What prospect for Lib Dem / Labour cooperation in the next Parliament?

The message from Labour-sympathising Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley in this morning’s paper is a stark one: “Labour is playing bad politics.” The reason?

The leadership campaign is turning into a tin-ear, foot-in-mouth competition about who can be nastiest to the Liberal Democrats. As candidates desperately try to prove themselves more true Labour, more tribal than the next guy, they are in danger of missing the big picture about our changing politics. They could end up wrecking their party’s position for the next generation, which is their own.

All political parties sometimes reach for their tribal comfort blanket, especially after a heavy election defeat. But briefly wrapping yourself in it to keep out the cold is one thing; permanently sleeping in it is quite another. The article continues:

The biggest tone change in politics has been the transition from the raw warfare of the latter days of New Labour towards the apparently collegiate and good-humoured attitude of the coalition. … the crucial thing is that the public seem to like the spirit of co-operation.

At the moment, Labour politicians and activists seem to feel their sense of outrage against the Lib Dems is shared by the wider public. If so, they’re meeting a very different set of voters from the ones I’m encountering. Labour MP Tom Harris summed up Opposition Labour’s petulant attitude when he tweeted his tit-for-tat response to Jackie Ashley’s article: “If Jackie Ashley wants us to admit mistakes, she should admit her paper made one in supporting LibDems at election.”

Tone matters. Ask Nick Bye, elected mayor of Torbay, who last year put himself forward to become the Tory parliamentary candidate for Torbay. As he himself recounted, his attack on the Lib Dems (“The biggest myth in British politics is that Liberal Democrats are such nice people”) went down a storm in the internal party meeting, but “in front of a wider audience, it fell as flat as a pancake.”

And the problem, as Ms Ashley notes later in her article, is that Labour’s tactics are driving a real wedge between Labour and the Lib Dems, despite the overlap in a number of areas of policy:

[The Lib Dems] have much more in common with Labour than with the Conservatives: indeed this is something they are already discovering for themselves. … Privately, this is something Labour politicians are cheerfully thinking about too. For the fact remains that on a range of issues from taxation to social mobility, from tuition fees to Trident, Lib Dem and Labour voters are usually coming from the same place.

I think this understates the areas of agreement there are currently with the Conservatives, most notably on restoring the civil liberties Labour casually tossed to one side, and stripping the quango state Labour constructed at huge public expense and cost to local democracy. For the moment at least, the Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives is a necessary corrective to 13 years of Labour rule.

As for the economy, the differences between the three parties are far slighter than Labour pretend: after all, Alistair Darling promised Labour’s cuts would be “deeper and tougher” than Mrs Thatcher’s, and was all set to increase VAT as well. None of the parties was entirely candid during the election campaign – Labour just happen to have the temporary advantage of dodging the need to be candid afterwards, either.

So, for now, the Coalition agreement between Lib Dems and Conservatives makes sense. But spool forward 3-4 years to the scenario of a British economy that’s growing healthily again, and a deficit that’s been greatly reduced. The parties are drawing up their respective plans for the next Parliament at the heart of which will be the question: do we cut the increased taxes of the last five years, or do we increase the cut spending of the last five years? It’s not hard to forsee Lib Dems and Conservatives finding themselves on opposite sides of the argument over that question.

At which point, there could well be an opportunity for the Lib Dems and Labour to move forward on those areas of public policy where they share common ground. Labour may well prefer to scorn such moves, and maintain their current default setting of betrayed anger. But it will be a real shame for the future of progressive politics if they choose to do so.

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  • If we ever went into a Coalition with Labour without an apology for Iraq, I’m out.

    I’m sure there are plenty of others who’d take a similar stance.

  • @Mike – I am myself finding the prospect hard to swallow, and that is before they even started piling on the bile after this election.

  • I think you are quite right to emphasise the difference between reactions among party activists / close supporters, and those among the wider public. Where I think the problem comes is on the economic front. 2 years ago, as the crunch fell, there was no doubt that the world’s governments and international institutions HAD to act to curb “casino capitalism” (a phrase used by St Vince extensively). Almost everyone paid (lip) service to this. When it comes to acting on that – taking on “the markets” etc, the Tories have slid expectedly off with their allies in the financial sector to oppose such moves. What happened in this country was unexpected generally, ie that the so-called economic liberal wing of our party took control, and has now seemingly given up on widescale economic reform. This in turn means that the same problems will return to haunt us – and in an increasingly resource-poor world this will create huge problems across the world.

    We probably had an opportunity to start to make things happen in this regard – Obama has clearly made encouraging noises, and it is just possible that the Milibands etc may be prepared to move to a more modern style of economics. And we , as an environmental party choose just this moment to suddenly become more wedded to the existing free market consensus. We should be asking the question “What comes after growth”, or ” How do we redefine growth?”

  • Agree that the Labour leadership needs to be more nuanced in its criticisms and less tribalistic. However, I think Lib Dems need to be realistic. Many in Labour do have philosophical issues with the coalition agenda. There is no getting around this. So an element of this future relationship, if it is to develop, will have friction.

  • Many in the Lib Dems have philosophical issues with the coalition policies – and as we see in comments above, would do also with a putative coalition with Labour!

  • The problem for the Lib Dems is that their (predominantly) left-leaning activists hate the Tories whereas most of their voters don’t. I suspect many Lib Dem activists were dreaming of a Lib-Lab coalition that would lock the Tories out for good – the sort of scenario envisaged by Polly Toynbee. Now those activists have to swallow a coalition with the enemy but can’t quite bring themselves to do so.

  • Tim “Many in the Lib Dems have philosophical issues with the coalition policies – and as we see in comments above, would do also with a putative coalition with Labour!”

    Indeed, that is the nature of compromise, it always involves swallowing things you would strongly prefer not to, had you the numbers to implement your entire agenda by yourself.

  • I don’t think Labour’sattack is based on a betrayal of them, more that we have either ‘sold our principles’ or ‘betrayed our voters’. The other main argument put to me is that we are assisting ideologically driven policies on the economy, education and health. I find that hard to refute.

    I am not sure I am too worried about how we might work with Labour. I am more worried about staying strong enough as an organisation in my area for that to be an option. Whilst, after an initial few, we do not seem to be losing members, locally we are being received differently by voters. This is a working class constituency where there is real fear about cuts and employment. Civil liberties and ID cards were never issues amongst most voters here; hardly ever mentioned on the doorstep in the election. Ask most voters here about CCTV and they will ask for more not less. Ask about electoral reform here and you will find a majority don’t have strong views. Many of our supposed gains from the Coalition just do not register with more than a small minority. What they see is a cancelled school, reduced hours in the Sure Start centre and they worry about their own jobs, private and public.

    Let’s think less about Labour and more about Coalition policies. Should we be looking to act as a brake on Conservative policy not simply allowing through major changes at variance with our long held policies – e.g. academies in return for some of our smaller scale policies?

  • @AlexKN

    Really interesting points. Much to think about.

  • If, after the next Election, we are in the position of being able to choose coalition partners then who we do the deal with should depend only on who makes us the best offer, including the most of our policies & dropping the worst of theirs.
    That is, if Labour survives in much the same shape & size as now ( I dont believe it will). If we come 3rd in the vote share, if the result allows us to form a coalition with either Tories or Labour…
    Thats a lot of ifs, I am not sure theres any point discussing this now, things will be a lot clearer by 2013, lets leave it till then.

  • Paul Barker – Hear, hear!

  • david thorpe 23rd Aug '10 - 11:34am

    on the pre-election chancellors debate all three prospective chancellors said their cuts would be deeper than thatchers.
    Its irrelevant if the labour voter and lib dem voter are closeron issues such as trident, the labour party arent any closer. If labour voters agree with us on trident then vote for us.

  • To answer your question, very high, I would have thought.

    But certain conditions would have to apply. One of which, is the removal of Glegg as LibDem leader. Another condition is that the LibDems continue to exist. This I believe is the greatest obstacle.

    The problem is that too many of the commentariat inhabit the same bubbles as so many of our politicians. This talk of ‘our changing politics’ is a classic example. It gives them a topic to discuss ad nauseum, their favourite type of topic, without having to substantiate their arguments. And no, this isn’t a ‘shoot the messenger attack.

    Ashley talks about the tonal change in politics. Just ask yourself, how many times have you ever heard the ‘ordinary’ man or women in the street discussing tonal change? Assessing whether or not people like to see cooperation, is akin to assessing whether or not people like motherhood and apple pie.

    For you to say that “….they’re meeting a very different set of voters from the ones I’m encountering.”, is a facile argument.

    Another major obstacle to increased cooperation, are opinions, and statements such as;

    For the moment at least, the Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives is a necessary corrective to 13 years of Labour rule.

    ….stripping the quango state Labour constructed at huge public expense and cost to local democracy

    You don’t think these come across as tribal? Statements like these make people think that the LibDems are much closer to Tory ideology than they are to Social Democratic ideology.

    Statements like these make people believe that you do not recognize the Labour policies that did work. And that for purely ideological reasons, you are prepared to throw the baby out with the bath water. This would be expected of the conservatives, but not a social democratic Liberal party.

    Statements like these would lead one to question whether, your assertion that It’s not hard to foresee LibDems and Conservatives finding themselves on opposite sides of the argument, may not be the real case, after all.

  • David Evans 23rd Aug '10 - 1:39pm

    The simple fact is that Labour’s strategy is to smear us as “The nasty party’s little helpers”.

    They hope that this will make many of those unaligned people who voted for us over the last few elections turn to them as “the only party that stands for fairness”. The tough decisions that the Coalition has to make will give them ample ammunition unless we counter it much more forcefully than we are at present.

    It will continue right through to the next election and beyond. Anyone foolish enough to believe it is temporary misunderstands how instinctively nasty the Labour machine really is and will be proved sadly mistaken, even Guardian columnists.

  • @ Stephen Tall
    “most notably on restoring the civil liberties Labour casually tossed to one side”

    Those civil liberties were tossed to one side to protect the populace from suicide bombers. When those civil liberties are restored people will be far less safe. Just like those parents and children will be in those areas where speed cameras are being removed because some members of the middle classes have an aversion to obeying rules and methods which protect the majority. The Orange Tories pride themselves on being the party of freedom. Well, there is also the paradox of freedom, which is that complete freedom allows the strongest and toughest to move into the ascendency and destroy the freedom of everyone.

  • Mike(the Labour one) 23rd Aug '10 - 4:26pm

    So this is what the Lib Dems want:

    -To enable and support the damaging right-wing policies we are seeing from this government, patting themselves on the back for finally proving that they aren’t just a marijuana-friendly version of the Labour party by screwing the most vulnerable at every turn.
    -Labour isn’t allowed to object to whatever the Libs want to do because
    a) Labour in office wasn’t perfect
    b) No one could possibly ever disagree with what the Lib Dems are doing, therefore all criticism is out of tribalism.
    -The second the government gets unpopular Labour are supposed to keep the Libs in government and anyone who doesn’t want to do that is tribalist.

    No thanks, stick with the Tories.

    As for civil liberties, it’s a joke to get fussed over databases when your party has consistently supported attacking trade unionism and your government is treating people who recieve benefits like the enemy within.

    “If thou consent to freedom for the rich in the City and givest freedom to the freeholders in the country, and to priests and lawyers and lords of manors… and yet allowest the poor no freedom, thou art a declared hypocrite.”

  • Mike(the Labour one) 23rd Aug '10 - 4:45pm

    “If anything, social mobility declined under Blair/Brown.”

    Nonsense-http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/cleggs-social-mobility-claim – it hasn’t declined, it has remained stagnant, which is a step up from its rapid decline the last time we had a Tory government and will be seen as a miracle when compared to effects of this government.

    New Labour’s “Thatcherism with a human face” failed, sure. Doesn’t mean you lot are right to throw away the human face part of that equation in favour of the Thatcherism.

  • MacK wrote:

    “which is that complete freedom allows the strongest and toughest to move into the ascendency and destroy the freedom of everyone.”

    That is exactly the approach you advocate with respect to international relations. On this very site you have argued that the international rule of law should be dispensed with and that the United States of America should be allowed to dictate to the rest of the planet. Moreover, you have – on this site – smeared opponents of the Iraq war as appeasers and anti-Semites.

    It is in the light of your professed fundamentalist neoconservative opinions that I am disinclined to listen to anything that you write here.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Aug '10 - 8:54pm

    At the moment, Labour politicians and activists seem to feel their sense of outrage against the Lib Dems is shared by the wider public.

    Or rather, they want to pin all the blame for anything that is coming out of the coalition they think people won’t like on the LibDems. Unfortunately, that’s politics – we’re vulnerable and it’s a vulnerability they want to exploit. They want to destroy us in particular so they can get back to the days when there were only two parties in politics. They know our voters are more likely to be unhappy with the coalition’s policies than Tory voters – obviously because the Tories are the bigger party and so the coalition’s policies are going to be more Tory than LibDem on the whole. So if they successfully get people to believe all the coalition’s polices are all down to us, they know it will win them votes that used to be ours.

    The reality is that we can only work with what the electorate gave us, and that was a Parliament where the Conservatives had many more MPs than Labour, and we didn’t have enough to add to Labour’s to get a majority. It’s a little thing called “democracy” that you accept what the people voted for, even if you don’t like it. Since Labour supports the idea of a twisted electoral system on the grounds it makes only two parties – theirs and the Tories – really viable, why are they moaning that we have a Tory government? If they had their way, and the Liberal Democrats were extinct, we’d have one anyway as the Tories have more MPs. The situation where the Tories were biggest but lacked a majority enabled us to get a little influence, but not much – all we can do is smooth the edges of the Tory government. I personally think our party would be doing better in the polls if it could be more honest about that.

    In 2010 we discovered there isn’t always a choice over who to go into coalition with, so who’s to say the same will not apply after the next general election? If it’s turned around so that a Labour-LibDem coalition would have a majority but a Conservative-LibDem one would not, we’d be forced to go with Labour as we were forced to go with the Tories this time. Otherwise, if either really were viable in terms of numbers, a lot would depend on which was most willing to form a coalition.

    Richard says “I suspect many Lib Dem activists were dreaming of a Lib-Lab coalition that would lock the Tories out for good”, but that is a typical comment from someone who does not understand the Liberal Democrats. It is a core of our belief that we support political pluralism, we want to see more choice, not less. I don’t know of any Liberal Democrat activist who would want to see a permanent Lib-Lab coalition. As someone who is very much on the left of the party, and who would certainly prefer a coalition with Labour if that were viable, I most certainly would not want such a coalition to be permanent. If I thought like that, I would have just joined Labour in the first place, it would have given me an easier life, maybe a nice comfy safe seat as a councillor or even MP where I wouldn’t have to work hard because the votes come rolling in from people who “always vote Labour”.

  • @Matthew H
    I think it is correct that few, if any of us, saw a Lib Dem – Labour arrangement as a sole option. However I wonder how many saw a Coalition with the Conservatives on the current basis? I suspect many saw a more limited arrangement where we restricted the larger party to more consensual policies. The approach of Clegg and others in the leadership not only to allow but act as cheerleaders for some of the Tories more radical policies is the worry and I believe a mistake. The Coalition could have taken a steadier, more careful approach based on consensus. This would have avoided some of the more contentious issues like academies, major NHS re-organisation and probably taken a more measured approach to the deficit. I would suggest we would have been seen as responsible partners acting as a brake on the more extreme policies and we could avoid some of the seemingly rash decisions and some of the gaffes. I‘d bet we would be doing rather better in the polls as a party and as a Coalition. Labour’s point of attack would have been blunted.

    My concern is that Clegg’s approach has been to bind us to the Tories making us the natural partner for them but in the process making it much less likely we could govern successfully with Labour for many years. Equidistance will not be an option at the next election.

  • Nice juicy article.
    I’m with Mike on Iraq, and Labour’s deep need to apologise to the nation,and the army.

  • @ Gareth Jones.
    “So would you rather be safe in a totalitarian state? . . . .I for one would certainly prefer liberty than have a central Labour state “keeping me safe.”

    What nonsense! A typical Orange Tory over reaction to a few sensible policies which protected the populace. Labour cannot create a totalitarian state in this country. We are a democracy and have general elections: which is why the Orange and Blue Tories are making such a mess of things at the moment by rolling back the measures which would have continued to protect us from diverse threats. Like millions of others I I just want to be sure that my Government is keeping me safe. Incidentally, the Liberals weren’t always the party of civil liberties: in 1917 Lloyd George refused British Socialists permission to attend the Stockholm Peace Conference. I don’t reall Labour refusing people permission to attend conferences. That’s what I call Totalitarian!

  • @ Sesenco

    And there was I thinking that all I was arguing for was the retention of speed cameras, I.D. Cards, ASBOS, and a few sensible measures to protect us from suicide bombers!

    @ John Oakes
    As an apology for the inavsion Iraq is obviously so important I would have expected those Orange Tories clamouring for one would have made it a sine qua non for forming their coalition with the Blue Tories. Why should it be a condition for a coalition with Labour and not for a coalition with the Blue Tories? Another reason why you are wasting your time if you expect Labour to keep you in your ministerial offices after the next election.

  • Mike (the Labour one 24th Aug '10 - 12:55pm

    And it was never the Labour party that wanted the vote restricted to white males of property either.

  • @Sesenco

    Unlike Saddam Hussein I do not think that the international rules of law should be lightly dispensed with; but surely no-one would argue that Hitler’s invasion of Poland should have gone unpunished simply to have propped up an ineffective League of Nations? That was the situation with regard to Saddam Hussein and the vested interests in the United Nations. Neither do I believe that America or anyone should be allowed to dictate to the rest of the planet. Certainly not! Anyway. there is no need for them to do so, international financial interests are doing that quite nicely, viz , the Orange and Blue Tories’ abject capitulation to those who threaten to pull the plug on Britain’s debt.
    I do stand by my comments that apart from some notable exceptions (c.f. Paddy Ashdown’s determination to intervene in the Balkans) the Lib Dems’ natural inclination is to appease, (which is why the Blue Tories are walking all over you) and the Lib Dems’ behaviour over the invasion of Iraq should make anyone think twice before entrusting them with the defence of this country. Finally, it would be tedious to trawl back through my posts on this site but I am certain that I have never accused the Lib Dems of being anti-semitic, nor would I. I did say once, I believe, that the Lib Dems would support any interest as long as it wasn’t America’s or Israel’s but that, even you must agree, is another thing entirely.
    I suggest that you visit Michael Gove’s Wikepedia entry and read his alleged comments on the invasion of Iraq which he is reported as describing as a British foreign policy success and generally suggests that it was greatly in the interests of the Iraqi people. Then perhaps you could try explaining to me why an apology is a sine qua non for a coalition with Labour but wasn’t when it came to negotiating with the Blue Tories who were far more fulsome in their support for the war than many Labour MPs at the time?

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Aug '10 - 5:36pm


    However I wonder how many saw a Coalition with the Conservatives on the current basis? I suspect many saw a more limited arrangement where we restricted the larger party to more consensual policies

    Yes, but it was obvious that the uncertainty about government this would lead to would have caused a big finance market collapse, and we’d be blamed for it. It was also obvious that the Tories wouldn’t be happy to stick with that for long, so they’d call another general election saying “Give us a majority, so we can govern”, as Harold Wilson did in 1974.

    I suspect also, that Labour would delight in tabling no-confidence motions which would force us to vote for Tory policies. If it was “supply and confidence”, remember what “supply” means – we’d have to vote for the Tory budget, so we’d still get all the blame for the cuts.

    If we’d ended the election campaign going up, maybe we could have got away with it, as we could be confident we’d improve in another general election. But we ended it on a down, didn’t we?

  • Leekliberal 24th Aug '10 - 6:04pm

    jayu says about any f’uture Labour/Lib Dem coalition – ‘But certain conditions would have to apply. One of which, is the removal of Clegg as LibDem leader’ My message to this arrogant Labour troll is ‘ If you think you can dictate to Lib Dems, who select their Leader by on person one vote PR, who shall lead them, then our reply will be ‘forget it’ Any Labour member thinking of voting for Ed Milliband, who has espoused that view, needs to be clear unless Labour win an absoloute majority they will NOT be in Government unless they make an embarassing climbdown on this issue!

  • In our family, MacK, it is a given that we did not use Iraq against the Tories anything like enough. In an analogous way, Lib Dems here are not picking up the suggestion that moral pressure should have been put by us on Tories and Labour to work together (if we accept that we are in a “crisis” – which I don’t – that strengthens the argument). This is history now, although I still think it could happen in extreme circumstances, but would involve Tories recanting on their “speedy deficit reduction mantra, and therefore their “Blame Labour for everything” attitude.

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