The Independent View: Can Ed Davey help a political realignment?

The Lib Dems have been in the doldrums.  But make no mistake, their Party matters to the future of progressive politics in the UK a lot.

First because ‘liberalism’ matters. Against populism and statism, the place of the individual and more broadly a healthy civil society, based around robust human rights, are essential to any progressive politics. And second because Labour cannot win on its own.

Ed Davey has rejected equidistance and working with the Tories. It’s game on. But to play properly together means getting over the past.

When Compass, the organisation I’m Director of, opened out from being just Labour in 2011, the Coalition made Lib-Labery impossible. The Corbyn era put up new barriers. With the Brexit fight lost and Starmer leading Labour there is a chance to build sensible cooperation.

This demands a recognition of common interests and different complementary traditions.  Liberals are not socialists, but both can and must compliment each other in terms of ideas, beliefs and electoral reach. And anyway, Labour, the party of the Iraq War, 90-day detention and antisemitism, needs to be careful about claiming any moral high ground.

Given Scotland, there is little or no hope of Labour winning alone. It either leads and shares some power or returns to the wilderness and leaves the country in the hands of the Tories once again. The Lib Dems are second in 91 seats – 80 of them are Tory facing and none where they present a real challenge to Labour. To get the Tories out means the Lib Dems have to win as many of those seats as possible. The electoral maths demands cooperation, whether its tactical campaigning or something more formal.

In many cases the Lib Dem targets are soft Tory voters who may never vote Labour – unless Labour goes full New Labour once more. That, to say the least, is unadvisable in a world where neoliberalism is crumbling before our eyes. Letting the Lib Dems soak up these voters, actually leaves Labour the space to be more radical.

But if some kind of progressive government is the best we can expect, then it will take more than electoral cooperation to make it work. While Blair and Ashdown spoke a lot, it was only them, and the two parties were never resolved to each other. Relationships have to be deep and meaningful at every level and built now. Compass is already convening a cross-party group from six parties and we are looking at more local group work – where it really matters. Meanwhile ideas like Basic Income, a Green New Deal and a constitutional convention provide the basis for a Common Platform to emerge that sets everyone else up against the Tories.

But cooperation has to be a two-way street. The Lib Dems, like the Greens, should not help Labour unless Labour is willing to cooperate in return. Hence both parties should demand Labour adopts Proportional Representation at its next full policy-making conference. Such a move would spell the end of Tory electoral domination and drag our democracy into the complexity and pluralism of the 21st century. With a strong campaign within Labour for PR underway, this could herald the ground-breaking shift the party needs to make.

For now, all progressives should welcome the new leadership of the Lib Dems. We have four years to build a project to change our country and its democracy for good. As ever progressive parties should act now like they are already in government. There is a consensus in the country against the Tories. We should lead it – together. Waiting until the polls force the parties together – when it’s too late – would be another disaster neither party nor the country can afford.

The Lib Dems new direction is a good result not just for one party but for everyone who wants Britain to be better than the shambles it is.

* Neal Lawson is Executive Director of Compass and a member of the Labour party.

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  • David Evershed 28th Aug '20 - 12:10pm

    Socialists seem to think the Lib Dems are Labour Lite.

    They’re not.

  • Peter Martin 28th Aug '20 - 12:28pm

    Yes this all makes sense.

    In 2005 Labour picked up 35% of the vote, the Tories had 32% and Lib Dems 22%. Labour ended up with a comfortable majority.

    So go to it. Start winning over some Tory votes !

  • At last an article I can really support, wake up opposition parties before it’s too late.

  • Stephen Howse 28th Aug '20 - 12:36pm

    Excellent piece.

    This goes beyond liberalism vs socialism vs social democracy vs whatever other particular ideology you call your own – it’s about what type of government we want to have and what sort of fundamental approach we want that government to take. Whatever the faults of Labour and the Lib Dems, we have a Tory government which has proven it is happy to spread mis- and disinformation, which is stuffing the pockets of its friends, which is openly engaging in flagrant nepotism, which couldn’t give a fig about competence and which has completely disregarded the normal rules of government.

    Whatever the ideological differences between Labour and the Lib Dems, whatever the policy differences, I believe both parties under their new leaders to be completely opposed to the manner in which the Tory government is running the show. It needs to be turfed out so that the Tories can re-normalise and renew themselves in Opposition and so that some manner of decency and good conduct can be restored, because the longer this lot carry on this way the more and more public trust in government and our institutions is going to be eroded – with potentially very, very bad results.

  • Whilst I applaud the sentiment, there are two intractable difficulties.

    Firstly, Labour promised electoral reform in its manifesto in 1997. It had thirteen years in power and failed to deliver. Power sharing is absent from socialist DNA; anyone who is not a party member is a class enemy. Labour cannot be trusted on PR.

    Secondly, as you rightly identify, we need to get soft Tory votes to win seats. Any whiff that the Lib Dems will enable a left wing government means those votes stay where they are. 1997 only happened precisely because Blair was demonstrably NOT left wing.

  • A positive article & I welcome the plan to get Labour to commit to PR/Electoral Reform, however I dont expect it to happen. Polling shows that three quarters of Labour Members back Electoral Reform but Labour is not a Member-led Party. The real power lies with The MPs & The Unions & they are overwhelmingly against a move away from the present, unfair system. I hope to be proved wrong.
    The idea that Opposition Parties should be talking to each other, at all levels, all the time is both Radical & a No-Brainer, lets do it.

  • Julian Tisi 28th Aug '20 - 1:20pm

    Thanks Neal, a generous article and much to agree with. However I share the concerns of Nuala above. The best thing we can do as Liberal Democrats for now is to articulate and demonstrate our values clearly and unapologetically and win more votes, hopefully more local seats and thus win more MPs in 2024. While I would support working with Labour where we agree with them it would be a mistake to turn this into a formal left-leaning pact which will alienate many of our supporters.

  • Just in case it’s passed some Lib Dems by, (which it appears to have), I suggest they digest the announcement msde by the Electoral Reform Society last January.

    “Keir Starmer: “we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their vote doesn’t count”

    Keir Starmer’s backing of electoral reform puts democracy at the heart of Labour’s leadership contest From one Keir to another, support for electoral reform is growing. Labour Party Leadership front runner Sir Keir Starmer this morning…

    POSTED 31 JAN 2020 on the Electoral Reform Society website.

  • Barry Lofty 28th Aug '20 - 1:29pm

    David: The proof of pudding etc etc, but I sincerely hope he means what he said, but something needs to change before it is too late!

  • I agree with much of above. But…… Starmer has not committed to PR. I have written to him 3x and he refuses to say. He might well agree there are problems with the current system. So did Blair. Nothing happened. He might well set up some commission or other. What we need is an unequivocal statement from him backing PR. With PR there would not be another tory government, probably. Without it there will not be another Labour one.

  • @David Raw
    Safe seats aren’t the problem with FPTP. The people of e.g. Bootle are very happy to be represented by the Labour Party.
    The problem with FPTP is in the seats where MPs win on 30 something % of the vote and the majority are disappointed.

  • Daniel Walker 28th Aug '20 - 1:52pm

    @Neal Lawson “none where they present a real challenge to Labour

    I suspect Laura Gordon in Sheffield Hallam might disagree, Neal 🙂

  • Daniel Walker 28th Aug '20 - 1:56pm

    @Alan Jelfs “Bootle are very happy to be represented by the Labour Party.

    Well, 79% of the vote will get you a seat under any sane electoral system, TBF! (and also FPTP ☺ )

  • John Marriott 28th Aug '20 - 2:09pm

    A good assessment of where we are and the way forward. It all depends on whether Labour still reckons it can do it alone. Ashdown thought that he and Blair had a deal back in the 1990s; but the former didn’t reckon with the diehards In Blair’s party. In any case, the ‘deal’ would only have had a chance to work if Labour’s overall majority had been small or if there had been a hung parliament. With hindsight, had there been a proper Lib/Lab coalition government after 1997, it might have been that some of the reforms that many of us deem to be essential to transform the UK into a properly functioning pluralist state, with electoral reform, a Written Constitution, a Bill of Rights, a reformed upper Chamber edging towards a Federal structure, might have made it to the statute book.

    Scroll forward some thirteen years and what we got was a marriage of convenience, where the major player got largely what it wanted and more or less sucked the life out of its junior partner. The leitmotif of a Lib/Lab partnership back in ‘97 might have been radical, democratic reform at a time when the nation might have been more receptive; whereas, for many, the leitmotif of the Lib/Con partnership of unequals in 2010 was a ruthless application austerity occasioned not by design but by circumstance, where the Tories used local government and, by extension, the Lib Dems, as a quasi human shield against criticism.

  • Nigel Jones 28th Aug '20 - 2:27pm

    Opposition parties need to cooperate on exposing the harm the Tories are doing and will be doing, but also provide alternatives that improve our democracy and quality of life for all. It is necessary to start now and where we find key messages we should repeat them over and over again so they eventually stick with all except the extreme right. Voting tactics alone will not do it. Members of Lib-Dems and Labour need to actively voice the negatives against government and the positive alternatives in the press and media, often without using party names; in the current climate people are often more willing to listen to what is said if they are not biassed against the party the speaker claims to support.
    On the question of electoral reform, we need to do better than we did with Cameron and talk about STV, not just any form of PR.

  • Mr Raw the Labour leader may hint at support for electoral reform, as did Tony Blair, but he is in the pocket of his Union paymasters who won’t brook it.

    Relying on Labour to deliver PR is at best naive given their track record, and potentially damaging electorally if the relationship is too cosy.

  • David Warren 28th Aug '20 - 2:58pm

    The situation with the unions is a bit more complicated than that. Those with a more pragmatic approach like Unison, GMB and USDAW want Labour in government. Their leaders can do the math and will be starting to realise that some form of LIb/Lab cooperation is probably the only way to get what they want in 2024.

  • Matt (BRistol) 28th Aug '20 - 3:52pm

    Rather counter-intuitively, I suspect the chances of Labour backing a form of more proportional voting are higher when the Lib Dems are weaker, and the Tories appear strong.

    1) Labour realises the need to cap disproportionate Tory parliamentary majority
    2) The Lib Dems are not a direct parliamentary threat
    3) Proportionality might give Labour the chance to shop around for viable partners in any future hung parliament and not be purely reliant on the Lib Dems
    4) Proportionality reduces the power of the SNP and DUP
    5) Pushing for a measure of proportionality before the Lib Dems recover gives Labour a greater chance of setting the agenda, and avoiding forms of electoral reform their activists might find less palatable.

    However, Labour still need cover from the Lib Dems, Greens and nationalists to make a claim to be pushing for a reform agenda in the national interest work, so it’s a tricky balancing act for them: Give Lib Dems enough of what they want, but retain as much control of the outcome as possible.

    I still think Neal’s conception that the Lib Dems can be loosed on the Tories and Labour left free to be ‘more radical’ shows a very tin ear for how a significant proportion of Lib Dem activists conceive of themselves.

    I’d also suggest that the form of liberalism that is now current among both Labour and Lib Dem activists very quickly excludes many of the traditionalist conformist moderates who used to or still vote Tory, but should in theory be detachable from Johnson … And bringing those voters onside can’t be assumed as achievable without lying to those voters about what the Lib Dems stand for, or changing what the Lib Dems stand for.

    We are missing a party of the constitutionalist, institutionalist centre, none of the existing four English parties are going to either play midwife to it, or give birth to it, any time soon.

  • @Neal Lawson – Thanks for such a pragmatic message of hope. Compass has been doing a lot of serious work path building for a new kind of politics. However, the problem with Labour will not be its new leader, as you rightly point out, it will be hardcore purists. It will be interesting to see how Keir Starmer knocks them into shape.

    The path to some kind of pact to prop up a minority Labour government has to start immediately, and I hope Labour will work with Ed Davey, and cease its juvenile yellow Tory attacks. If it doeasn’t any pact will have foundations of sand, and yes Labour must sign up to electoral reform in blood, not just some vague promise it has no wish to fulfill. The moment parliament resumes all opposition parties need to be singing from the same sheet, attacking the govt not each other quietly building bridges because the Tories are making a mess of everything they touch, not least Brexit which should unite us all.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Aug '20 - 4:39pm

    While our Party is understandably all for the STV variant of PR (as opposed to systems such as AMS that work well in Scotland and Wales), we need to remember that STV needs large constituencies, returning at least 5-6 MPs each, to achieve reasonable proportionality and for an area like the Highlands of Scotland west of the Great Glen that means a mega-constituency covering the whole area and both Western and Northern Isles. Of course, if Scotland voted for independence, this particular issue would go away but we would still need constituencies the size of, say, the whole of Cornwall even in England and we have to consider whether MPs can effectively represent their constituents over such an area. It is hard enough when you have a rural constituency like Brecon and Radnorshire.

    We should not be too quick to throw out Roy Jenkins’ AV+ proposal that at least guaranteed that all MPs are elected by a majority of the voters in their constituency (whether as first, second, third or later preferences) while using the top-up list process to give proportionality. In London, every single Lib Dem assembly member has been elected on the list vote and it has given a number of talented politicians the opportunity to make a contribution to the government of London without having to rely on the votes in a geographic constituency.

  • Anthony Acton 28th Aug '20 - 5:07pm

    Thank you Neal Lawson for a dose of concentrated common sense. I hope there are influential people in Labour who share your view. Today’s Times welcomes Ed Davey’s win in a moderately encouraging leading article. It draws attention to the fact that LibDems have been at their strongest when the party has been identified in the public mind with a single issue of real importance to the voters. Today that might be education (Paddy Ashdown’s issue of choice), NHS, housing, transport, jobs………but please, keep it real!

  • Labour did the dirty and ditched their promise on PR when they thought they bestrode the political universe with Gordon Brown having defeated the laws of economic gravity.

    We can only hope that everything that has followed on from that broken promise – compared to the other universe where PR got introduced and the UK enjoyed more progressive government from 2010 onwards – might concentrate a few Labour minds?

  • Sean Hyland 28th Aug '20 - 5:19pm

    I would like to see the LibDems maintaining an independent liberal identity and should only work with others on an issue by issue basis. Ideally i wou!d personally like to see a distinctive social liberal agenda leading the vision. The only talk of coalitions should be when a PR form of voting is accepted and in place, a point i think Joseph Bourke makes.

  • Matt (Bristol) 28th Aug '20 - 5:32pm

    Laurence Cox, this is going into the Lib Dem blackhole of voting system obsession … but I did conceive of a semi-proportional AMS variant (ie with the majority of seats in single member consituencies) where the top-up was by a weighted variant of STV, not a party-list system. Thus allowing independents to run for 100% of seats, and ensuring that voters vote for individuals, not parties, but the result is still relatively proportional overall.

    If Keir wants me, I’ll happily take the consultancy fee.

  • David Allen 28th Aug '20 - 7:39pm

    The obstacles to political realignment are bigger than most people are willing to admit.

    The Tories have no fear that the Lib Dems will ever displace them. Consequently, when they needed to buy help from the Lib Dems, they happily offered big personal incentives to the leading Lib Dems of the time. If they ever need to make a similar offer again, they will.

    Labour, by contrast, know that the historic ambition of the Liberal / Alliance parties was to displace them. The Alliance got close to succeeding. Since then of course, Blairism changed the nature of that contest, and Corbynism changed it again – But the fundamental tension is still there. Labour have grounds to fear a Lib Dem revival.

    Blair is blamed for ratting on Ashdown. The truth is that is was the diehard LibDem haters within Labour, such as John Reid, who made up Blair’s mind for him. Like Blair, Starmer may be genuinely keen to work with the Lib Dems. He will find that he cannot do so without splitting his own party. He will probably be forced to make the same choice as Blair did.

    Lib Dem leaders know the score on all this. They may talk about equidistance, or realignment, or whatever today’s favourite buzzword is. But what do they mean? Judge them by their actions.

    Jo Swinson relentlessly attacked and denigrated Corbyn, while making only occasional tokenistic complaints about Johnson. She made it clear that it was Corbyn she could never work with. Her aims were clear.

    Layla Moran’s single most important promise was to “stop attacking Labour all the time”. She genuinely sought a real change of course.

    And Ed? Sitting on the fence, I fear. Yes, working with Boris is “out”. But Boris himself will probably be out by 2024. How about that nice Mr Sunak? Tempting, if what you want is another Ministerial post…

  • Paul Barker 28th Aug '20 - 8:51pm

    I am glad that there seem to be a lot of agreement about the need for Opposition Parties to work together but we need to remind ourselves that only 10 Months of this Parliament has passed & there is another 44 Months left; there is a lot of time for everything to change & change again.
    Just in the next Year The Tories face the 2nd wave of Covid, Brexit & the deepest Reccession in anyones memory, the assumption that Labour will need Us is not based on likely developments. Blair didnt need Scotland or The Libdems in 1997 & Starmer may not need them in 2024.

  • Denis Mollison 28th Aug '20 - 9:18pm

    @Laurence Cox, Matt (Bristol), George Kendall
    We should not lightly give up on STV. It is a principled system, based on empowering voters to choose among candidates in a way that is proportional to the voters’ views, not just to parties.
    The AV referendum gave a salutary lesson in what happens if you put forward a proposal you don’t really believe in.

    AMS, as used in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, is a system with many flaws. Northern Ireland already uses STV, and the Welsh Assembly/Parliament (which is Labour-led) is currently considering changing to STV, on the recommendation of the recent McAllister Report.
    Note also that Labour recently adopted STV for the elected members of its National Executive Committee.

    Under STV, constituencies can be based on Local Authority areas, and can be stable over time – you change the number of MPs rather than the boundaries. While most constituencies should have at least 3 seats (Ireland has achieved excellent proportionality using the range 3-5), we could still make exceptions for such very special cases as the Northern and Western Isles as single-member constituencies (the Isle of Wight should have 2). You can see how such an STV scheme could be done at

  • I believe sensible people in Labour would rather work with us because it gives them a chance to stand up to their hard left and stay in the centre to get re-elected (and blame us but that shouldn’t bother us). If they worked with the SNP that could be electorally damaging as they would have to give in to their daft demands.

    STV is the best system albeit the most complicated but it works well enough in Ireland (who for some reason don’t seem to have a Liberal party anyone care to explain why?)

    The AMS system used in London, Scotland and Wales is quite flawed and the SNP have worked out how to get round it – they are planning to form a shadow party to stand in the party list section instead of the official SNP and win an outright majority. Can this be stopped in some way?

  • Matt (Bristol) 28th Aug '20 - 9:54pm

    Denis, in principle I agree; and if the argument on STV can be won inside Labour, we would be in the best of all possible worlds.

    But if the argument is not won inside Labour, the Lib Dem leverage to extract STV from outside is limited whilst Lib Dem fortunes are poor.

    And as I have now left the party, I am not necessarily interested in the honour of the Lib Dems as bearers of the principle of STV as much as I was before. I want a workable system, in place of an awful system.

    So, whilst always urging the merits of STV, which is the best system — whilst it is the case that Labour MPs and the public at large are attracted to ‘principles’ around voting that I know you will find spurious or hokey, I would favour pushing Labour away from the worst list systems and towards open-list systems, and ideally systems that have some kind of hybrid STV element inside them, particularly if we can move away from FPTP inside a decade, which seems optimistic at best.

    I would not favour George’s solution, to be honest, as it seems to me to be a very small step indeed. But I am sure many of Neal’s fellow Labour members would consider it an enormous concession.

  • Peter Martin 29th Aug '20 - 1:58am

    @ David Allen,

    “The Tories have no fear that the Lib Dems will ever displace them……….Labour, by contrast, know that the historic ambition of the Liberal / Alliance parties was to displace them”

    There’s no contrast. There’ll always be significant support for both left and a right party in British politics. Any centre party will always have an ambition to expand its support, at the expense of both, but it isn’t realistic to expect to displace either.

    “Labour have grounds to fear a Lib Dem revival.”

    They don’t. Blair polled 35% of the vote in 2005. Corbyn polled 40% in 2017. Blair had a comfortable majority. Corbyn had to be content with merely depriving the Tories of theirs. The difference? Lib Dems did well in 2005. Not so well in 2017.

    “But Boris himself will probably be out by 2024.”

    That’s what many said about Cameron and Osborne 4 years before the 2015 election. The situation was complicated by a general desire to have a referendum on the EU. The only way that was going to happen was to vote Tory. Ed Miliband didn’t help by running an insipidly boring campaign, but the EU has been a major factor in the loss of support for both the Lib Dems and Labour.

    The other major factor, but not totally separate, is the rise in Scottish nationalism and the near total loss of Labour seats there.

    Until the EU question is totally resolved I can’t see any other result than a Tory victory. There was a recent poll on Labourlist with 55% coming to the same conclusion.

  • Simon McGrath 29th Aug '20 - 7:18am

    IF I wanted a Labour Government i would be a member of the Labour Party. Lib Dems need to be very careful of groups like compass who see us a useful idiots who can be bamboozled into helping labour get elected – and then just as Blair did, abandon any agreements .

  • Keith Sharp 29th Aug '20 - 8:12am

    ‘…idiots who can be bamboozled into helping labour..’ Simon is right to sound a warning from prior experience, but this is where we LDs have to be Tough and Smart (not necessarily attributes we have displayed in the past, at least not at the same time). Neal says we should not make concessions to Labour unless Labour makes concessions to us – formalised agreements not renegable words like Blair. He is dead right on this, as he is with much else in his very good article.

    The one and only concession we should demand and get is: a commitment is proportional representation for Westminster. No conventions and no referendums.

    Anything else and any dilution of that is not acceptable.The only referendum we should accept is a ‘subsequent referendum’ ie have two GEs under a reformed system and then ‘ask the people’ so they have experience of what they’re being asked about. (I’m not necessarily in favour of that either, but might be an expedient).

    And let’s remember that electoral reform is not primarily for political parties (even ones like us who are grossly under-represented). It’s for the millions of voters who are denied a voice. In the run up to 2019 GE, polling showed 61% of voters asked said they lacked faith in our political system. 30-35% voted tactically ie felt unable to vote for their actual first choice. It’s the revitalision of our democracy and ensuring everyone’s vote counts and counts equally that’s at stake.

    LDs for Electoral Reform are holding a crucial fringe meeting on all this at our digital conference – ‘The UK – a ‘democracy’ that cheats the voter’; is at 6.45pm Septemebr 26. It will be led by Wendy Chamberlain MP, our excellent front bench spokesperson on Political and Constitutional Reform. Hope to ‘see’ you there.

    (Keith Sharp is Vice Chair, Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform)

  • Antony Watts 29th Aug '20 - 10:17am

    Lib Dems are in confusion not due to any “positioning” vs other parties, nor due to “organisation” issues. Forget these.

    Lib Dems simply need to define who they are. We are the party that…

    And we must take every opportunity in any publicity medium to say, “Lib Dems say…”

  • Peter Martin 29th Aug '20 - 10:17am

    @ Keith Sharp,

    “The one and only concession we should demand and get is: a commitment is proportional representation for Westminster. No conventions and no referendums.”

    You’re dreaming. It’s just not going to happen.

    It doesn’t make any sense even according to your own logic. A FPTP elected Parliament can’t legitimately change the voting system. Even for one election.

    If you want PR you are going to have to make your case and win over enough support to give you a popular mandate to do that.

  • Simon this is not a play. I genuinely believe our politics needs social liberalism and our electoral fate demands Lid Dems do well. Labour is showing signs of shifting. I live without illusions about whether it can drop Labourism. But I will not be disillusioned. Compass will never give up believing the best in you and the Lib Dem party. There is at last a way through to a new and better politics. We really should do all we can to take it

  • Peter Martin 29th Aug '20 - 10:45am

    “30-35% voted tactically ie felt unable to vote for their actual first choice. It’s the revitalision of our democracy and ensuring everyone’s vote counts and counts equally that’s at stake.”

    Ok but Lib Dems are beneficiaries of tactical votes too. Wouldn’t your English seats all be Tory without Labour tactical votes? I can’t think of a single one that would be Labour but for Tory tactical votes.

    There are a lot of voters who would choose far right parties as their first choice if we had PR. They would be the real winners from any voting change. There’s really nowhere in Europe that a PR system works to the benefit of Liberal/Centre parties in the way you might wish for. I doubt it would be any different here. Lib Dems did well as a ‘protest vote’ party. You could win by elections using the discontent of mainly Tory voters and then possibly hang on to the seat in the next general election.

    How would that work with STV and multi member constituencies if there was a death or resignation?

  • While preferring a deliberative process to achieve PR, the present climate is not conducive to this unless by some fluke BJ decides to go down this road. It would certainly require a confirmatory referendum and this should be made clear at the onset. When Labour come to their senses, we must work with them and others for the future of our democracy, our country and our Party.

  • @Peter Martin: “A FPTP elected Parliament can’t legitimately change the voting system.”

    Why ever not? What would prevent this from being enacted if there was a stable majority in that Parliament for such a change? However, I recognise that it would probably only be accepted that the proposed change – to an acceptable form of PR (preferably STV) – had a legitimate popular mandate if this was contained in the election manifesto(s) of the party/parties whose MPs formed that majority.

    So, back to Neal … what is your honest and realistic assessment of the prospects that Labour might voluntarily make such an unconditional commitment, in advance of the next General Election, to introduce PR for all future Westminster elections within the first term of any new government that it led? And what, if anything, can sympathetic Lib Dems … and other “progressives” outside Labour … usefully do to encourage and support those campaigning internally for Labour to adopt PR as official party policy?

  • @ Jamesyoung I think something was said about waking up and smelling the coffee.

  • @sean I think labour backing PR is possible. The leader has said he supports it. But I’ve been round the block too. 75 % of members back it. It dominated submissions to a recent policy review. There is a real push from Compass, MVM, lcer and ers etc to get it through the 2021 conference. But it needs external pressure. That’s why you and the Greens should push. Say it must be a condition of cooperation. I don’t underestimate the conservative forces in Labour. But It’s possible and is a game changer.

  • Many thanks Neal for your highly constructive approach – but, as you obviously also recognise, Lib Dems should clearly insist that a cast-iron (unconditional and unambiguous) commitment by Labour to introduce PR at Westminster is a pre-condition of any broader cooperation. PR would be the key that opens up that possibility.

  • David Allen 29th Aug '20 - 2:09pm

    Peter Martin,

    “There’s no contrast … It isn’t realistic to expect a centre party to displace either (Labour or the Tories)”.

    Oh really? Was it realistic, a century ago, to conclude that Labour had displaced the Liberals? Is it impossible that one day that might be reversed?

    A century ago, socialism based on mass working-class solidarity, trade union power, and Marxist intellectual leadership was the new force with the wind in its sails. Is that true now? Isn’t it fairer to conclude that Labour, having swung from Foot to Blair to Corbyn to Starmer, have (to roughly paraphrase Dean Acheson) lost an overarching sense of purpose and failed to find a role?

    Why do you suppose the Tories achieved a coalition with the Lib Dems, while Blair’s Labour did not? Mightn’t it be for the reason I have put forward, that the Tories aren’t scared by us, but many in Labour are scared, or distrustful, and that that presents an obstacle?

  • The theme of Ed Davey’s acceptance speech was the importance of listeining to and responding to what voters tell you they want from government.
    The first question you have to ask is – what is it that voters are telling you? Is it to revoke Brexit without a referendum? Is there a clamour to introduce proportional representation without a referendum? Or is it for competent government to deal with the economy, heath, education, policing, welfare and local government services? Will coalition governments under PR enable more competent government or is it simply a temporary coalition of progressive minority parties against a seemingly hegemonic Tory party?
    In Parliament MPs do seem to be able to work on a cross-party basis in committees and in All Party Groups to develop consensus on policy formulation. How much of opposition rhetoric is based on competitive rivalry versus an evidence based critique of government policy?
    In this regard Keir Starmer does seem to have made a significant shift to a more forensic and plausible parliamentary interrogation by the official opposition of government policy. It is a stance we should emulate and apply equally to Conservative or Labour proposals.
    What do all people want from government – integrity, justice and compassion delivered with a strong sense of fairness, prudence and competence. That starts with the leader and flows down through MPs, Councillors and activists.
    In the end, political parties are not so different to other public facing organisations. Focus on meeting the reasonable expectations of the public (beginning at the local level) and you can expect to build lasting support. Focus on electoral tactics and ignore what people tell you their issues and priorities are and the results are all too familiar.

  • Neal Lawson 29th Aug '20 - 3:43pm

    The very nature of FPTP means Labour doesn’t fear the Lib Dem’s. But you analysis of Labours weakness are right @David. Labour is too weak to govern effectively and probably too weak to win on its own.But it’s too strong to be replaced. Can it accept more power with you rather than no power and being second?

  • Paul Barker 29th Aug '20 - 3:44pm

    The point about listening to Voters is a crucial one. As our President has pointed out only a Minority of Libdem Voters before The Coalition actually wanted us in Government. That was the problem with The Coalition, most of the Minority who Voted for us didnt want us actually in office.
    That gives us a sense of how far we have to go on the road to Recovery. Its not enough to get people to Vote for us, we have to persuade them that we should be in Power at Westminster.

    There is another implication – that a Coalition with Labour will hit us just as badly. If we do it we have to demand a vert high price.

  • David Allen 29th Aug '20 - 5:28pm

    “Labour is too weak to govern effectively”

    Sorry, but I just had to shout at that. Sure, Labour have weaknesses, but they’re currently up against the most incompetent government since Ethelred the Unready!

    Perhaps it’s relevant that Labour chose a leader whose main USP was competence – and a competence established outside the political field. It smacks of a lack of self-confidence. Understandable, in view of the Corbyn debacle, but isn’t it time for Labour to man up a bit, if we can still use such a sexist phrase? Take a look at the opposing team. You can beat those guys, you know!

  • Stephen Howse 29th Aug '20 - 5:32pm

    “The very nature of FPTP means Labour doesn’t fear the Lib Dem’s. But you analysis of Labours weakness are right @David. Labour is too weak to govern effectively and probably too weak to win on its own.But it’s too strong to be replaced. Can it accept more power with you rather than no power and being second?”

    I don’t think Labour will accept not being a nationwide party, which standing aside for other parties would officially mean. As a party which will go into the next GE seeking to win a majority and form a majority government on its own, it needs to field candidates across the board and at least be seen to be seeking to win the votes of people across the country.

    I think that ultimately the best thing for the Lib Dems to do is focus on winning in local elections in the coming years, build some momentum, get the poll rating up and make ourselves look like a force to be reckoned with. Labour has little need to consider a Lib Dem party polling single digits, get ourselves up to 20% and gain a couple thousand council seats and it’ll be a very different story. Then the Lib Dems will be negotiating behind closed doors from a position of relative strength.

  • David Allen 29th Aug '20 - 7:38pm

    “Labour is too weak to govern effectively”

    Sorry, but I just had to respond to that. Sure, Labour have weaknesses, but they’re currently up against the most incompetent government since Ethelred the Unready!

    Perhaps it’s relevant that Labour chose a leader whose main USP was competence – and a competence established outside the political field. It smacks of a lack of self-confidence. Understandable, in view of the Corbyn debacle, but isn’t it time for Labour to lighten up a bit? Take a look at the opposing team. You can beat those guys, you know!

  • David Allen 29th Aug '20 - 8:31pm

    Sorry for the double post, I thought my first had failed its moderation!

  • Innocent Bystander 29th Aug '20 - 10:23pm

    I always enjoy your contributions but a party needs more than a claim to be fair, prudent and competent.
    That’s what they all say (and we are usually disappointed).
    Leadership is all about a vision for the future and the ability to share that vision.
    Whether the LibDems have such powerful messages and the necessary eloquence to convince voters I will leave others to answer.

  • Peter Martin 30th Aug '20 - 7:49am

    @ David Allen,

    “…….many in Labour are scared, or distrustful, and that that presents an obstacle?”

    Not of the Lib Dems! At least 75% of the PLP wouldn’t, in principle, have any trouble at all being Lib Dems. But principles don’t necessarily provide career prospects.

    “Isn’t it fairer to conclude that Labour…… have …… failed to find a role?”

    Labour membership peaked at 600,000 recently. If the largest party in Europe can’t find a role there is no hope for anyone else. The main problem is the disconnect between MPs and the membership. There was no obvious candidate to represent membership views at the last leadership election. RLB wasn’t considered to be ready, and that’s why we’ve ended up with Sir Forensic.

  • Peter Watson 30th Aug '20 - 9:28am

    Nuala “Labour promised electoral reform in its manifesto in 1997. It had thirteen years in power and failed to deliver”
    I’m no expert on constitutional matters and electoral reform, but wasn’t it on Labour’s watch that assemblies were introduced in Scotland, Wales and London with proportional representation. Also, PR was introduced for the UK’s European Elections. In Scotland, with the help of the Lib Dems, I think STV was introduced for local elections. There was an end to hereditary peers in the House of Lords as well.

  • John Littler 30th Aug '20 - 12:18pm

    Peter, yes we know that Labour’s establishment are ok with PR in what they regard as peripheral bodies, but it will take Kier moving heaven and earth to most Labour MP’s officials and bodies to support it. I hope I am wrong and that Labour will “smell the coffee”.

    Perhaps Johnson’s plan to reduce MP numbers by 50 and gerrymander the 600 boundaries to make them give further advantage to the Tories, will be the straw that breaks the camels back, or the big job losses coming from Corvid and brexit fall outs, including in unionised manufacturing industries in the north and midlands?

    McDonnell admitted that the amount of time Labour were out of office under FPTP allowed the Tories too many opportunities for destruction. It strikes me that for too many of them, this was subordinated to the great goal of Labour inheriting the wielding of monopoly power, if only briefly in between long Tory administrations. And this from a party that repeatedly accused Clegg of taking the junior role in coalition for 5 years in order to gain a ministerial car pool.

    I have a horrible feeling that Labour will come full on board for PR voting, but only after it has become practically impossible for them to take power in a UK, broken into component parts

  • john Littler 30th Aug '20 - 12:23pm

    2). Or else Labour will promise PR voting, gain small “l” liberal votes to help elect them as in ’97 in the backdrop of another corrupt and failing Tory administration, only for the dead hand of Labour “Past Times” to come down again with a big “no”, repeating the tragedy all over again

  • I am never one to allow a good detailed lib dem discussion go to waste….

    So I feel compelled to point out that the small town where I was brought up has “moved” 4 times in 40 years. at each boundary review it’s put in with a different constituency. For 99% of the country it’s not a problem to have 4 or 5 member STV seats. There are already different rules for how FPTP seat are drawn up for very rural Scottish seats and the likes of Orkney and Shetland so you could just continue those and it would be a mere blip on the overall countrywide proportionality.

    On Labour and PR they have played footsie with us on it for decades but it’s like the abolition of the house of lords – just around the corner for over a century it just involves the slight issue of those in power voting like turkeys for Christmas!

    Meanwhile they are beginning to run out of seats that are good for them. They have list Scotland, the red wall seats, they have few seats in the South, you can see them beginning to cede seats in London to us and before the coalition, we wrestled control of many of their “rotten boroughs” in northern cities and may well do so again.

  • Matt (Bristol) 1st Sep '20 - 1:28pm

    Peter Watson – yes, but…

    From Wikipedia — “As Joint Chairman (alongside Liberal Democrat MP Robert Maclennan) of the Labour-Liberal Democrat Joint Consultative Committee on Constitutional Reform, Robin Cook brokered the ‘Cook-Maclennan Agreement’ that laid the basis for the fundamental reshaping of the British constitution outlined in Labour’s 1997 general election manifesto. This led to legislation for major reforms including Scottish and Welsh devolution, the Human Rights Act …”

    Almost no measure of constitutional reform from Labour in the past 30 years was wholly untouched by Lib Dem fingers. We don’t know what reforms Labour would have produced without Lib Dem advice and cooperation.

    Labour throughout that period had a sad bias towards more centralising and authoritarian models of reform. It failed to come up with an internal consensus on how to elect the Lords, and it rejected STV or open-list forms of PR for everything except Northern Ireland, where the argument for STV was a conservative one, ie putting back that which was lost.

    Whilst many people in Labour are sincere in seeking reform and I think Labour is crucial to the future of electoral reform – in the past, they tended to be timid on how far to devolve power.

    It is my assertion, as above, that I hope that Labour will be more confident in future to trust the people in the models of Reform it follows, but I still believe it will be a long time before Labour as a whole party gives an emphatic backing to STV and is in a position to carry this commitment all the way through. Hence my comments above that I would personally want the entire centre-left bloc (such as it is) to consider a compromise around some ‘halfway house’ reforms if Labour’s desire for closed lists etc could be mitigated in some way. (And even then we are still coming up against the national mood being in favour of single-person representation wherever possible).

  • richard underhill. 3rd Sep '20 - 7:37am

    Party list PR leads to a lot of proxies who might be called cannon fodder in less polite places
    STV is more democratic.
    What happens if there is a local issue such as about a fracking power station?
    elected MPs might be too busy to help party list MPs or MSPs unless their leader/whip encourages them.

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