Realignment of the left – an idea whose time has come?

Paddy Ashdown and Tim Farron have both suggested in recent days that those on the progressive side of politics need to work together to oppose the Tories and deliver change.

Of course, a defining part of Paddy’s leadership of the party was his desire to see closer co-operation on the left.

The Tories need to be beaten, now more than ever, even more than in the 1980s. Their destruction of the country then almost pales into insignificance to the damage they have done with their self-indulgent EU related civil war. How do we achieve it, though, while retaining the integrity of individual parties, most particularly this one? The last thing I want to see is the Liberal Democrats being the smile on the face of the right-wing Labour tiger.

It’s vital that we have a party that stands up for civil liberties and individual freedom in a way that neither Conservatives or Labour have managed.

Politics Home reported an interview with Tim Farron with BBC News in which he talked about the need to work together across party lines:

Asked about the prospect of a merger that would mirror the deal between the SDP and Liberal party that formed the Liberal Democrats, Mr Farron suggested the referendum campaign had led to a reconsideration of the party divides.

“Amongst the things that I think we’ve got out of the referendum is that we’ve discovered, lots of us, who have worked across party boundaries, that we’ve enjoyed doing so,” he told BBC News.

“I shared a platform with many people I won’t embarrass by naming, who they discovered and they discovered we had more in common than just our belief that Britain should be in the European Union.”

When pressed on whether he was open to the idea of a new party, he replied: “We shouldn’t put any construct or constraint on what might happen next. People could come to us, they could set up another party, who knows. But there needs to be a realignment – otherwise we’ll be left with a Tory government forever.”

In today’s Sunday Times (£), Paddy Ashdown has floated the idea of a progressive movement, talking about how political parties have failed the public:

The political party and the political movement have become separated. We need to bring them back together again by widening access and lowering the cost of engagement. One model is the Five Star movement in Italy (but not its politics): internet-based, low membership fee, much more direct democracy. There are dangers here, not least of entryism and takeovers. But are they really less than the dangers of the organisational collapse of political parties that have become little more than clubs for the few, instead of voices for the many?

And while we are on the subject of new technologies, is there anything more ridiculous than modern men and women doing their tax returns online, managing their bank accounts online and arranging to see their doctor online, but having to struggle through the wind and rain to a damp church hall to cast their votes with a stubby pencil by scratching a cross on a scrap of paper?

I am not suggesting that all political parties follow the Five Star model, and I am not suggesting forming one either. We’ll have to make do with what we have for the moment. But what about creating a space where those from any party and anyone who holds modern progressive views — those epitomised by Jo Cox — can gather to find the means to defend what is decent and call for something better than the politics of extremism and xenophobia? It would only be a start. But with a general election perhaps soon, who knows where a start could lead . . .

We would have to put aside the instinct in troubled times to seek refuge in the bosom of our own tribes. But is that such a price to pay when, in the words of Jo Cox, there is so much more that unites us than divides us?

Neither Paddy nor Tim specify exactly how all this should work. They can’t really, given that the details have to come through joint working with others. Given the nature of our electoral system, do we need some sort of SDP/Liberal Alliance arrangement where Tories face one progressive opponent at least in some seats? How would you even do that bearing in mind how tough the scraps were between just two parties in the 1980s?

Can we find enough common ground between progressive Labour, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality Party and Green across England and Wales? Scottish politics are different, with the SNP having more than their fair share of Westminster seats and there being only one Tory.

The most important thing though is to define the principles under which we work together. Where is the common ground? Pro EU membership, reducing inequality, constitutional reform should provide enough fertile territory for a set of shared aims to work towards.

These are all pretty much in the DNA of the Liberal Democrats so it makes sense for us to be part of it and in fact lead the drive for a consensus. Those thousands of members how have joined us in the wake of the EU referendum are only a small proportion of those who share our values. We should redouble our efforts to reach out to that liberal part of the 48% as well as working with others across party lines.

What do you think?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I don’t really see any mention of economics. Elites seem to think we are in an era of culture wars. The reality is that these battles are breaking out because of economic forces. A lack of security, good opportunities and chance to better oneself. Focusing on inequality is fine but it’s also fairly obvious – whisper it, there’s even some Tories who take it seriously. A lot will depend on what the new Tory government looks like. My guess is May might try and be more ‘one nation’ (perhaps genuinely rather than just Cameroon blandishments) and Leadsom would be more the heir to Thatcher. I fear for the political unity of the UK if it’s the latter – including within England.

  • Roger Heape 3rd Jul '16 - 2:29pm

    At the very least it makes sense to have an electoral pact with the Greens where each party stands down in seats where the other party is the main challenger to the Tories.
    In case we have forgotten ,in last years GE the combined votes of LD, Green and UKIP added up to 24.6 % of votes and delivered 1.6% of the seats.If the Greens had stood down in the seats we held, then adding, to keep it simple, the Green vote to ours would have meant we would have held Eastbourne, Lewes ,Twickenham,St Ives, Bath and Bristol West. The Tory majority of 12 seats would have been wiped out (possibly no referendum no brexit!)
    So yes lets at least sit down with the Greens and who knows a breakaway centre left Labour part and work out the smart way of of beating the FPTP system!

  • paul barker 3rd Jul '16 - 2:41pm

    The ball is very much in The PLPs court, we can only make encouraging noises from the stands.
    Realignement can only begin if Labour MPs abandon Labour & either defect to us or form a New Party, that still seems a long way off at the moment. If we have a New Party then we would have to start negotiations for a New Alliance right away, we could be facing an Election in October. Staying in/Rejoining The EU would have to be a red line for us.
    We could invite The Greens as well & The Womens Equality Party but all this depends on Labour MPs facing reality soon.

  • @Simon Shaw: I think, from the context, what Caron means is “political groupings to the left of the Conservatives” — or rather, whatever beast the Tories seem set to transform into. That might even include some Conservatives who find being a paler-purple version of UKIP unpalatable.

  • All I can say, is what again. As one who remembers all this under Jo Grimmond in 1962/3, David Steel 1980 to 1983, as a Liberal campaigning in the Crosby by election, agonising through the long negotiations over the Liberal/SDP merger and being a Trade Unionist almost all of my working life, may I say the time always seems to be coming but it does not and in my view will never actually materialise.
    I well remember in Wigan standing against Labour in 1983 and during canvassing meeting Labour workers and members. They said the SDP were “traitors”, they had no problem with the Liberal Alliance as we were a independant party with history and principles, but them they are just traitors”. One voted for me on a personal basis. I guess it would be no different now. Remember how it all fizzled out and the disaster of the 1989 Euro elections.
    I advise we keep our counsel and paddle our own canoe, shut up and see how things turn out. I suspect the Labour right and centre will get back control as in 1935 and the 1980’s. Tribal loyalty really does matter.
    We are doing the right thing, we have found a cause, lets harness that to its maximum so that we are fully indentified as leading it. There is every prospect of the country eventually staying in the EU.

  • paul barker 3rd Jul '16 - 4:30pm

    Centre-Left/Social Liberal/Progressive they are all fuzzy. Different people use the same words to mean different things & different words to mean the same thing. We shouldnt get hung-up on labels but talk about principles & policies.
    I suggested we should invite The Greens but I have no idea if they would be interested. Their strategy since the mid 90s has involved stressing the Left elements of their thinking to exploit the perceived “Gap on the Left” created by Labours move to The Centre/Right; obviously thats a dead duck now so I imagine they are rethinking their approach.

  • “It’s vital that we have a party that stands up for civil liberties and individual freedom in a way that neither Conservatives or Labour have managed.”

    As I said back in 2010, when the Lib Dems and Tories claimed their new coalition would be founded on civil liberties, the party which appears most liberal on civil liberties tends to be the party that is furthest away from government. Hence, Shami Chakrabarti has now joined Labour.

  • “a defining part of Paddy’s leadership of the party was being shafted by Tony Blair because of his desire to see closer co-operation on the left. Oddly he hasn’t learned from this.”

    Fixed that for you.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Jul '16 - 5:07pm

    If the new politics is about ‘draw bridge -up’ and ‘draw bridge -down’ people, then, realignment by Parties of the left right and centre might see us tied up with more ‘draw bridge -up’ types than we had bargained for.

    Better to keep listening to, informing and campaign with as many of our citizens as possible … and see what happens. And no silly promises.

  • Christian Davis 3rd Jul '16 - 5:13pm

    The ball is very much in the PLPs court. If they can’t dispense wth Corbyn quickly I hope that the right wing of the Labour Party splits quickly taking as many right wingers with them as possible. Hopefully leaving the likes of Angela Eagle behind. If this happens we should sue for peace and throw our lot in with them. As much as I’d hate to lose the Liberal name I’d sacrifice it for something neutral. Let’s not go down the route of another Lib Dem/ SDP alliance let’s agree common policies and get on with it. We don’t need another election where commentators constantly ask who would be PM. Both sides should embrace this deal. The Blairites get the Liberal party machine, which they would need to build from scratch if they do their own thing. The Lib Dems finally get a united centre party anchored to the middle ground. Who should lead? For me the dream team would be Chucka Umna and Tim Farron. I could accept either as leader as long as the other was deputy/ shadow chancellor.

    The reshaped politics would see a true socialist Labour Party on the Left with a truely electable centre party in the middle. I’d be happy with that.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Jul '16 - 6:51pm

    This is the most welcome of postings. The tragic loss of Jo Cox removes the kind of person we desperately need in our politics , a woman of wonderful qualities, no such a person is common in politics . She had all the hallmarks of Labour and none of the tribal nonsense.Likeable , strong , attractive , eloquent , the sort of person who we are obviously in tune with.I doubt most of us in the centre of our party had hardly any disagreement with her politically .

    And therein is the nub of the dilemma.She was villified by the left of the party .She voted for Liz Kendall.In Labour , on the left of it Liz Kendall is referred to as a Liberal , indeed her family are .Both and their colleagues are called Red Tories !

    In this party , the supporters of the Clegg element of the coalition , are called Cleggies and many in our party think of them as Tories.

    The left of our party have as much in common with Corbyn and the Greens , or more, than they do with Jo Cox and Liz Kendall.

    The Greens are well to the left of most of us in this party .Bright Blue , the self styled Liberal Conservative group in the Tories are excellent on many issues or all at least reasonable.Rory Stewart is hardly a political foe , nor Lord Hesiltine , in view point.

    We need an alliance then , that truly unites those with most in common.Jo Cox said we have “more in common”, but , across the entirity of mainstream politics ?!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Jul '16 - 7:06pm

    Double negative, apologies, should have said “believe ” not “doubt”.

  • @Lorenzo Cherin: The left/right divide within the Liberal Democrats is exaggerated. It’s true that it does exist, but more at a tactical than a policy level; that is, on policy there is more that unites ‘left’ Lib Dems and ‘right’ Lib Dems than divides them (though this is perhaps more apparent out of government than in!).

    The fact, however, is that the de facto Tory-UKIP alliance is a serious threat to every sort of liberal vision of the country’s future, left or right. The Liberal Democrats’ ability to focus on common ground and work through differences could be a model for cooperation and alliances between parties of every political persuasion (not just those we find immediately palatable) that understand that threat and are motivated to oppose it. And of course that is going to mean stomaching a lot that is unpalatable. Those who survived through the years of the coalition are going to understand how hard that can be, but really, what are the alternatives?

  • The notion of a realignment of British politics on the left of centre goes back much further than Paddy Ashdown. I well remember Jo Grimond pursuing this line in the early 1960’s.

    As to the present – especially in Holyrood – there is a very fluid state of affairs in which the non-Conservative parties might well realign to pursue retention of Scottish membership of the EU.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Jul '16 - 7:46pm


    Thank you , yes I agree , but then I am one of those who looks for ways to agree rather than not !

    It was the late , and Liberal , Sir Peter Ustinov who said “We are united by our doubts , divided by our convictions “!

  • Well………………… I’m off to watch the footy on TV.

    Enough is more than enough in this febrile political world.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Jul '16 - 8:02pm

    Delivery of change means PR; nothing less is acceptable. I will argue for STV, but Jenkins AV+ is the absolute minimum. The ball is in Labour’s court, but those of us who have fought Labour know that they are really the ‘nasty party’, and I would want some very strong guarantees that they would not rat on any deal like they have in the past.

  • Mark Blackburn 3rd Jul '16 - 10:15pm

    I despair when I see contributors talk about centre parties and teaming up with Blairites. Chuka Umunna leading a party I belong to is my worst nightmare. These people have no interest in Liberalism, they have a laissez faire attitude to neoliberal economics together with an authoritarian view of the role of the state. Remember Jack Straw anyone? We have a once in a lifetime (if we’re lucky) chance to return to the socially liberal party we once were before the Marshall/Laws power grab, let’s not blow it.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jul '16 - 3:19am

    We need reform of the left, before realignment. The principles of the left are good, but it ends up being too dogmatic. I hear the principles and I’m fine with them, but then I read the Guardian and I’m like “no”.

  • Craig JL Gershater 4th Jul '16 - 7:24am

    It is still difficult to grasp what has befallen Britain.
    It is to all intents and purposes an attempted coup d’état by forces of the far-right. The nation has been subject to a political onslaught from perhaps as yet, a loose coalition of nationalistic, potentially fascistic demagoguery.
    After spending many hours on the streets campaigning for ‘StrongerIn’ I was struck by two things i) how veneer-thin ‘nice’ England is/was and ii) how somehow completely impotent the post-War concepts of Party politics was in the face of such bigoted anger – impotent and maybe outdated.
    A group of us have come together locally post hoc as ‘StrongerIn’ to see if such a grouping has a political ‘voice’ – this cross-party consensus (if I need a label I am a ‘hard Left’ LibDem) seems to represent a ‘coalition of purpose’, that purpose being to carve out a key and central role for Britain in Europe.
    As a ‘pensioner’ I am seething with anger for what has been perpetrated on our nation (probably just one of the predictable stages of grief) – this ‘anger’ is not about my generation, it’s about our children and grandchildren.
    It somehow seems especially poignant to be going through this needless crisis 100 years after the Battle of the Somme…one feels tempted to again to say “never again…”

  • Barry Snelson 4th Jul '16 - 10:24am

    Mark and Craig,
    This is not a mischievous response because I am genuinely interested in the approach of the ‘social liberal’ and ‘hard left’ liberal viewpoints on how a small island can support itself in an viscously competitive and virtually exclusively capitalist world.
    Left to themselves the proletariat produced a 10 year waiting list for a Trabant motor car and the “Red October” Plastic Sandal Factory.
    Most (maybe all) of the ‘elites’ in our society are horrible (and I dislike them too) but they are the source of the smartphones, flatscreen TV etc etc
    I have no faith in the traditional response of “invest in infrastructure and skills”. Our Industrial Revolution didn’t begin with the 18th century government digging canals between random towns, It began with inventors and market growth requiring specific infrastructure to expand. Infrastructure and skills are following events not initiating ones.
    I believe that we need to talk and understand each others’ perspectives as we need both a plausible economic model and a strong social conscience.

  • Conor McGovern 4th Jul '16 - 11:08am

    I don’t buy into Left vs Right lines, but I do think we need a realignment involving Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. Specifically we could be going for an electoral pact with a commitment to PR and economic reform. I don’t want us to merge with Labour – people need choice – but an alliance is on the cards if we step up to the plate as a party of pluralism. What the Tories are doing to society is crushing and while Labour and Greens have some faults and differences with Liberals, I know which side I’d prefer.

  • Conor McGovern 4th Jul '16 - 11:13am

    I should add that this is an historic moment for electoral reform. I hope Tim recognises that.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Jul '16 - 11:51am

    “And while we are on the subject of new technologies, is there anything more ridiculous than modern men and women doing their tax returns online, managing their bank accounts online and arranging to see their doctor online, but having to struggle through the wind and rain to a damp church hall to cast their votes with a stubby pencil by scratching a cross on a scrap of paper?”
    We have postal votes.
    There is an age imbalance in the use of doctors’ surgeries and a shortage of silver surfers. Public libraries help a bit by encouraging research into ancestry, at the risk of discovering that dead ancestors have changed their religion.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Jul '16 - 12:19pm

    I think I’ve said what I want to say about this previously:

  • David Evershed 4th Jul '16 - 4:40pm

    The Liberal Democrats have had a coalition with the economic liberals of the Conservative party which resulted in the loss of support of many social liberals.

    If the Liberal Democrats now have a coalition with the social liberals of the Labour Party we will surely lose the support of many economic liberals.

    Why don’t we become a Liberal Party and pursue liberal policies in both economic and social issues? That way we can see the future direction of the party and some consistent rather than ad hoc policies could be developed based on liberal principles.

    There would still neeed to be dabates about how much regulation and state intervention is necessary to curtail individual freedom and business freedom but at least people would know what we stood for and we would have a clear message to put to voters.

  • As someone currently thinking hard about joining the Lib Dems, I would echo David’s comments above.

    I wouldn’t want to join a party that claims to be liberal but sees no problem with the authoritarian left (be it some elements of Labour, Greens etc), just as I would equally be turned off by any overtures to the authoritarian right (whatever shade of blue).

    A party committed to Liberalism, be it social or economic, is what I am looking for. Not a nicer version of a larger party.

  • I would support the last two points. We should stay Liberal. If we merged with anyone else we would have to decide whether to take money from the Unions or Big Business, and how much we were prepared to compromise to get that support.
    Again electoral pacts are always greeted with enthusiasm, but never seem to deliver seats in parliament – mainly because the press don’t like pacts and love to exaggerate the contradictions in policy etc.
    But we should all (of all parties of whatever political colour) be prepared to say what we agree on, and to provide voters with more detail of policies rather than just slogans. And we should have full manifestos covering all aspects of government – not just those that the spin doctors approve. The lack of information stifles debate, and ensures that the debate only covers the subjects that the spin doctors of the big parties have approved. If we were a bit bolder in our offering the press might pick up on subjects that the big parties haven’t thought of, and who knows, they might even trip up. But we cant win elections without distinctive principles and policies, and that requires a lot of hard work.
    We are not just a “centre left” party. In fact since Blair that has lost its meaning. We are a party that is to the left of New Labour, and probably left of Corbyn – at least we believe in providing safety and opportunities for all individuals, not just those in particular social classes or occupations. We should be proud of our principles, and not seek to dilute them with anything less. UKIP members will not vote for us if we are seen as equivalent to the right wing of the Labour Party (that would make us “traitors”), but they might, just, if we are seen as to the left. And none of us want to try turning to the extreme right do we?

  • Simon Banks 5th Jul '16 - 10:08pm

    I’m totally against a merger. I’m very much for co-operation on the small L liberal left. This would resemble and draw on the degree of commonality that emerged late in the referendum campaign between organisations like Avaaz, Friends of the Earth and Amnesty. They all have their different concerns, but many they share. Under Paddy Ashdown, we approached the 1997 general election openly talking to and seeking common ground with Labour. They discarded us when they found themselves with a huge majority, but the degree of open similarity that existed helped both of us win seats.

    Any Tory government that emerges from the current leadership contest will be far, far worse than John Major’s. To give us a chance of defeating it, should we not talk with non-authoritarian anti-Tories, which does include a substantial chunk of the Labour Party?

    In 1997 there was no pact and no-one stood down for another party (unlike in 1945, say, when Labour left the field free for a Liberal in one constituency and there were several Lib/Con local pacts). It was just understood Labour would not campaign hard in certain seats and we wouldn’t in some others. Anything more than that MUST be dependent on local party agreement and not be forced on local parties as Liberal/SDP deals were.

    As for Paddy’s politics of the future, I think he’s being starry-eyed about some new solutions. Internet-based politics tends to give huge power to a few people at the centre who set the agenda and the questions to ask the mass of supporters. Avaaz is a wonderful organisation, but I have no idea how its leaders are selected. Denigrating democratic local parties that work hard to involve their members is unhelpful; and where there are local parties that aren’t like that, this can be changed if enough unhappy people turn up to the AGM. This is not Luddite: local parties can involve their members far more easily BECAUSE of the internet. But we downgrade the local community element in our organisation at our peril.

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