Opinion: Dear Progress, come in and have a nose around

In the run up to the 1997 election, Tony Blair led Paddy Ashdown up the garden path with a promise of a progressive alliance between a modern reforming Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Well, ‘fool us once’ and all that.

15 years later the Liberal Democrats remain a broad church. Orange Bookers, social democrats, Coalition supporters, Coalition sceptics, whatever Evan Harris is – there’s room for all of us.

Labour on the other hand are turning in on themselves. A confused party with a weak leader and rampant trade unions holding the purse strings and becoming ever bolder in their demands.

Unite wants to stand candidates and take over the party from the bottom up. The GMB wants to kick members of the centrist campaign group Progress out of the party.

Call it a lurch to the left, call it turning the clocks back, call it retreating to the comforting embrace of easy opposition, call it what you like but if I were a Labour supporter, I’d be worried about what’s happening to my party.

But I’m not, so I’m not. Let them fight among themselves.

Today, Tim Farron invited Progress members to Lib Dem conference. And why not? They’re clearly not welcome at Labour’s.

Tim is often caricatured as a Lib Dem lefty. No doubt he is to the left of the Coalition (aren’t we all? It is a Coalition with the Conservatives after all), but listen to what he has to say for any meaningful amount of time and it is obvious that he is proud of a Liberal Democrat party that is unashamedly modern, progressive and reforming, open to ideas and willing to build bridges. And there’s not a minister on our benches who isn’t proud of the same things.

I imagine members of Progress wish they could describe their party the same way.

So, Progress, let’s talk. We promise not to mention Iraq if you promise not to mention the Tories.

You don’t have to join, that’s not the point. This isn’t one of your Ed Miliband-style ‘I want your voters’ appeals. You want a debate, we’re having one, come and join in. Challenge us, criticise us, agree with some of us and disagree with others.

You may find we have a lot in common and you may even enjoy our company more than you thought you would.

We won’t lead you up the garden path like Blair did to us, but Tim has left the gate open and you’re welcome to have a nose around and smell the roses. If you make it all the way to the door we may even let you in.

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14 Comments

  • Joshua Dixon 25th Jun '12 - 2:50pm

    Can’t help but think we’re kidding ourselves if we think many, if any, will engage in debate with us!

  • Thing is though, are Progress liberal enough to engage with the Liberal Democrats? A Blairite pressure group. Besides, Ed Miliband has already condemned the GMB for suggesting this. Every party has its factions and this GMB-Progress stuff seems to have been blown out of proportion by The Guardian amongst others.

  • Well, Compass have already engaged, changed their constitution so they are not an exclusive group etc – so there we are.

  • I recently watched some of the 1997 coverage. At one point Paddy popped up to outline the key features of the progressive agenda he hoped to push forward with Labour support. The three things he talked about were devolution, FOI, and a British Bill of Rights. Understandable rancour over Labour’s failure to go on and introduce voting reform seems to have obscured the fact that a lot of the Lib Dem agenda was delivered in the first term of the Labour govt even if Blair himself was lukewarm towards some of it and became openly hostile to it later on. To my mind the people who you should talk to in Labour are not the authoritarian Blairites but those that believed in and delivered on that progressive agenda.

  • paul barker 25th Jun '12 - 4:35pm

    I thought the letter was nicely judged, its very hard to get across that tribal barrier. This is all about putting ideas in labour heads now , for later.
    Right now most labour activists seem to be feeling comfortable – steady progress etc. In 2 years things may look very different.

  • David Jones 25th Jun '12 - 8:30pm

    I think this a very, very good move by Farron…..he has also said on twitter that he wants us to engage ‘liberal’ tories too. Which to me seems sensible. This is good politics and an good idea.

    This has be the best move from an MP in ages. Well done Tim!

  • Tony Greaves 25th Jun '12 - 10:02pm

    So the Liberal Democrats don’t need to believe in anything, just gather together anyone and everyone who might come along (if there is anyone left).

    As for Progress, they are dedicated to the preservation of New Labour. That’s what they are. Did we spend all those years fighting the shabby political sleaziness and “triangulation” of New Labour only now to invite them along with us?

    No thanks.

    Tony Greaves

  • @Geoffrey – If you read the letter (which is very, very carefully worded – I think because of exactly the comment you make) all he is asking is for them to come and talk….surely we should welcome discussions on issues we might agree on?

  • Elliot Bidgood 25th Jun '12 - 11:51pm

    As a Labour supporter & newly-joined member of Progress, just my two cents on something…

    “You don’t have to join, that’s not the point. This isn’t one of your Ed Miliband-style ‘I want your voters’ appeals. You want a debate, we’re having one, come and join in. Challenge us, criticise us, agree with some of us and disagree with others.”

    I understand that Lib Dems (probably correctly, tbh, alot of the time) view friendly-seeming Labour moves with suspicion, just as Labour activists are frequently tribalist towards Lib Dems. We’re competing progressive parties and our likely electorates and activist bases overlap somewhat, so tension is inevitable. But I’d ask that you not insult people’s intelligence by claiming “this isn’t one of your Ed Miliband-style ‘I want your voters’ appeals”, when it’s pretty clear that this is indeed an overt political maneuver to co-opt Progress supporters into the Lib Dems. There’s nothing wrong with trying it, but be honest about yours and Farron’s motivations, is all I’m saying.

  • Tony Dawson 26th Jun '12 - 8:45am

    Do not worry Mr Bidgood.

    James Percival may well want Blairites to join the Lib Dems. I thought we were already suffering for being temporarily joined at the hip (for the salvation of the nation) to Blairite Cameron and his ‘cutting crew’?

    Rather than get Blairites to join our party, many Lib Dems would rather stick red hot pokers (and that’s not the flowers) up their own noses. But talk, debate, that’s fine.

  • In terms of welcoming people from other parties, we should begin by assuming they have been convinced & changed their minds. We are all capable of change, I used to be a communist & I have travelled a lot farther than Blairites would need to.

  • Before defining what others believe in perhaps we might start nearer to home. I’ve supported Libs (LibDems) for more years than I care to remember and thought I knew. Now I don’t.

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