Lord William Wallace writes… Labour and the Liberal Democrats

Labour at Westminster is angry with the Liberal Democrats. They were – several Labour peers have insisted – moving slowly towards accepting that there would have to be a confirmatory referendum. And they felt that Boris Johnson would end up with no other way out than to accept such a referendum. And now, they complain, we have ‘given’ the Conservatives the election they want.

Don’t fall for this Labour narrative, if you hear it from a Labour activist near you. Their underlying fear is that they are in no state to win an early election, so the Conservatives are bound to win. They can’t take the Liberal Democrats seriously – nothing new there: ‘you’ve given them what they want in the hope of winning another 20 seats’. Worse, ‘you’re hoping to go into coalition with them after the election’ – which of course assumes, again, that Labour won’t do very well.

There were sound reasons for the Liberal Democrat change of approach. We had given up waiting for Labour policy to ‘evolve’: a few more months, and the UK would have left the EU before the Labour Party had reached a conclusion. We had concluded that the Commons would not provide a majority for a People’s Vote, and that Labour might well accept the Withdrawal Bill, marginally amended, by Christmas.

Conservative rebels were shrinking back to their party, Labour Leavers were sticking to their support for the government; so the parliamentary numbers did not add up. The choice was therefore between an early election and drifting to another cliff edge on January 31st, with EU governments increasingly reluctant to accept any further extension. Reports from Paris and Brussels show that the letter to the PM from the Liberal Democrats and the SNP proposing an election helped to persuade the most reluctant EU governments to agree to a three-month extension this time, rather than an ultimatum and a short deadline. The crisis within the People’s Vote was not a surprise; many of us who had been to meeting of ‘Remain Alliance’ organizations had long been frustrated at the tensions between those who wanted to avoid embarrassing the divided Labour Party and those of us who wanted a clear strategy and message.

It’s easy to get angry with tribal Labour activists, who treat Liberal Democrats as trespassers on their territory and assume that they are the only legitimate alternative to the Conservatives. Even easier to be angry when Labour explodes at proposals for tactical voting which do not suggest that Labour should be the preferred choice in the cast majority of seats. Labour is entrenched in the two-party system, and opposed to any attempts to weaken it. But they are not our main opponents in this campaign.

I’ve heard a succession of Labour parliamentarians telling me (in whispered tones) that the Conservatives will win. How well we Liberal Democrats will do is likely to make the crucial difference to whether that turns out to be the case or not. And we may well take seats off Labour, as well. If the outcome is a multi-party Parliament, Labour will be at least as difficult a potential partner as the Conservatives were in 2010. Remember, Labour then nominated a negotiating team which included a member deeply antagonistic to any cooperation with Liberal Democrats. I’ve fought Labour in Huddersfield, Manchester and Bradford; I know how tribal and authoritarian some of their leading members can be.

Yet there are many decent people within the Labour Party – on the back-benches and on local authorities, not yet driven out by Momentum and the socialist left. Many of the decent people within the Conservatives are leaving politics, in despair at the rightward drift of their leadership and membership. We want to win such reasonable people over, from both parties. So I have bitten my tongue, and not responded in kind to the often patronising, even insulting, remarks about the Liberal Democrats that Labour parliamentarians have been making to me. They are in deep trouble, despairing of their leader and their chances of power – and they see us as offering ‘their’ voters an appealing alternative. So we should hold our tempers, and focus on winning those voters over.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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24 Comments

  • John Marriott 1st Nov '19 - 9:05am

    An interesting analysis from Lord Wallace. As a councillor, I always found Labour hard to deal with. They tend to see all parties other than the Tories as an irrelevance. As for the contest ahead, I think I’m going to wait a while before making any predictions. I just wonder how Trump’s intervention will affect the outcome.

    One thing I do agree about is that calling for and agreeing to this GE is in many ways a cop out. We could end up with another hung parliament and then have wasted a couple of months we could have spent trying to sort out Brexit or indeed trying to set up a GNU.

  • Katharine Pindar 1st Nov '19 - 9:41am

    While as ever agreeing with most of William’s exposition, I feel we should be straight-forward about the difficult choices we have just faced. There is some ambiguity in the idea that we might have been ‘drifting to another cliff edge on January 31’, when it is followed by, ‘the letter to the Prime Minister from the Liberal Democrats and SNP proposing an election helped to persuade the most reluctant EU governments to agree to a three month extension this time’. Surely the fact is that the EU governments were always ready to grant the extension requested if good reasons for it were given, because they did not want to be influencing the British decision. And we may still be finding January 31 a deadline that we must ask to be extended further, if the desired outcome of another referendum is sought by the new government.

    Some of us thought that we Lib Dems should have demanded continuation of the debate on the Withdrawal Bill, in the hope that the referendum amendment could be passed. Our leaders decided as William writes that it could not be, so we must go for the General Election now, and that was a fair decision. But it was a difficult one. It was even more difficult for Labour, knowing they are well behind in the polls, when they need a Labour government which can bring in the referendum. Failing a Liberal Democrat majority government, for them to do so seems to be the only hope of getting the referendum, and with it the chance of finally defeating Brexit.

  • There are “decent” Labour people out there, sometimes even sensible Labour. There are also tribal, arrogant people. The arrogance can look remarkably similar at opposite ends of the Labour spectrum.
    However the penny which has not dropped with most voters is the fact that Labour are a Brexit party desperate for Remain votes. Or at least the Labour Leader and his closest allies are a Brexit component of the Labour Party.
    Local government by-elections are no guide to General Election voting percentages but these local polls can be quite good at reflecting trends. The most consistent message in these actual votes up and down the country for months has been quite clear. Labour are in dead trouble.

  • Wow, what a result at Bromsgrove yesterday. expected the Labour vote to fall and Cons gain the seat, but the former vote fell by 32%, they went from 1st to 4rth. Cons held with a similair percentage to 2017 and we up to a close third with an increase of almost 14%. The well known local Independant just finished ahead of us.
    32% gosh, Labour appear in very serious trouble despite all their ballyhoo.

  • @ Geoff Reid, “There are “decent” Labour people out there, sometimes even sensible Labour. There are also tribal, arrogant people. ”

    In my long experience of politics going back to the 1960’s, Geoff, I can say the same could be said of all political parties including the Liberal Democrats. Any party claiming a monopoly of virtuous people is heading for a fall….. and on many occasions in the past has done so. (Matthew 7.5).

  • Barry Lofty 1st Nov '19 - 10:36am

    Thank you Lord Wallace for explaining to me the reasoning behind the call for a GE next month. Although it is risky strategy I sincerely hope that the result is a positive one for our party and the country! Although I would have preferred to make the Tories defend their flawed withdrawal bill in the Commons I can now understand, a little more, the Lib Dems decision, at my age I don’t think I could stand another let down, hears hoping!!!

  • “Remember, Labour then nominated a negotiating team which included a member deeply antagonistic to any cooperation with Liberal Democrats. ”

    To be fair the Lib Dems did that when negotiating a coalition agreement with Labour in the Scottish Parliament after 1999.

    Having someone like that on your negotiating team was a common suggestion from ALDC.

    Notable that in the election after 1999 the LIb Dems increased vote share and seats. As opposed to the election after 2010….

  • Agreed. There was the likely chance, that the 19 Labour ‘rebels’, who voted with the Conservatives to accept Johnson’s deal (but weren’t for some reason disciplined in any way for voting against a three line whip, they weren’t even reproved by the whips or anything) would have helped the government to get the deal through the parliament before Labour was ready to accept the referendum.

    Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised, if that was Corbyn’s plan. It is not secret, that he would like to see UK outside of EU, and it would suit him that the Conservatives would get the Brexit done, so that he could blame them of the following chaos in the post-Brexit general election. That’s why he has been soft to the Labour ‘rebels’. But now the Lib Dems have messed Corbyn’s plans. No wonder Labour is angry.

  • David Allen 1st Nov '19 - 12:06pm

    William Wallace makes the best of a difficult case. Much of what he says is highly rational and well-argued. He hits some easy targets with his accusations about Labour indecisiveness and tribalism. He over-reaches a little with his bold claim that, when Macron backed down on the length of the extension, it was because of what two smaller UK political parties put into a letter, and not because Merkel, Tusk and Juncker reminded him that the unity of 27 EU nations was at stake!

    There is always some sort of case to be made for trying another roll of the dice, even though a Johnson hegemony or a newly hung and hamstrung parliament seem the only likely outcomes. The problem is Brexit, which threatens to do lasting damage to the UK. I am reminded of the claim by Spanish historians that the Spanish Armada had such disastrous consequences that Spain took 300 years to recover from it. This election makes a harder Brexit more likely, and our escape from it less likely.

    Yes, Labour are exasperating. But if Brexit is to be stopped, it can only be done with Labour’s co-operation. The speed of a wartime convoy is governed by the slowest ship, and even if that ship is a dirty old rustbucket, its captain has power. If the Lib Dems cannot work with Labour, then the convoy is broken, and the Johnson U-boats can circle around and pick off their divided opponents separately.

  • Isn’t Labour broke at present? Due to losing £200K members or something…

  • John, in my opinion a GNU following a successful no confidence vote would have come across as puzzling and weird to the general public. Boris being kicked out of No.10 to be replaced by say Ken Clark or even worse Jeremy Corbyn without and election would have resulted in many moderate voters feeling sympathy for Boris (and the Tory press would have milked it). I feel that the Lib Dems have dodged a bullet by not instigating a GNU.

  • Arnold Kiel 1st Nov '19 - 5:07pm

    I find Jo Swinson’s phrase quite clever: “Johnson and Corbyn aren’t fit to be PM.” It sounds like unreserved rejection and is undoubtedly true. Very few people are: May and Cameron weren’t either. Brown, Blair, Major and Thatcher were.

    Once the votes are in and the LibDems have influence, she will still have to make a choice between two unfit options. So what? Nothing new.

  • As someone who isn’t tribal and has voted both Lib Dem and Labour in the past and is persuadable now. Can we conduct a little thought experiment:

    After the election the Lib Dems have won let’s say 60-70 seats, for the sake of argument. And as a result hold the balance of power. The Lib Dem leadership have ruled out any cooperation with Johnson or Corbyn. So, with the need for someone to form a govt, your idea is to force the country back to polls in the hope the Lib Dems will be rewarded(?) for that lack of willingness to cooperate?

    Be interested to know if Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidates on board with this strategy?

  • William Wallace 1st Nov '19 - 5:57pm

    Thanks for comments. Yes, there have been hard choices to make, and the Labour leadership’s indecision and ambiguity have made the choices harder. And there IS strong evidence that the French government – but not only them – were losing patience with the British ‘problem’ clogging up EU meetings when there are other urgent issues to discuss. Corbyn’s determined indecisiondesperately frustrates many Labour members. We have to strike a careful balance in this campaign between explaining how the disaster of Brexit would damage our economy and society, and talking about the domestic issues which have been neglected while` Brexit has dominated British politics.

  • William Wallace 1st Nov '19 - 5:59pm

    Thanks for comments. Yes, there have been hard choices to make, and the Labour leadership’s indecision and ambiguity have made the choices harder. And there IS strong evidence that the French government – but not only them – were losing patience with the British ‘problem’ clogging up EU meetings when there are other urgent issues to discuss. Corbyn’s determined indecisiondesperately frustrates many Labour members.

  • David Raw
    Notions of a monopoly of virtue would be quite inappropriate. I was only talking about the Labour Party. I have had plenty of experience of very dodgy people inside the Liberals/Liberal Democrats, sometimes very close to home, yes on both sides of the Pennines!

  • As a party that promotes stopping Brexit as its highest priority , Corbyn should ,quite frankly, be irrelevant to the decision as to whether the Lib Dems along with the SNP, PC and Green(s) support another referendum with a remain option by any means necessary. If immediately after said referendum, made possible with Lib Dem support, the Lib Dems pull that support, Corbyn will probably have to step down anyway. But at least get the referendum first, if available. Lib Dem remain supporters will expect nothing less.

    As the third or fourth largest party the public will view the onus as being on the Lib Dems to compromise. That’s just the reality. I can’t even comprehend why the Lib Dems wouldn’t offer strictly time limited c&S support to any party or parties with the sole aim of achieving that shared objective. It’s a million miles from being in coalition.

  • Mick Taylor 1st Nov '19 - 9:01pm

    Sorry Andy. The evidence from across Europe is that the smaller party in any parliamentary deal gets blamed for everything it does and loses seats, whether they are in the government or offering C+S. Under our FPTP voting system that leads to catastrophic seat losses as happened to us in 2015.
    There can be no compromise on Brexit. We are against it and will almost certainly become the party of rejoin if it actually happens.
    If there is a hung parliament, the arithmetic will decide what is possible or not. If we do indeed win a lot of seats, then we may have a critical role, but others will need to support a referendum or revoke, it’s not just up to us.

  • It needn’t even be as involved as C&S in the normal sense.

    It could be strictly limited time arrangement, to provide time for the legislation for another referendum with a remain option to be agreed and expedited.

    That in no way does that amount to an endorsement of Corbyn. In fact the Lib Dems could make that point explicit.

    The Lib Dems have undoubtedly picked up some of Labour’s ‘remain’ support from 2017. The Tories are back near 40%. You aren’t getting Tory support, it’s come from Labour , hence why Labour aren’t in the mid 30s.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Nov '19 - 9:58am

    @Andy: Labour Remain voters are moving to us principally because of Corbyn, so would not be happy with us helping him into No. 10. But your analysis is simplistic because it is based on the “voting block” fallacy, which seeks to explain swings between two parties in terms of groups of voters moving one way en bloc. That’s not what is happening: Lib Dems appear to be picking up some support from moderate Tories, while Tories are benefiting from pro-Brexit traditional Labour voters.
    In any case, regardless of where the increased Lib Dem vote is coming from, most of our target seats are Tory-held, and most of our defences (actually I think all outside Scotland) are Tory-facing. We lost Richmond Park by 45 votes 2½ years ago, and one reason is that some people who voted for us in the by-election reverted to the Tories for fear of Jeremy Corbyn as PM. It’s where I live, and the Tories are using the same line again, that to keep Corbyn out you have to vote Tory. We need those moderate Tory votes to win our Tory-held targets, so any perception that we are Corbyn-enablers would be absolutely toxic for us. And, of course, we can forget all about getting Luciana into F&GG.

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Nov '19 - 1:53pm

    If we could add to our core message an undertaking to overhaul our antiquated systems, we might be more likely to bring over those soft Labour and Conservative voters who are dismayed by the chaos that has followed the 2016 referendum, regardless of how they voted.

  • Mick Taylor 2nd Nov '19 - 5:48pm

    FPTP is a lousy system that does usually work against us. However, in this election it might possibly work in our favour. It appears that most seats will have four serious candidates. Labour, Tory, Brexit and the Lib Dems. This means that it is possible to win a seat with just over 25% of the vote. In Scotland it may be as little as 20%, with 5 candidates. [Both Russel Johnstone and Danny Alexander won seats with votes in the mid twenties of percent] There are now two pools of votes, Remain and Leave. In reality only the Lib Dems are in the remain pool, whilst the 3 other parties are in the leave pool. In those circumstances we may get enough remain votes to win a lot of seats in unexpected places, whilst the leave vote gets carved up.
    Our job in this election is to offer the electorate the prospect of ending Brexit AND of a new way ahead for our country. We really do have everything to play for.

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