Lessons from 97 Lib Dem/Labour co-operation – Compass/SLF podcast

Lib Dems and Labour swapping lists of target seats, co-operating on policy and not getting in each other’s way helped oust the Tories in 1997. What lessons can we learn from that today?

This week, I went along to the recording of Compass’s “It’s Bloody Complicated” podcast. Our own Duncan Brack, Compass’s Neal Lawson who was one of the fixers of the deals between Blair and Ashdown and YouGov’s Peter Kellner  who looked back to 1997 and the co-operation between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown.  The event was chaired by Compass’s Frances Foley

Duncan explained how, after the disappointment of the 1992 election, there were tentative attempts  to float idea of co-operation between non Conservative parties but Labour under John Smith were not interested.

When Blair became leader, there was significant co-operation including swapping information on target seats. Later on, Neal Lawson told of a meeting in a pub in Victoria where bits of paper were swapped.

A significant part of this was that information was fed  to the Mirror during the campaign. Their subsequent recommendations on tactical voting meant that we won 20 out of our 22 targets.

There was also a lot of parliamentary co-operation between the two parties on policy, the most open being the Cook Maclennan talks on constitutional reform.

There was comparison to 2019 where virtually no tactical voting took place. If Labour voters are going to vote Lib Dem an vice versa, they need to like each other’s leader and have a relatively positive view of what they are saying.

Neal Lawson remembered that Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair were pretty happy to be seen together in a way that you don’t see with Keir Starmer and Ed Davey today.

He argued more for an electoral pact arrangement which Peter Kellner warned against on the basis that voters don’t like being told to support another party and would prefer to make their own choices.  If arrangements did happen, they should be voluntary, arranged locally rather than imposed centrally and in a very few places.

Duncan Brack echoed that, saying that voters like choice and you can’t just deploy them en masse.

There was a discussion about PR and winning the arguments for it within the Labour Party.

What didn’t go well in 1997? Duncan ruefully said that the problem was that it worked too well and if Labour hadn’t had such a huge majority, we’d have had more chance of PR.

There was some discussion about the possible outcome of the next election if the Conservatives were the largest party and the dynamics of any coalition between the opposition parties.

There were some really interesting questions on how we overcome the historical tensions between Labour and the Lib Dems, UBI, the consequences of the Elections Bill on third party campaigning and an interesting one from a Lib Dem on the contrast between the charisma of Blair and Ashdown and today’s leaders.

For me, I think that we need to be way ahead of where we are on joint co-operation to get rid of the Tories. Like Duncan, I am wary of full blown electoral pacts. I remember the energy and morale sapping seat negotiations between the Liberals and the SDP and the more recent Unite to Remain and, believe me, there are much better uses of time.

One of the most useful things we and Labour should be doing is working together to change the mood music of politics away from nationalist, populist right onto something much more progressive. We need to amplify each other’s messages in a way that resonates with our own voters so that we create the motivation for us to vote for each other’s parties. We were very good at doing that in North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham but it needs to be much wider than that.

The recording of the event will eventually appear here. It’s definitely worth a listen.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thanks for the summary Caron. I was going to attend myself, but work got in the way.

    It sounds like some excellent points were made. I support tactical voting where appropriate, and encourage being smart about which seats we target, and having an awareness that it is in our interests to let Labour get on in certain other seats. But like you have am concerned about deals imposed from afar.

    I’m a member of Compass, and welcome their enthusiasm in wanting parties and their activists to be more tactical. There’s value in reminding activists from Labour/Greens and ourselves that as opposition parties we have many aspirations in common and share the goal of wanting to end this Tory rule.

    BUT, a high profile, arguably patronising approach could scare off the very voters we need to switch allegiance as well as annoying activists who know their areas best. I worry that Compass are too busy trying to carve out a role for themselves to be objective on this. I know they support PR and want Labour to support PR, but I don’t think they are honest enough about the risks of pushing a formal alliance without a public commitment to PR.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Jan '22 - 3:09pm

    I well recall the 1997 result in Scotland – the Tories lost all 11 seats they had held, with Labour taking 6, SNP taking 3 and Liberal Democrats taking 2. It showed how voters were smart enough to back whichever party was best placed to defeat the sitting Tory MP.
    Of course, tactical voting is different in Scotland today as it is now mainly about Unionist voters trying to back the Unionist Party best placed to defeat the SNP.

  • Paul Barker 30th Jan '22 - 3:24pm

    To be fair to Starmer, he faces internal opposition from the various “Lefts”. Blair was virtually unopposed for his first decade as Leader & could pretty much do as he liked.

  • David Johnston 30th Jan '22 - 4:37pm

    Conversations between Labour and the Lib Dem’s were happening at least as early as 1994. That summer I attended a conference organised by the Guardian to explore the common ground between the two parties mostly on domestic policy. John Smith had died only a few weeks previously. The final speaker was Tony Blair before he was elected leader. I left that meeting feeling more confident of a progressive government than I had done for years.

    Events were important. Coming out of the ERM wrecked any belief in Tory competence on the economy, and Major’s war with his right wing showed the split in the party.

    I organised the general election campaign in Stratford On Avon in 1997. Even with good links with the Region and HQ I was not aware of ‘discussion’ with Labour. The media though were talking up tactical voting. The Guardian published lists of constituencies under ‘ Which party is in the best position to beat the Tory’.

    We need to speak to the Tory Government incompetence in similar terms, and not seek to emphasise any slight differences on policy with Labour. Even if Keir and Ed can’t talk, hopefully someone is talking to someone somewhere!

  • A problem within the current Labour party is people such as Angela Rayner who keep attacking the Lib Dems, even though that can allow the Tories to win. Perhaps she is a “Tory in disguise”!

  • James Fowler 30th Jan '22 - 7:35pm

    Oh for the blissful mid-90s when things were simple. The Tories were both dreadful and weak, Labour was David Owen’s vision of the SDP and the last tiny sniff of government we had seen was during WW2. While I have very fond memories of that time, you can’t step in the same river twice. I’m all for a bit of discrete cooperation where it works at the local level, but I’m glad that Ed Davey and Keir Starmer are keeping well away from each other – it would be a (sorely needed) gift for BJ.

  • Tristan Ward 30th Jan '22 - 10:36pm

    When you sup with the devil use a long spoon.

    Liberalism (about individuals) and socialism (about collectives) are polar opposites.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Jan '22 - 11:11pm

    @Tristan Ward
    Yes, It is not difficult to see why some people define Liberals as merely Tories with a social conscience.
    I, on the other hand, see that true Liberals share with socialists a belief that individuals do not exist in isolation but, together, form society…whereas Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society.

  • Neil Hickman 30th Jan '22 - 11:43pm

    @Tristan Ward
    Some of us would say that “libertarian socialism” is a perfectly rational position.
    Admittedly the last few decades have involved deciding whether the illiberalism of people like Blunkett or the Gladstone-style economic liberalism of Alexander, Laws et al is the bigger disappointment.
    But in 1997, though regarding myself as a Liberal, I ran a committee room for the Labour Party in a target seat; and while post-Coalition I felt drawn to the Labour Party to the extent of becoming a member for a while (resigning when Starmer whipped his MPs to support Johnson’s “deal”) I find the ability of the Liberal Democrats to disagree fairly courteously is far more attractive than the determination of many Labour supporters to hurl abuse at their supposed allies.
    As to which, @Jim Dapre, what do you suppose Angela Rayner says about Labour members with whom she disagrees?

  • The simple lesson from 1997 is: Do it, but don’t talk publicly about it. What Ashdown and Blair did was just sort it out on a very practical basis behind the scenes: “We’ll fight a minimal campaign in Worcester if you do the same in St Ives,” etc. But never talked about it in public. They understood that talking about it publicly just alienates people. So, I hope that Starmer and Ed are having such conversations, but I also hope we don’t hear about them until their memoirs come out well after the election.

  • James Fowler 31st Jan '22 - 8:22am

    The ‘Is liberalism intrinsically more proximate to the Conservatives or Labour?’ discussion is interesting but I don’t think it leads anywhere useful. Liberalism is just an internally consistent body of views unto itself which could, in different places, cooperate with either of the major parties. What’s often missed in such discussions is how much common ground Labour and the Tories have.

  • David Garlick 31st Jan '22 - 9:41am

    I still drink from my 1997 Lib Dem mug and reflect nostalgically on that moment in time. Nedless to say as someone vehemently opposed to the coalition I don’t have a mug to celebrate that moment…
    I will oppose any attempt for a pact with any other party. My experience and to some extent history, tell me that it always ends in political disaster for the minor party.
    Working cooperation on a seat by seat basis locally agreed is a different matter and something that should be explored.

  • Jim – you make a fair point about people like Raynor. However, I do think she seems to have matured a bit in the last few months. If we are being smart enough to realise that any deals need to be discrete, then we have to be realistic enough to accept that Labour can’t suddenly pretend they think we’re great. Disagreements on particular policy points are healthy.

    Regardless of deals, there will be some in Labour who can’t help themselves and will fight old battles, attacking us instead of the Tories. And there are some in this party who do the same. What most of us need to do is to not let that get in the way of the bigger picture.

    @Tristan. Often the best way to improve life for individuals is to improve life for groups of people. And liberalism should be about wanting better for ALL individuals, not just ourselves. And don’t forget that as Liberal Democrats, we were formed from the Social Democrats as well as the Liberals. It’s fine if you identify more with the liberal aspects of the party’s values, but many members, including myself, consider ourselves Social Democrats. Same as many in Labour.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Jan '22 - 5:55pm

    One thing missing: neither of the two parties had the level of distrust as now.

    New Labour became worse than the Tories of Major, under latter govts of Blair, Brown, on benefits, liberties, draconian, authoritarian, govt creep.

    The Liberal Democrats, likewise went along with awful right wing Conservative coalition policies.

    We need a clean page. Both sides admit they got it wrong. Then move on.

    And accept in some cities north of London the two local parties are opposed, but at national elections and daily, can and ought to be colleagues and freinds on much.

    As the excellent , then mp, Graham Allen, Labour, said to me when I met him, a few years ago, on saying I am a member of the Liberal Democrats, but he was my favourite Notts mp, ” thank you, our two parties have a lot in common and should work together!”

  • Neil James Sandison 2nd Feb '22 - 1:12pm

    Martin comments on social liberalism reflects where many members currently feel comfortable . Socialism , Democratic Socialism can still be too state dominated to the detriment of the individual or those unhappy with conformity . Labour needs to do a lot more work on civil liberties and not just defend the state because a high percentage of those employed by the state happen to be in a union affiliated to the Labour party.

  • Agreed Lorenzo. We all need a bit of humility and reminded of how much overlap there is in our goals, especially at this stage of the electoral cycle. I’m not sure that pushing for more apologies is necessary. As far as I can tell, those demanding apologies don’t want to hear them – and miss those that already exist. It’s a bit like those who were complaining that Labour didn’t get thanked (enough) for helping Helen Morgan win in North Shropshire.

    One difference of approach that we need to consider is how we think of different opinions. LibDems are good at accepting that other points of view exist and deserve space. Labour can be weak here. I don’t know if LibDems quickly learn that into accepting the legitimacy of other opinions is the only way to make progress, or if those of us who embrace varied points of view are attracted to the LibDems. Maybe a bit of both.

    Many in Labour think of compromise as nothing more than disappointing means to an end, rather than valuing the process of finding something that works for as many people as possible. Perhaps this is where organisations like Compass can be helpful.

  • The conduct and incompetence of this Tory government, plus terrible measures being introduced ought to unite all opposition parties into getting them out. But after 4 terms, even a competent and well meaning government would be running out of ideas and energy in all probability and the idea of sustaining them ought to be very clearly ruled out. This would discourage some Labour taunts about wanting to go back into bed with them. If it happened again, I would definitely resign.

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