The Independent View: What now for any progressive alliance?

Rounding off our trio of post-election views from the other parties (see here and here), we have Compass’s Neal Lawson.

So what now for any progressive alliance? Let’s start with an honest assessment of the hole we are in. Labour is now as divided between pluralist and tribalists as it is between those who think the markets needs come before those of society and those who turned social democracy on it head under New Labour. Labour did OK in the North but badly in the South, it did OK in Wales and atrociously in Scotland. The Greens have extended their bridgehead into Brighton but its looks like a long haul. So what of the Liberal Democrats from the outside?

Let me start by saying I don’t think the Liberal Democrats had much option but to go into coalition with the Tories. As the hinge party you were dealt a hung parliament hand. Labour tribalist threw back their cards and you only had one party to play with. Leaving them as a minority risked a second election and a wipe out. I also understand that you needed a period where you could prove coalitions work. This has clearly been painful but you will be judged on in it over five years, not 12 months. Obviously things could have been handled better. The love-in was a big mistake and revealed the division between those Lib Dems who think the Coalition was and is a necessity and those Orange Bookers who believe in it for ideological reasons.

The AV referendum was also badly handled. The timing was terrible – not just on local election day but soon into government. Much of the ground work could not have been done in time to build up the case for change. The sight of Vince Cable and Chris Hunhe correctly saying that AV could be part of the architecture of future progressive alliance governments could not be squared with the reality of daily work alongside the likes of George Osborne in what many see as a regressive alliance.

And here the clarity will have to emerge over time. Does the bulk of the party want to stay an equidistant hinge or shift towards a preference for a centre-left alternative? And equally on the Labour side – does Labour believe in pluralism or single party rule as either feasible or desirable? Both have a long way to go – but go we must. Those who want it to happen in both parties are going to have to work at it.

It can start on banking reform – where we should be pushing the Vickers Commission to break up the retail and investment functions as the only way to stop another City-inspired disaster. Then of course there are the NHS reforms and plans for the Lords. All of this is ground for cooperation. Ed Miliband has the right intentions on all this but needs to operate in a less clunky way. Calls for defection don’t help.

Finally, we have to find a way of talking about coalition-style politics and the differences we have without trashing the principle of alliances and co-operation being a good thing. If you don’t win then you can’t implement your manifesto in full. Equally you have to be very careful what you cooperate on. On tuition fees it went horribly wrong.

Empathy, understanding and relation building are now key. Two big opportunities are coming up: the Social Liberal Forum conference on 18th June and then the Saturday after 25th June the Compass annual conference. Compass has taken the big step to open itself out to Liberal Democrats and others as a space for progressive politics to flourish. Please make use of that space.

Let’s share the pain, the challenges and find ways to ensure that right don’t dominate this century as they did the last.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • As long as the Liberal Democrats continue to blame Labour for the deficit and not the real culprits the bankers and the shadow banking system, I do not think that there is any possibility of a so called progressive alliance.

  • LondonLiberal 11th May '11 - 3:14pm

    If i had’t resigned my membership, neal, I might seek you out at the SL conference. well done for your post, which i wholly agree with. More of this please!

  • Sensible article. The problem with it is that although the LD/Labour/Green vote is 50-60% of the electorate, not all of this (given recent evidence I would guess at it being 32%) is the Denhams and the Lawsons, rather than the Reids and Blunketts. I fear it will take take a decade of Tory dominance before the Reids and Blunketts are on the back foot, especially within the PLP.

  • Let’s be brutally honest: the Labour Party doesn’t need us and they don’t want to govern with us. 1945-51; 1964-70; 1974-79; 1997-2010 – there was one very short space of time when they needed our support to be able to continue in government, but we were fobbed off with next to nothing. There is no reason to suppose that the next election will result in a balanced parliament: the outcome of elections under FPTP depends on huge numbers of chance factors, and a few thousand votes going in different directions would have meant that we would not have a Coalition now. Unless there were several elections in a row when Labour would be in a position to govern with our help, but not without, Labour’s attitude towards us is going to continue to be one of contempt.

  • Very encouraging and useful comments Neal – Labour will find it very difficult to return to office with an overall majority without AV. Those Labour politicians (generally tribalist) who opposed this admittedly far from ideal bit of electoral reform might regret this bitterly in four years or whenever. If the SNP deny Labour seats in Scotland and the boundaries are redrawn the tories could have a field day.

    However talks between all progressive elements such as Greens, Lib Dems and Labour would be very welcome to shoe in the day when a Left of Centre progressive coalition becomes a reality. The new Labour Leader seems less of a tribalist and might be more open to talking and working with other parties.

    Compass seems a great forum for Progressives to get together.

  • paul barker 11th May '11 - 6:37pm

    Mr Lawson, if all your saying is that people in Mainstream Democratic Parties should talk to one another, who in The Libdems is against that. If you are saying that Labour/Libdems/Greens are all Progressive/Left & therefore on the same side- then the answer has to be a big NO.

    The Left/Right spectrum is just one of the fundamental Axes of Politics; there are others just as important – Liberal/Authotritarian for example. On that Axis Labour are farther from The Libdems than The Tories.
    Compass seem like a reasonable bunch but they represent a very small strand of Labour opinion & one almost entirely restricted to Southern England.

  • The People’s Front of Judea!
    Let’s be honest. Not everyone criticising the coalition is a Labour Tribalists. A lot of Lib Dem tribalists are accusing their own electorate, the people who deserted them on Friday, the people they were elected to represent, of not understanding the Lib Dem cause and just being Labour Voters anyway. The point is you cannot have a viable political tribe if you alienate your own voters, Nick Clegg the tribes leader would have lost his own seat in a general election.
    The reason for this is because the centre left stubbornly refuse to gel, or respect their voters. New Labour were authoritarian because they looked down on the people who voted for them, stopped them from smoking in their own local, told them they were too fat, suspected they were all turning into Nazi because of a few Millwall supporters, and generally would have stuck stool measuring devices down the nations toilets if a lobby group had suggested it might lower cholesterol. Then they delivered year after year of centre right economic policies, that failed. The Lib Dems are even more Authoritarian because they don’t even seem to think their voters knew what they were voting for !, And guess what? They are helping a Conservative Government to deliver yet more right-wing economic policies after years of standing to the Left of New Labour,. It will fail. Really, we should all unite behind one, socially progressive, popular and successful political party. The SNP..


  • Old Codger Chris 11th May '11 - 10:56pm

    “Really, we should all unite behind one, socially progressive, popular and successful political party. The SNP.”

    When you say “all” I assume you’re being satirical. Or do the initials SNP also stand for the the Sasenach National Party?

  • Paul, I agree entirely that the left right or market society axis is just one. After AV the pluralist tribalist is just as important. Compass is pro society and pluralism. We have to persuade others in Labour of that approach. But its helps if we can do it with others in others parties – just as we can help them. Issue like electoral reform will only be won when they are won in Labour. All help needed and all help will be given. The first question for me is what I believe in, the second question is what party. There are Lib Dems I believe in more than I do in Labour. I think that is true the other way round.

  • Old Codger
    So now you have to be Scottish to be Scottish!

  • I’m bemused by the fact that some of the posters above reject the notion of working with Labour because they disagree with some of Labour’s policies in some areas. Yet they seem quite content about working in coalition with a Conservative Party that is promoting a policy agenda to the right of Thatcherism in many respects.

    For example, whatever you think of Labour, it is hard to think of them consulting on the possible abolition of all of our environment and countryside legislation (including the Climate Change Act) – yet that is what the coalition is presently doing!

  • Andrew Suffield 12th May '11 - 7:59am

    a policy agenda to the right of Thatcherism in many respects

    Oh, rubbish. You only have to listen to the Thatcherite wing of the Tory party to know that isn’t true. Listen to their screams of outrage, and feel satisfied.

  • The Job of the Lib Dems in this coalition is to deflect attention away from stupid conservative economic policies that have become truisms over the last 30 years. The Conservative Party, are undoubtedly trying to change and move away from thatcher ism, but they are still wedded to the central myths, which are that the state is too big, that the only thing blocking growth is too much legislation and that if you cut these things, the economy will bloom into life. They are also still quite nasty about the poor and disabled.
    The big problem for social-liberals is we’ve conceded too much ground on conservative free market economic ideas and instead of holding onto the logic of our argument, squabble amongst ourselves. There is no evidence that you can cut your way out of a recession or that just freeing the markets works.. Flat rate Tax doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover borrowing, VAT and other indirect taxation hits spending which in turn dampens the economy, overly freeing the markets simply sends work to the countries with the lowest payed workers and just generally the stuff we know, happens. happens. That’s what all the evidence suggests is happening. The Lib Dems do not have enough clout or common ground in this coalition. It’s a rent-a-majority deal ,not a meeting of minds.

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