The Independent View: the Lib/Lab relationship past, present, future

Few in a Labour party currently riven by civil war and threatened with electoral wipe-out will be giving much thought to the relationship with the Liberal Democrats.

For their part, the Lib Dems are busy putting as much distance as possible from the government as they seek to take advantage of Labour’s current political weakness. Yet, as I argued recently in an issue of Progress magazine the very same factors currently driving them apart – Nick Clegg’s redirection of the Lib Dems and the resurgence of the Tories – may in fact end up moving them closer together in the longer term.

CentreForum and the Fabians recently organised two meetings at the Lib Dem and Labour conferences which provided an opportunity to test this hypothesis while taking the temperature of relations between the two parties.

Four clear themes emerged:

The first was the high calibre of the speakers that Labour put up at the two meetings. Alongside heavyweight old timers with a track record of Lib Dem hugging/crushing (Charles Clarke and Peter Hain) were two representatives of the next generation, James Purnell and David Lammy. Lammy, in Bournemouth, made a genuine attempt to build links – most notably citing Roy Jenkins as one of his political heroes – while stressing his social democratic roots. Cabinet minister Purnell, speaking to a Labour audience in Manchester, was far less accommodating. But the mere fact he attended provides some grounds to believe younger Labourites are beginning to take the Lib Dems more seriously.

The second is that there was a much greater emphasis on the policy areas that unite the two parties rather than divide. Clarke and Hain talked about the environment, Europe, globalisation and even constitutional reform where the two parties share common goals, if not means, and remain fundamentally at odds with the Tories. In Manchester, Hain was willing to concede Menzies Campbell’s point that the government should have taken the opportunity to introduce voting reform a decade ago and that it was too late now for change. This did not preclude some discussion of those issues that divide, especially Iraq and civil liberties, but there was little heat in the arguments.

Third, Labour’s likely line of attack on the Lib Dems at the next election became clear. Both Hain and Purnell criticised the new ‘right-wing’ tax policy, conflating different parts of the Lib Dem’s opaque tax and spending plans (Hain, for example, implied the 4p cut in income tax was funded by spending cuts). They also sought to paint Nick Clegg as a closet Tory who was looking forward to doing business with David Cameron.

Finally, there is still a gulf between the respect accorded by Labour members to individual senior Lib Dem parliamentary figures, such as Vince Cable (who spoke in Bournemouth) and Campbell, and the contempt often shown for the party as a whole.

Political parties are always prone to reinforcing their own mythology at conference time rather than confronting hard truths. But it was striking just how many Labour activists continue to perceive their Lib Dem counterparts as uniquely ‘nasty’ in their election tactics.

This was coupled with an ongoing sense that the Lib Dems are somehow illegitimate, – a party without principles and coherent policy – that is getting in the way of the genuine Labour-Tory battle. Purnell even argued that the point of the Lib Dems should somehow have been to replace the Tory party on the centre-right after 1997. Clarke and Hain were more measured in their comments but still dressed up the Lib Dems as a kind of feeder club for Labour’s Manchester United, there to contest Tory marginals in those southern and rural areas where Labour is moribund.

These cultural divisions between the parties will, of course, get worse in the short term as Lib Dems target more Labour seats. But the willingness of some Labour figures, including Purnell, to embrace more liberal language and policy suggests relations could subsequently improve. The Lib Dems’ own overhaul of policy, which is creating a more distinctive and coherent platform, should also help. Meanwhile, the post-election reality of a greatly weakened Labour party might just make it a necessity.

* Alasdair Murray is director of the independent liberal think-tank, CentreForum.

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13 Comments

  • Of course we are the uniquely nasty party. After all, consider the extremely courteous and respectful campaign Labour ran in Crewe & Nantwich ….

  • Someone over on Political Betting has suggested that Brown might try to offer a couple of cabinet positions to LibDems in an attempt to change the political narrative.

    Would anyone accept such an offer?

    I can’t see it happening – but may be wrong

  • Its quite simple to me – we are a Liberal party. If they’re Liberals, they join us, if they’re not, they don’t.

  • David Lammy? Calibre? Someone tell us what independent thought he has come up with in his career to date, which has involved asking the whips how high he’s supposed to jump as far as I can see.

    The Lib/Lab idea is a non-starter. The country must come first. Labour is facing a wipe-out. Those who aren’t fleeing the country with their ill-gotten gains will be gibbering wrecks after the next major election and no fit state to work with anybody. The Labour Party are a bunch of mediocre or corrupt chancers the country can do well without, let alone Lib Dems who will be taking their place. The real question is how to stop the BNP making ground.

  • Liberal Neil 23rd Sep '08 - 8:58pm

    If half the thought and effort that has gone into attempts to do deals with Labour over the years had gone into building the party instead we would now be a lot stronger and better for it.

    We should just concentrate on getting our message right and winning elections.

  • Liberal Neil is right – concentrate on winning.The only way to deal with Labour & Tories (if we must) is from strength.Many of the opposition dont even believe we should exist at all – very democratic.

  • Mike Falchikov 25th Sep '08 - 12:39pm

    Well, the major precondition of any co-operation with Labour, perhaps even before electoral reform would be the scrapping of a whole raft of authoritarian and illiberal legislation,most of it introduced by Labour since 1997 -ID cards, 42 days,stop and search, detention of asylum-seekers (especially their children),
    junior ASBOS, large areas of Health and Safety legislation – you name it…..
    But ultimately, the mindset which brought about this legislation remains, I suspect, deep-rooted in much of the Labour Party and would be very difficult for Liberals to live with.

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