unpleasant character. If Labour wanted to make a deal, the whips would undoubtedly hand her over to Mandy’s tender mercies for an extended period of re-education. Then we had a further succession of Labourites making it clear that they would prefer to drink from the ideologically pure streams running through the opposition benches, although all with some little tag after their raving that a deal could still be done, if the Lib Dems wouldn’t push too hard. Alistair Darling was happily, his usual calm self, talking reason and moderation, but by then the message had become clear.

  • Party Electoral Reform will never take place unless one of the two main parties in power agree to it. Because Lib Dem will never be in a position of power to change it with the position now. So Clegg has to make the most of it and get what he can without losing the deal and the open negotiating partnership. If the door shuts, and the phone is unplugged then no chance. And Labour cannot promise or offer anything as it is not in a position to guarantee anything or be able to deliver it. And they will be in bed with a hotch potch of other singular partiscan politics who do not give a hapenny for Lib Dem sentiments. Faint heart never won fair maiden. Neither did a quick pot shot at the head and threats of what would happen if she does not agree. As you cannot drag the Cameron or Gordon to the lib Dem cave by grabbing them by the tits and dragging them by the hair. Lib Dems will just have to be patient and make good of a good opportunity. I’m more concerned about the effects on the least well off and disadvantaged and vulnerable under necessary cuts. Not PR.

  • Andrea Gill 10th May '10 - 2:25pm

    JBK – Thanks for that lovely mental image there…

  • Paul McKeown 10th May '10 - 2:39pm

    @David Thame

    I agree with David!

  • Paul McKeown 10th May '10 - 2:48pm

    From the BBC:

    1425: Shadow cabinet ministers remained pretty tight-lipped as they arrived for talks with David Cameron a short while ago. Just a word from Mr Cameron’s aide, Desmond Swayne, who, when asked whether he expected his boss to be prime minister tomorrow, said: “I hope so.”

    Tomorrow, then, Con/Lib. Probably helps in the long term to debunk the old Tory myths about “Lib/Lab”. The large sensible portion of the electors will understand that we will what with people of whatever stripe to promote our Liberal Democratic ideals. No doubt we will hear loads of “traitor” diatribe from lefties, but we should just shrug it off. If our leaders make a go of this, then it should help dispel fears of coalition politics. [I note sadly, that Sky News, was doing its usual today, with a trip to Israel, portraying its politics as typical of countries with PR.]

  • After this any many other articles do people seriously still think that Labour are this wonderful, reforming, progressive party we should have talked to first(or according to some only talk to them)

    I think those with a pathological hate for the Tories have shown themselves up in recent days, those from the left of the party…the SDP remnants as such, I can understand.
    However I have been surprised & disappointed by those who do not fir in to the above category but still insist that ONLY a deal with Labour is worth pursuing.
    Worse still those floating voters that think with one vote for us we are in some way in hock to them?

    Can you imagine if we are held to ransom to every floating/swing/Tory hating/Labour hating voter….some even think as they “leant us” their vote their voice should be heard & is more important then those of us who have believed & toiled for the party for years…..its like walking in to a restaurant, ordering a meal and then telling them they want the bloody menu changed because they have had one meal their.

    To those deluded by this mirage of Labour being progressive get over it, they ain’t, they have not been for years and this article shows they won’t be in the near future.

    Whatever the pitfalls with the Tories lets at least see what happens, all those professing to knowing it will be a disaster lets wait and see……I am sure there will be a “told you so” moment from one side or the other down the line.

  • Paul McKeown 10th May '10 - 2:55pm


    PR will happen when we get 120 or more MP’s under FPTP and can totally stalemate parliament until we get what we want. Or until we get 250+ and are the largest single party and can demand it as the clear wish of the electorate. Or until we can get close to a parliamentary majority and can ram it through with the support of the minor parties.

    We may be closer to it than many think, if our MPs make the new government work well in the eyes of the public and develops significant part of our manifesto, as it will start to persuade the public that a vote for us is not wasted.

    And we are a lot closer than we were in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Peter Chegwyn 10th May '10 - 3:22pm

    Same Old Nasty Tory Party!

    Lest anyone think the Conservatives are our new best friends, in Gosport (where the Conservatives gained control of the Council last week) the Conservatives have called a Special Council Meeting for later this week to:

    i) Scrap the convention of ‘revolving’ the Mayoralty between the political parties

    ii) Ditch the incoming Lib. Dem. Mayor and replace a Lib. Dem. with a Conservative

    iii) Remove a former Lib. Dem. Councillor from his role as (unpaid) Organiser of the Council’s Annual Waterfront Festival

    iv) Remove all Lib. Dems. from all outside bodies.

    No Conservative has had the courtesy to tell us any of this.

    It has been left to junior Town Hall officers to ‘leak’ the details of what is happening.

    And they say nationally that Lib. Dems. and Conservatives can now all work together in harmony?

    Don’t make me laugh!

  • Peter the same could be said of those who face Labour as their main opponents.

    What you suggest we do, just let this opportunity go?

    At work do you get on with everyone or do you as everyone just have to but feelings aside with some people and just get on.

    Since when was politics about ONLY working with those you agree with? Christ within our own party we have disagreements, some quite deep…. but we trundle on?

    Sop lets not pretend that only the Tories are evil and can’t be trusted…every party can say that of each other, but we must get on for the sake of the bigger picture….through greeted teeth is needs be.

  • ARTHUR COLLINGE 10th May '10 - 4:32pm

    On the one hand there is the prospect of the most vicious cuts in public expenditure for generations which will hit the disadvantaged the most-the very people who feel voiceless and on the other the hope through PR to give
    everyone a sounding board to vent their feelings.Without this democratic sounding board there is the danger of serious social discontent which will manifest itself in direct and anarchic action.This is why PR is a not only a political necessity but a social one also.

  • No need to redraw the boundaries for STV, just group existing seats together. (Not the case for AV + I’m afraid Mark)

    That would depend on the relative sizes of the “AV” bit and the “+” bit. With half of MPs from a top up (AMS in Germany does this IIRC) two constituencies could be combined into one.

    That would make AV+ PR: but as it was proposed precisely to usually produce majority governments the AV bit would be larger than the + bit.

    Or the number of MPs could be substantially reduced (may be hard to get that through the Commons).

    I suspect AV is all that the Commons would accept. Turkeys, Christmas etc. It would at least solve the problems of wasted votes and split votes (although it is provable that no single winner electoral system is immune to tactical voting some (FPTP) are much more vulnerable than others (IRV)). Perhaps more people would be willing to vote LD first if they didn’t fear their vote being wasted.

    STV for the Lords is a great idea though. As a purely legislative body few of the objections people have to PR would apply (weak government, government chosen “in smoke filled rooms” rather than at the election, lack of clear accountability).

    My favourite resource for electoral methods has gone off line 🙁

  • Simon Lilley 10th May '10 - 5:02pm

    I have just turned 45. When I was 14 I worked for the Liberal Party at the 1979 General Election. This is an opportunity to gain power and we should look to take it. For me PR is quite a deal breaker but not far off. I find the arrogance of the Labour Party breathtaking. They ratted on PR in 1997. Paddy Ashdown spent hours talking with Blair before and after the election about electoral reform and got nowhere. Why should we trust labour now with their deathbed conversion? Answer we shouldnt.At the moment a coalition with Labour would be an unacceptable option. Whilst no one won the election Labour sure as hell lost the election and we cannot and must not be seen to be propping up a Labour Government that has been beaten. Their blase attitude to civil liberties and the rule of law has to me put them almost beyond the pale.Are we seriously going to govern with a party who wants ID cards more CCTV cameras, a widening of the DNA database, juryless trials, extended police detention? I dont want to and I think many right minded supporters of our great party would agree with me. I do not want Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne or Vince Cable or anyone else being lectured around the Cabinet table by Harriet Harman. her views on equality where some people are more equal than others is straight out of Animal Farm.

    We are right to talk to David Cameron. I am giving our negotiating team my full support. The arguements for PR are now overwhelming. We increased our share of the national vote and actual numbers of votes and ended up with less seats. If that does not show an undemocratic system then what does?

  • Labour NEED to be out of office. They have sat their for too long and believe that is where they are entitled to be. They lack the humility to accept the need for compromise and to actually listen to opposing views. They believe Lib Dems are recalcitrant Labour voters who need to be talked to sternly, but otherwise ignored, and so don’t take them seriously. Look at Gordon Brown, still holding on there and throwing a tantrum at the audacity of the Lib Dems to brush off their disingenuous overtures. In other words, time in office has made them arrogant. I do not think we would get very much out of them. No more than the Tories anyway.

  • That last comment is now obsolete with Brown agreeing to go to facilitate agreement. (and also removing the “vote Clegg get Brown” jibe.)
    With money tight dropping ID cards would be an easy concession and ,speaking as a gay man, I see Labour as better on civil liberties than the Tories.
    How could we trust them not to rat on PR this time ? Because they would let the Tories straight in if they did.
    (Jason: Why would AV+ wipe out a third party ? – I can see that AV might.)

  • Eduardo Reyes 11th May '10 - 11:35am

    Though I found a lot more problems ahead with the Tories researching this piece for the Statesman:


  • Eduardo Reyes 11th May '10 - 11:39am

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