William Wallace writes: Why we should be wary of Lib-Labbery

Labour strategists are warning their party not to take it for granted that they will sweep into power in the coming general election with a large majority.  They point to earlier campaigns, in the UK and elsewhere, during which substantial initial poll leads have evaporated, to leave either no overall majority or even a surprise victory for the incumbent government.  It looks extremely unlikely that the Conservatives can recover that far; but it may be wise to reflect on the possible implications of Labour failing to win a comfortable majority.

Many of us, while desperately anxious to see the back of this dying and faction-ridden Tory government, will nevertheless lack confidence that a majority Labour government would offer sufficient political and economic change.  But we also need to be cautious and suspicious about how Labour would behave if it were to emerge without a clear Commons majority.

Those of us with long memories recall how difficult and frustrating cooperation with Labour has proved on previous occasions when they have needed third-party support.  When Harold Wilson won a bare majority in 1964, Jo Grimond – committed to ‘the realignment of the Left’ and to reasoned cooperation between politicians of goodwill – offered support.  Wilson responded warmly when opinion polls looked bad for Labour in the Spring of 1965.  When they turned back in Labour’s favour that summer, he ridiculed the Liberals in his speech to Labour’s conference, and went on to secure a clear majority of MPs in the 1966 election.

The ‘hung’ result of the February 1974 election (in which the Liberals received 6 million votes: more than half those cast for each of the other two parties, but winning only 14 seats), neither Labour not Conservatives could construct a majority with Liberal support.  Jeremy Thorpe accepted Heath’s invitation to discuss an alliance – but Heath would make no commitment to electoral reform, and a minority Labour government took office.  A second election six months later gained Labour 39% of the vote and a bare 3-seat majority, which melted away over the next two years.  James Callaghan as prime minister then invited David Steel to negotiate what became the ‘Lib- Lab Pact’, in which Labour offered minor concessions on policy and devolution and a half-promise of PR for the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament – on which, after opposition from several Cabinet Ministers, Callaghan failed to deliver. Liberal MPs got no more out of the Pact than conversations with ministers, and the party withdrew from the pact 18 months later.

Tony Blair was much more committed to Lib-Lab cooperation, and Paddy Ashdown more careful about the detail.  In the run-up to the 1997 election there were extensive conversations between the two parliamentary parties and staff on different policy priorities, most importantly in a working group on constitutional reform led by Robin Cook and Robert McLennan.  Blair’s overwhelming parliamentary majority left these careful preparations redundant, although some cooperation continued for some time with the more friendly members of the Labour government, and the Cook-McLennan proposals on devolution for Scotland and Wales were carried into effect.  The 1997 Labour manifesto had promised a referendum on a more proportional voting system.  In 1998 a committee under Roy Jenkins proposed an ‘AV+’ system, but the Blair government left its recommendations on one side.

Lib-Lab discussions after the indecisive 2010 election were hampered by the need to add in at least one of the nationalist parties to gain a parliamentary majority.  But they were also hampered by the evident disagreement among Labour negotiators as to whether cooperation was desirable.  David Laws, lead LibDem negotiator, afterwards labelled key Labour negotiators ‘arrogant and patronising.’

Liberals instinctively believe in reasoned debate and constructive cooperation among politicians with diverse views.  That has made us – on successive past occasions, with both major parties – too trusting of offers of consultation by others, and naïve about how far they are willing to put the common interest above party advantage.  If the gap between the parties narrows as the election approaches, the Conservatives (and the right-wing press) will no longer be able to claim that multi-party or minority government would mean chaos, and only single-party government ‘strong and stable’ – an assertion that would only raise laughs after the past 7 years.  Given the additional uncertainties of how the SNP will emerge from the election, and the potential impact of Reform, the outcome of the election could be messy.  In such circumstances we should not expect that any offer of shared government or outside support would be comfortable for us, or that a minority Labour government would behave very differently from its 1974 predecessor.

Note: William Wallace was the Liberal Party’s assistant press officer in the 1966 election campaign, a member of the party’s policy committee from 1973-1988, and chaired the manifesto drafting group for the 1979 and 1997 elections.


* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Mick Taylor 4th Jan '24 - 12:55pm

    Spoty on William.
    There’s far too much optimism, especially amongst those new to our party about Labour. Truth be told, they mostly believe we are Labour Mark2 and should always support them without question and that therefore no concessions are required. They really can’t understand – and didn’t in 2010 – that we might actually have views of our own and want them considered as part of any deal.
    Too many people forget that Labour are the party of the Iraq War, centralist, support draconian immigration and asylum policies (it was Labour who introduced the Kenya immigrants Act, not the Tories) and their leadership at least won’t countenance voting reform or consider joining the single market or the customs union. [Mind you our leadership is pretty poor on anything EU]
    About the only thing one can say with any confidence, is that they are not the Tories, even though they are aiming to pursue the same economic orthodoxy and spending plans of the Sunak government. They hope to get elected without promising any change except not being the Tories. Even some of their own supporters in the press are calling them out on this total lack of ambition.
    For goodness sake, get real about the Labour Party. They are not and never will be Liberals.

  • ROGER ROBERTS 4th Jan '24 - 1:20pm

    IF Labour decides to continue Tory immigration policy such as Rwanda then i fpr one would rule out any Tactical voting.

  • Mick Taylor 4th Jan '24 - 2:51pm

    Hi Roger Roberts. If we do no tactical voting, then why should Labour help any of our candidates to win?
    If defeating the Tories is our aim then we do have to hold our noses and vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the Tory. Tactical voting can reduce the Tories to a rump of what they have now. Surely that’s a good thing. Making sure as many Tory defeats as possible are by LibDems will help achieve a secondary aim of not letting Labour have a landslide victory.

  • Peter Davies 4th Jan '24 - 3:16pm

    They don’t need Lib Dem members to vote for them and we don’t need Labour members. We both need the ABC (anyone but Conservative) voters to vote for those of our candidates who can beat them. Our only concession should be moving our activists into our own target seats for the election and we should do that anyway.

  • David Warren 4th Jan '24 - 6:01pm

    We are only going to get long term cooperation with any party if the voting system changes. The best chance we had of achieving that in the post war period was in 2010 when we held the balance of power in the House Of Commons.

    Unfortunately Nick Clegg was so desperate to get into government with Cameron and the Tories he settled for a referendum on the Alternative Vote which was always doomed to fail given the fact that Cameron then went on to oppose it!

    I just hope that in a future hung parliament situation we drive a much harder bargain.

  • Very good article from William and most pertinent comments in response.

    On the question of tactical voting we should spread the word about the “vote swapping” websites that exist.

    My Liberal Democrat vote will count for little in my constituency (Shipley) but if I can arrange a vote swap with a Labour voter in a Lib Dem target seat, between us we may unseat two sitting Conservatives. (In my case the odious Philip Davies).

    Total votes for each party remain constant, but have the chance of being cast more effectively.

  • Mick Taylor 5th Jan '24 - 10:20am

    The key question in any Tory held seat at the next GE is which party can beat the Tories. In 1997, and, I think the same should happen in 2024, there were tacit understandings in many seats about this and we won 46 seats, then the highest number since before WW2. I have no time for Labour any more than the Tories and my aim is to have as many LDs as possible elected. People will make their own personal decisions, but surely for this election we must ensure an overwhelming defeat for the Tories and that will mean some people holding their noses and voting for whoever can best do that, even if it’s not their first choice. Under FPTP, there is no other way. I know in 1997 even some LD members in my then seat voted Labour to ensure the Tory was kicked out. Tacit understandings on a much wider scale than in 1997 are sadly necessary if this dreadful government is to be shown the door AND to ensure a much greater number of LibDem MPs are returned.

  • If we are to look back to 2010, my lesson was that our party has neither the resources to develop a real program of government nor any real agreement on what changes in the country there should be to Involve people in decision making.
    At present we see the latest silly stunt – this time about removing the Tories using a bin lorry. This sort of silliness gives a message. The message is that here is a means of protesting which will be safe.
    In the meanwhile there are members of our party who are trying to decide who best to to vote for. I am one of those, having voted for our party at every election since I was allowed to vote.

  • I believe we LDs ought to be energetically seeking ways of collaborating with the Green Party.

    The LDs, it seems to me, make much too much of our apparent “successes” in by-elections. Such apparent ‘successes’ are largely illusory, no more than gestures from the voters; gestures of derision against the two large parties — the pair, that is, that refuses to countenance the notion of PR in UK.

    So there are two huge parties, dedicated to their own narrow interests in their own private contest. And there is the sane and measured pair of parties in the middle [ I over-simplify, of course! ]. The Greens soldier on doggedly pointing to the long-term niche concerns of responsible adults, like water and food . And the LDs must be, and some currently ARE, attempting to secure the votes the Greens require, by pursuing PR for the nations of our Kingdom, or commonwealth.

    I hope that does not sound like waffle. I believe what we need to do in the next General Election — within a twelvemonth, that is to say — is to ignore the big boys and declare that the LD role, pending PR, must be to collaborate openly with the Greens by negotiating with them to maximise, First and Foremost, the Total Number of Seats won either by the Greens or by the LDs: each party to stand down in half the seats, and support the other.

    The result, surely, would be more seats for Greens, more seats for Lib Dems, and democratic sunrise in the UK, awaiting PR next time?

  • Mick Taylor 7th Jan '24 - 8:14pm

    No pacts no standing down. People who want to vote for us should have the right to do so. Tacit understandings and tactical voting based on accurate information about who can beat the Tories are fine.
    The Greens are not Liberals. They are very authoritarian. There may be areas where cooperation is OK, but in General the Greens are out to do us down and we shouldn’t help them in that aim.
    Please don’t confuse post election deals with pre-election deals. Voters expect a full choice of candidates and it really isn’t our role to deny them that choice.

  • There is a shared interest in getting the Tories out. If Labour said and did everything we wanted then we wouldn’t have a raison d’etre. I always think multi party politics is as much about saying where you agree and could work with other parties as much as where you disagree. I feel a Starmer govt would be better than the Tories as indeed the Blair- Brown ones were.

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