The Independent View: Analysing the common ground between Lib Dem and Labour policy positions

Today sees the release of a combined piece of work between the Fabian Society and CentreForum that details what the policy overlaps between the Lib Dems and the Labour Party are, according to the most up to date data. The report is entitled “Common Ground? An analysis of the Liberal Democrat and Labour programmes”, and can be read here. By extension, the paper sets out what the discussion might look like should the two parties find themselves negotiating a government after the general election in May. The report does not recommend such an arrangement; it only seeks to outline where the policy similarities – and differences – lie.

The paper also seeks only to discuss such a possible government in policy terms and avoids any look at the politics or personalities that might well determine whether such a coalition could actually come together were the electoral maths in its favour. But looking at the policies of each party, where they agree and disagree, is revealing. There is more overlap than you might at first think, and fewer areas of outright disagreement than you’d expect as well. On fiscal rules which permit the government to borrow for investment; decarbonising the power sector by 2030; major devolution within England; extended free childcare for under-5s; building at least 200,000 new homes a year; a higher Minimum Wage; means-testing the Winter Fuel Payment; votes at 16 – the parties would have a whole set of policies already effectively agreed upon to act as the foundation for a set of coalition discussions.

The areas of disagreement tend to be in areas you’d expect: civil liberties, political and constitutional reform, as well as some economic issues. Many of these seem to be paper differences however (for instance, I don’t believe that the Lib Dems involved in such a set of talks would realistically expect to walk away with STV for Westminster voting in hand).

There are many things to consider from a Lib Dem point of view when looking at the possibilities and ramifications of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition; ideas around identity of the party and its current membership base – having gone into coalition in one parliament with the Tories, would the remaining membership countenance a coalition with Labour? This report, however, shows us that when looked at in purely policy terms, the two parties that see themselves as purveyors of progressive politics in Britain have what amounts to a clear agenda between themselves for a possible government, post-May. Of course, we will have to wait and see whether or not the voters of the UK make any such discussion of what lies in this paper a possibility in the first place.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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20 Comments

  • I’m afraid that this is a bit of a futile exercise without “…any look at the politics or personalities that might well determine whether such a coalition could actually come together were the electoral maths in its favour. ”

    It’s not just a questions of numbers of seats, but of who occupies those seats, and how well they get on with their prospective colleagues in any coalition government.

  • @Simon Shaw – I’m not keen on either of those outcomes either, but I don’t know about “we”. I guess it depends who “we” is.

  • Toby Fenwick 5th Feb '15 - 11:23am

    It’s an interesting paper which I would add to everyone’s reading lists. For me, if nothing else, it demonstrates that in the midst of a ya-boo election campaign, the narcissism of small differences runs the risk of obscuring the common ground between us and Labour. With a sensible economic plan in place, I’d be happy to be in coalition with Labour, if the numbers allow it.

  • Glenn Andrews 5th Feb '15 - 11:31am

    The common ground is all very well and good, but that stuff we can let through on the basis of a Labour minority administration. The real question in respect to coalition is what Labour sign up to that they don’t want and what we sign up to that we don’t want.

  • Paul Griffiths 5th Feb '15 - 11:40am

    @Simon Shaw

    Hello, my name is Paul Griffiths. Have we met?

  • Toby Fenwick 5th Feb '15 - 11:57am

    @Simon: I couldn’t disagree more. The point of being in politics is to do things, and this means being in government if that is possible. For some, perhaps, the splendid isolation and certainties of opposition are attractive: I’m not one of them, and would welcome another coalition on the right terms if that’s what the UK voters decide.

  • Julian Tisi 5th Feb '15 - 1:31pm

    Speaking personally, my ideal outcome would be that we ARE in coalition after May. I don’t see this leading to the end of our party, particularly if we can add weight to the line that if we’re in government we will be the guarantors of both fairness and economic responsibility.

    As for the common ground we have with Labour I would completely agree that there is plenty of common ground – certainly there’s enough to work with and agree upon for us to be OK policy-wise about a coalition. Even on the areas of disagreement I could see some way to these being resolved – on electoral reform for example I could see Labour agreeing to reform for local elections; on civil liberties I think there are plenty in the Labour party who would be happy to take a more liberal approach than they have before. Even on the economy the Labour party likes to see itself as economically responsible, so there’s scope there too.

    The main problem I have with all of this is that the Labour party doesn’t want to enter into coalition at all – or if they do, they don’t want us to have any credit for any of it. That’s why they have been trying to “mirror” our policies for some time (e.g. the mansion tax) – in order to ensure that were there a coalition, they could claim all key policies as theirs and not ours. It’s been hard enough for the Lib Dems to get credit for policy successes under the current coalition – even where they have been substantial. Tax policy for example is far, far more Lib Dem than Tory and the rich are paying far more than they did under Labour as a result. But Labour deny this while the Tories try to take credit for policies they opposed prior to 2010. It will be much harder to take credit for Lib Dem successes if Labour policies look similar to Lib Dem ones.

  • Alex Sabine 5th Feb '15 - 1:54pm

    An interesting report. I have thought for some time that beneath the lingering animosity there was an increasingly clear overlap on a policy level between Labour and the Lib Dems. Whether that will be enough to overcome the ill feeling on both sides and very different party cultures I couldn’t say, but the prospect of power can overcome a lot…

    There is clearly a lot of overlap on broad economic policy. Interestingly, this reflects a shift in Labour’s position rather than the Lib Dems’ – with the economy growing and the possibility that they will soon have to take the tough decisions themselves, Labour are no longer able to dress up opportunistic opposition to cuts in the cloak of a technical argument about their timing and pace. That ship has sailed. To save face the two parties comfort themselves in, as Toby says, ‘the narcissism of small differences’.

    One thing that they have in common is a big gap btween an aspiration to shift the balance of fiscal consolidation towards tax rises and the reality of the policies they have set out thus far. As I pointed out on another thread, as things stand the overall effect of Lib Dem commitments on tax is a small net loss of revenue. The anticipated yield from a raft of tax increases on the (mainly) wealthy is more than offset by the cost of financing the £12,500 personal allowance aim. Labour have done a teeny bit better at reconciling their announced policies with their declared objectives, having announced measures amounting to a net ‘takeaway’ of 0.1% of national income rather than a net ‘giveaway’ – but there is still a large hole in their plans.

    Both parties have announced the politically easy but financially minor tax rises while ducking the politically awkward but financially lucrative ones – ie broad-based rises in income tac, NI or VAT. Funny, that… And all parties have yet to specify much by way of spending or welfare cuts either. It’s almost like it’s 2010 all over again…

  • paul barker 5th Feb '15 - 2:00pm

    All true enough but looking at policy rather than values exagerates the common ground.
    The 2 obvious examples are freedom & class. A large part of “The” Left (as they see themselves) just dont “get” the idea of freedom or why we want it.
    One of the few things that bind the various Labour tribes together is class hatred which is , to them, in a different category to all the other forms of prejudice. Far from being ashamed of this prejudice, hatred of the upper/middle class is almost a duty.
    When Labour & Libdems talk they are often, in Wildes phrase “divided by a common language” ; using the same words but with utterly different assumptions behind them.

  • paul barker 5th Feb '15 - 3:39pm

    Just to note that theres a parallel discussion going on at Labour List the Labour equivalent to LDV. While your over there, have a look at the piece about “Scottish Labour going down in flames” & its 570 comments. Dont try to read them all, theres a lot of bile.

  • Alex Sabine 5th Feb '15 - 4:14pm

    Good point Paul. A particularly crass example of Labour class warfare was their ‘Tory toff’ campaign against Edward Timpson in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election in 2008. I was pleased to see that voters gave short shrift to such cheap prejudice.

    To be fair, there are plenty of Labour politicians who don’t see politics through the prism of class and a fair few Lib Dems who seem to.

    I agree that Labour tend to have a tin ear for freedom and the need to limit the power of the state. In part, this reflects a philosophical difference: socialism and social democracy prioritise other ends – economic equality, solidarity and security – whereas liberalism values equality insofar as it advances freedom, and is more sceptical about trading civil liberties for promised greater security.

    But there is also another reason for the different emphasis – and for the continuing preoccupation with class – which perhaps reflects better on the Labour party. Since they have a more clearly defined social base, they are aware that most voters – especially the blue-collar workers who have traditionally been the backbone of their support – care little for abstract principles and tend to be more concerned about security (both physical and economic) than incursions of their liberty.

    Likewise they care about bread-and-butter issues like the economy, the NHS, crime and immigration much more than such consuming Lib Dem passions as constitutional reform, environmental policy or whizz-bang new tax schemes.

    When Labour has been successful electorally it has usually reflected these concerns and priorities, at least better than its opponents have. The main reason it faces a challenge from UKIP as that core parts of its voting base have evidently concluded that Labour no longer reflects its values and priorities. As Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin argue in Revolt on the Right, an award-winning study into the rise of UKIP backed up by impressive research:

    “UKIP’s revolt is a working-class phenomenon… UKIP are not a second home for disgruntled Tories in the shires; they are a first home for working-class Britons of all political backgrounds, who have lost faith in a political system that ceased to represent them long ago. Support for UKIP does not line up in a straightforward way with traditional notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’, but reflects a divide between a political mainstream dominated by a more financially secure and highly educated middle class, and a more insecure and precarious working class, which feels its concerns have been written out of political debate.”

    In the light of this analysis, it would be a fundamental misdiagnosis for Labour to conclude that the key to reconnecting with working-class voters and their former supporters would be to align themselves with Lib Dem values and priorities. Ed Miliband instinctively shares many of these values and priorities but is shrewd enough to realise that they are a hindrance rather than a help to rebuilding Labour’s support. Hence the intermittent flirtation with ‘blue Labour’ and the tough rhetoric on crime and immigration.

    However, the Labour party remains an uneasy alliance of bien pensant left-liberals and earthier, unsentimental types who are more grounded in Labour’s traditional communities and understand the appeal of cultural conservatism and even mild authoritarianism. So far Miliband has finessed the tensions between these quite different factions, seemingly in the hope that he can inch over the line merely by galvanising anti-coalition sentiment. But the resulting fudge and mudge is unconvincing and, on current polling, looks likely to fall short.

  • Toby Fenwick 5th Feb '15 - 4:40pm

    @Simon,

    I do live and work in London, but I struggle to see your linkage between a Lib-Lab coalition – nb, not a re-run of the pact – would ensure that we wiped ourselves out in local government?

  • I saw Danny Alexander on BBC Breakfast this morning and was astonished that he completely passed on the many opportunities he had to do his usual bit of Labour-bashing.

    I see this as compelling proof that the Lib Dem leadership, much to Simon’s chagrin, have seen the writing on the wall and are actively planning for the possibility of a Lab-Lib coalition.

  • Harry Perkins 6th Feb '15 - 2:07am

    @Alex Sabine Very interesting post. Ditto @Paul Barker. But surely, Alex, the LDs are split into different factions too?

    I’ll be honest, I’m a Labour member, but I’m a pragmatist, and I fully support Lord Oakeshott’s funding towards a “progressive alliance”. I always hear that Labour are too tribal, but two Lib Dems I’ve known well have been aggressively anti-Labour. I’d say there’s a tribal hatred of the Tories across most parties (except perhaps UKIP, but who knows). If only there was a ballot box option – “Not Tory”, I suspect that might do rather well…

    The website Isidewith.com is a fascinating survey showing where you really stand on the political spectrum. I’m 86% Labour, but 71% Lib Dem. One of my LD friends is 87% LD, but 73% Labour. I’d love to see the results of these quizzes if our politicians did them.

    Political parties are a “broad church”; a wide-ranging spectrum. People don’t always match up with parties.

  • Alex Sabine 6th Feb '15 - 3:22pm

    Hi Harry. Those types of survey tend to be rather artificial and schematic, I find, but they can be a bit of fun and contain a germ of truth. My results, incidentally, were 76% Lib Dem, 75% Con but only 19% Lab (behind UKIP and the SNP!).

    That definitely exaggerates my hostility to Labour relative to the others. But it is on to something in that the Lib Dem policies I have most time for (immigration, civil liberties, equal marriage, drugs policy, most social/ethical issues like assisted suicide) are in several cases ones that don’t overlap with Labour, and the ones where I disagree with the Lib Dems (some economic issues, aspects of transport policy) tend to be those where Labour and the Lib Dems agree. So, as you may have guessed and as the results of the quiz indicates, I am not a natural supporter of Lib-Labbery!

    However I’m also a political junkie and have studied Labour’s history in some detail. I am sympathetic to some of its aims (though often not its chosen means of achieving them) and I believe it represents an important voice and important interests in our politics that need to be heard. A healthy democracy is pluralistic and needs to accommodate a wide range of views. Social progress depends on competition in ideas as much as, if not more than, competition in other fields.

    In my comment above I was not arguing about the merits of the Lib Dems’ civil libertarianism, strong support for the EU and immigration (two separate issues, but ones that UKIP has successfully conflated) and constitutional and ‘green’ enthusiasms. On some of those issues I’m glad the Lib Dems take the line they do in the face of hostile or indifferent public opinion.

    My point was that Lib Dem attitudes and priorities on a wide range of domestic issues are not only at odds with those of ‘swing’ voters, but miles apart from the views of Labour’s traditional blue-collar supporters. On the other hand they are much closer to the views of Labour’s middle-class supporters and the centre-left intelligentsia and ‘chattering classes’.

    In the past this tension was less of a problem because Labour could bank on these people’s votes based on traditional or class-based allegiance; the assumption was that they had nowhere else to go, and that the type of anti-Tory mentality you express would prevail.

    This assumption now looks increasingly misplaced. As they have felt increasingly ignored and marginalised these working-class former Labour voters have begun to migrate to UKIP – not yet a mass exodus but certainly a lot more than an insignificant trickle. Right now this is masked by the bigger UKIP incursions into the Tory core vote, but the longer-term danger may be greater for Labour and its awareness of this makes it harder to reconcile its divergent attitudes, interests and factions. This isn’t a problem for the Lib Dems because they have always had a narrower social base of support. The danger UKIP represents to the Lib Dems is that it has supplanted the Lib Dems as the natural repository for anti-establishment ‘protest’ votes; whereas in Labour’s case the problem is that the UKIP message on substantive policy issues resonates with a big chunk of Labour’s traditional core vote.

  • Alex Sabine 6th Feb '15 - 4:42pm

    And yes Harry, you are clearly right to say that political parties are broad churches and that the Lib Dems have their own ideological divisions and different factions.

    The obvious fault line is between so-called Orange Book liberals and social liberals. This isn’t a hard-and-fast distinction, and there are plenty of areas of overlap between the two; but it is clear to any neutral observer (ie non-Lib Dem) that there is a significant difference of instincts, emphasis and policy preferences between these two schools of thought on core issues of economic policy and public service reform. There are also (related though not exactly parallel) differences on basic questions of political strategy, the purpose of politics and attitudes to power: the desirability of changing things from ‘the inside’ versus campaigning from the outside.

    Reconciling these tensions in a way that doesn’t dilute the Lib Dem identity to the point of pallid irrelevance has proved a big challenge for Nick Clegg and (I suspect) will be an even bigger one for whoever succeeds him as party leader.

    But this is a different problem from the question of the potential obstacles to Lib-Labbery or indeed centre-left ‘realignment’. Despite the important differences in their approach to economics and public services, the different strands of Lib Dem opinion are largely united on the sorts of issues I discussed earlier as being important to the blue-collar workers that have traditionally voted Labour: immigration, the EU, crime and penal policy, security, the pace of social change etc.

    You can certainly argue that this suggests a complacency on the part of Lib Dems about their distance from this large element of public opinion. But, on the face of it at least, it doesn’t pose the same existential challenge to their identity and electoral strategy (target voters) as it does to Labour.

    As I see it, the Lib Dem identity crisis is of a different nature. It centres on ideological divisions over the role of the state, predominantly in the economic sphere; the inherent strategic dilemmas faced by junior coalition partners (which would if anything be magnified in a Lib-Lab coalition); and the wrenching cultural and temperamental gearshift for a party that – at a national level – has traditionally both harnessed idealism and mopped up protest votes rather than sullied itself with the compromises of power (which are themselves accentuated by the nature of coalition government).

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