Lib-Lab cooperation: there’s one easy way to find out if Labour are serious

Today’s Guardian big-ups a call by Labour’s chief whip in the Lords, Lord Bassam, to his Lib Dem opposite number Lord Newby as a sign that ‘elements of the [Labour] party are preparing the ground for a possible Lib-Lab coalition after the next election.’

I have to say on first reading the tenor of Lord Bassam’s note strikes me more as told-you-so than conciliatory, but maybe I’m being over-sensitive — judge for yourselves from this excerpt:

“The last couple of years have been a bit bruising for your colleagues in this house, and no doubt they will be looking forward to a change of management to see if it brings some light relief … I would keep a weather eye on the general election and thereafter. Your background as a flexible friend of other parties may come in handy. Keeping lines of communication open to the official opposition party might serve you well in the longer term.”

But let’s give Lord Bassam the benefit of the doubt, and take The Guardian’s take at face value. As Lib Dem peer Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott points out, there’s an easy way for Labour to show their good faith for any future Lib-Lab cooperation: “Let’s team up against the dinosaurs to get the Lords elected.”

After all, an elected House of Lords has been both a Lib Dem and Labour manifesto pledge for decades, so even if the Tories ditch their long-standing commitment to Lords reform there’s still a Parliamentary majority in favour of it if Labour can get behind it. The questions is: will they? Or would they prefer to see reform fail for the satisfaction of needling the Lib Dems?

* 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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28 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 6th Jun '12 - 6:06pm

    I agree with Stephen’s point on Labour and Lords Reform. I disagree on his interpretation of Bassam’s statement, however. It strikes me as neither ‘conciliatory’ nor ‘told-you-so’. The words pretty much speak for themselves. There is nothing obviously strange about their content or meaning.

  • The Conservative party are also in favour of an elected house of lords, they signed the Coalition agreement. So surely a parliamentary majority already exists?

    Unless the Coalition agreement is worthless, in which case an elected house of lords is probably the least of your concerns as a party of government.

  • Simon Hebditch 6th Jun '12 - 6:20pm

    Of course, it is important to explore any possibilities of working together in the future between the Lib Dems and Labour although Bassam’s words appeared to be odd if you really wanted a productive discussion. There is much more of a possibility of ahving a sensible debate with people like Andrew Adonis and Jon Cruddas at this stage. Polly Toynbee has it right as usual. Something has to be done if we are to avoid a pre-election commitment to another Tory/Lib Dem coalition till 2020!

  • “Polly Toynbee has it right as usual” – you cannot be serious Simon! Polly called this government the most ‘vicious’ in living memory. I may not be quite as dubious about our involvement in the coalition as you, though I am pretty dubious, but remembering the Thatcher government only too well Polly’s description of the coalition is ludicrous hyperbole.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Jun '12 - 7:03pm

    @Simon Hebditch:

    “Polly Toynbee has it right as usual.

    The only thing ‘Right’ about Ms Toynbee generally was that she wasn’t just quite as far ‘Right’ as David Owen was. But her identification of the lack of any kind of exit strategy for the Lib Dems from the coalition, let alone the kind of flexible exit strategy which might produce a variety of government options is hardly even secondary school stuff, is it?

  • I guess the title begs the question as to what will prove both sides are serious. If it Lords reform from Labour what is it from the Lib Dems? I would suggest that all non government members support the call for a full investigation into Hunt, not limited to assure a good outcome for Cameron…

    I think both Lib Dem and Labour should be able to agree on those easily enough (accepting the awkward squad who have always vocally denounced Lords reform in both Parties).

  • Please, please, please do not ever again use the word ‘big-ups’. If you feel you can’t cope without using it (although I cannot imagine how that could be the case), never pretend that it is a verb, because it is not.

  • MacK (Not a Lib Dem) 7th Jun '12 - 9:58am

    If Labour became the largest party in a hung parliament the only possible arrangement with the Lib Dems that I would support as a Labour Party member would be Confidence and Supply. Recent Liberal Democrat betrayals of principle make this axiomatic.

  • Of course, even Confidence and Supply would be contingent on the significant presence of Liberal Democrat MPs in the House of Commons. The disastrous collapse in your membership and your risible position in the polls makes that now look more and more unlikely.
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/lib-dems-suffer-plunge-in-party-membership-7813556.html

  • The Liberal Democrats have attempted to link the issues of an elected House of Lords and the reduction of the number of MP’s. Labour is vehemently opposed to the reduction of the number of MP’s so the linking of these issues will ensure that Labour has to oppose an elected House of Lords.

  • Simon Bamonte 7th Jun '12 - 3:52pm

    @Dave Page:

    Many of us former Lib Dems feel like we’ve adopted the Tory manifesto wholesale. I see the current coalition as pretty much a one-way street and a large section of the public do as well. Of course, we’re full of excuses when it comes to dropping our manifesto promises for THIS coalition. Tuition fees, the NHS, tax cuts for the rich, etc…I could go on. We’ve simply put down no lines we will not cross when it comes to the Tories. But, hey, pupil premium, eh?

    The common excuse here is that “the Tories are the largest party and therefore we’re powerless to stop them and must give them our votes in Parliament, whether we agree with them or not”. Ok, but does that also apply to a possible coalition with Labour? Or, if Labour are the largest party at the next election and we have, say, 20 MPs left after the slaughter that awaits us in 2015 (based on current polling and the past two local elections), will that excuse change? Imagine the irony of Lib Dems saying “we can’t work with Labour as they want us to support too many of their policies” while we’ve done just that in the current coalition!

    Personally I feel many Lib Dems, especially the ones who are the strongest supporters of this coalition, are far more comfortable and at home working with the Tories than they would ever be working with Labour. As far as I’m concerned, if we enter into coalition with the Tories again we might as well shut up shop and merge with them completely. It would probably be the only way to save the party. Beyond parody.

  • Simon Bamonte. Speaking as someone who would be less comfortable with a Labour coalition than the present one, I would also hope that I would act with more restraint and discipline, accepting the will of the electorate and the majority of the party, than those who speak out so vociferously against our present circumstances.

  • Simon Bamonte 7th Jun '12 - 4:22pm

    @Tabman:

    Sounds like you see the future of our party as nothing more than an adjunct of one of the main parties, exercising “restraint and discipline” in order to give us a tiny bit of power and maybe one policy per parliament. Doesn’t look like there’s much future in that when our own policies and voters interests come second. That hasn’t worked out too well for our popularity and vote count in the past 2 years, has it?

    I was a big initial supporter of this coalition myself. I thought we’d act like European coalitions which are, generally, unstable and require cooperation and compromise from all sides. I don’t see much compromise from the Tories and I see our MPs giving away too much and failing to put down any lines we will not cross. Coalitions on the continent fall all the time as parties there tend to say “no” quite often and, you know, actually try to give their voters what they voted for. Just a few weeks ago we saw the Dutch coalition fall (rightly or wrongly) because one party refused to give in to the other. In initially supporting the coalition, I thought we’d have lines we would not cross or vote for. I thought the NHS bill would be something like this. A red line we won’t cross, a policy where we could have been on the side of the public who didn’t want the reforms. How wrong I was.

    If you and our leaders see our future as nothing more than doing whatever the largest party wants and giving up all our core beliefs and voters’ wishes for power then there really is not much future for us as a party.

  • MacK ” The disastrous collapse in your membership.”

    That’s funny. I can’t recall that ever happening to the Labour Party.

  • Simon Bamonte. ” I don’t see much compromise from the Tories and I see our MPs giving away too much and failing to put down any lines we will not cross.”

    Funnilly enough, the Tories think they’ve made too many concessions to the Lib Dems.

    I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, don’t you?

  • Simon Bamonte “If you and our leaders see our future as nothing more than doing whatever the largest party wants and giving up all our core beliefs and voters’ wishes for power then there really is not much future for us as a party.”

    Straw man. And who are you to determine what “all our core beliefs and voters’ wishes ” are?

    I see our future as setting out a Liberal (all strands) programme for Britain, and getting as many people as possible to vote for it, and if that doesn’t produce a majority government (Which it hasn’t since 1910, lets face it) working wherever possible with whomever possible to get as much of it implemented as possible.

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 7th Jun '12 - 5:10pm

    @ Tabman
    “That’s funny. I can’t recall that ever happening to the Labour Party.”

    Scraping the bottom of the barrel there. Our membership has risen since then. Maybe expanded by some of the 50% of “Liberal Youth” that left you in 2011. Your membership has fallen overall by 20% in a SINGLE YEAR!

  • MacK – you’re missing the point. I’ll see if you can work it out.

  • Simon Bamonte 7th Jun '12 - 5:59pm

    @Tbaman: Our constitution plainly states we should strive to release people from conformity – yet you want our MPs to conform to the ruling party of the day and vote for their illiberal policies in order to maybe get one heavily watered-down liberal policy through?

    And our constitution also says we should seek to release people from the slavery of poverty. How does this sit with voting for Tory policy which actually increases poverty and destitution right now (while giving a big tax break to the richest)?

    I think our constitution is a pretty good measure of what our core beliefs should be. And we’ve gone against those quite readily in this parliament, no?

    You may be the type who is happy to see all sorts of illiberal and poverty-inducing policies voted for by our MPs in order to, maybe, get something like the pupil premium through. That’s fine, it’s your right to think those should be our tactics (though our vote share and decreasing party membership isn’t exactly a testament to those tactics). Me? I think our tactics in coalition should be to say no far more often, set out lines we won’t cross and be prepared to pull out when necessary. Like on the continent.

    Supporting policy where both parties agree, like ID cards, is great. Supporting policy we don’t agree with, and further, when the public dislike said policy (NHS reforms) is the road to ruin. I approve of continental-style coalitions where parties maintain their identities and say no when appropriate. The way we’ve handled policy and tactics in this coalition does nothing but make me despair. It could have been so different, as well.

  • Simon Bamonte – let me guess, you don’t work in a commercial environment. You don’t, at the very least, seem to understand how negotiations and deal-making work. Its inevitable in such an environment that each party to a deal has to be seen to have 1) made concessions and 2) gained somethign of what it wants.

    You highlight the decrease in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p on income tax whilst failing to mention the tightening up of other areas of taxation that will have a far greater effect on the wealthy, for example.

    Its your prerogative to play up what you see as the negative side of coalition whilst ignoring the positive aspects, I suppose, but I don’t really see where it gets us. And talk of a “European style coalition” is a fallacy given we don’t have a proportional voting system. We don’t have the luxury of being able to disagree in that way; we are seen to have signed up to a period in office to bring stability to the economy and we have to be seen to deliver on that, otherwise we will (rightly) have judged to have been a failure.

  • Simon Bamonte 7th Jun '12 - 7:07pm

    You’re right, @Tabman – I don’t work in a commercial environment where backroom deals are the norm. I work for a charity which helps some of our poorest and most vulnerable members of society. And we’ve never been busier, I am sad to say. Our previous busiest period was 2008-2009, but things then started to improve a bit only to get much worse than that around summer last year. The people I deal with on a daily basis, some of our poorest, are being directly hit by coalition policy while they see the richest still doing ok. We have people made redundant who cannot find work and even people who are currently underemployed relying on us for things like food parcels just so they can feed their kids. The £10,000 tax threshold won’t help those who cannot find work. There are around 30 people chasing every vacancy here in the North. We have people who don’t know how they will cope with the tax credit threshold being raised and employers refusing to give them more hours to compensate. We have some very seriously mentally and physically ill people who are obviously not fit for work facing destitution due to the new restraints placed on them by welfare bill. So, no, I don’t work in making backroom deals or providing shareholder value. What I do, for little money, is far more worthwhile and important to society than that. I am seeing the front line of austerity on our weakest members of society. And, as a former Lib Dem, the effects coalition policy is having on these people is heartbreaking and depressing. How can I continue to support this coalition when, day in and day out, I am doing my best to help people that coalition policy is harming? At work, I could be forgiven for forgetting this isn’t a Tory-only government. Maybe you would like to come volunteer for a day and see firsthand the effects our MPs supporting non-LD policy is having on the very people our party should be standing up for? I would welcome this and we could use the help. We’ve lost almost all our grant from the government, by the way, and we may not be able to feed people, help with their benefits or give legal advice this time next year. And you say we’re bound by the coalition to provide economic stability – well, we’ve done the opposite with Osborne’s plans! I was a fan of our 2010 manifesto plans on the deficit, which were pretty close to the Darling plan. We’ve gone back into recession and unemployment is skyrocketing. People are scared for the future and some don’t even know where the next meal is coming from. Maybe you don’t want to think about the poorest or weakest or the effects this coalition is having on them, I don’t know. All I know is that, once again, politicians (including Lib Dem ones) are creating problems that people like me – who don’t care about making a lot of money or a high-flying position – are having to clean up.

    I voted SDP/Alliance/LD since 1983. I paid my subs for many years, delivered Focus, etc. But I just can’t do that now. I never thought our MPs would be party to such measures that see such good, but down-on-their-luck people punished for the mistakes of the financial sector and the previous government. And that is exactly what austerity is doing…and it will only get worse as further cuts take hold. I sometimes have to remind myself that this is 2012 and I am in one of the richest countries in the world.

    We could have, and should have, done so much better. You will disagree, that is fine. But you, at least, know where I am coming from with my current frustration for this government.

  • David Allen 8th Jun '12 - 12:58am

    “Polly called this government the most ‘vicious’ in living memory. … Remembering the Thatcher government only too well Polly’s description of the coalition is ludicrous hyperbole.”

    Disagree. Maggie thought rail privatisation was a step too far, she retained comprehensive state schools, she kept the NHS in place and increased its budget, she kept most social welfare benefits intact. She certainly had a very nasty bark, but Cameron has a nastier bite.

  • David Allen – Maggie did more than retain Comprehensives; she created a lot of them. As Michael Caine never said: “not a lot of people know that”.

    And why was that, I wonder? Could it be that the Tory-voting middle classes felt that it was less risky to corral their offspring together in schools they could guarantee entry to by house-price, rather than the far more risky option of having them take an exam which might let in the uppity poor oiks?

  • Simon Bamonte – negotiations are not something confined to business; they take part in every aspects of our lives and being good at them is a useful skill to have.

    I think the question you have to ask yourself is this: where would life be better for the people you deal with if we had a majority Conservative government rather than the coalition?

  • Simon Hebditch 9th Jun '12 - 9:36am

    Of course, all coalitions have to emerge from a negotiating process which implies that “you win some and you lose some”. But the essential thing is to lay down clear red lines – those policies which have to be accepted if the coalition is to work. We did not do that effectively in 2010. The only red line we seem to have now is precisely the wrong one – namely the continuation of the current deficit reduction strategy and consequent economic and social implications.

    Also, I believe the famous electorate must know, before an election, our preferable route post election. It is thoroughly undemocratic to simply say we will negotiate with the party with most seats. The public should know our preference for the future alongside our principal programmes which will constitute red line topics in any future negotiations.

    I think the forthcoming comprehensive spending review is key to our future as a united party. We have already sown the seeds of conflict by moving beyond the Coalition Agreement (which I thought was to last till the 2015 election) to saying that there should be a common economic and fiscal programme agreed by the Tories and ourselves which would last at least until March 2017. Our leadership has already indicated its preference for future arrangements with the Tories. If that was to happen, the party would fracture to no-one’s benefit.

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