Each year I have a pre-Christian lunch with three fiends; one a fellow Liberal Democrat, the other two keen Labour party supporters, one whom campaigns actively in a Labour/Tory marginal. He asked me how I would vote in such a marginal , and without much thoght or explanation I replied "Liberal." Afterwards and on reflection, I thought this might have been a bit blunt, so I wrote him the following letter (names have been changed):
At our pre-Christmas lunch you asked me how I would vote in a Labour/Troy marginal where a Liberal Democrat candidate had “no chance” and I replied “Liberal.”
This deserves a little more explanation.
Perhaps it would have been a bit more tactful if I had said that voting Labour rather than Liberal Democrat would be worth considering if there were a reciprocal arrangement in a similarly placed Liberal Democrat/ Tory marginal where Labour voters undertook to vote Liberal Democrat. This idea has been floated from time to time but I’m not aware that it has achieved much. Further research is needed. The Labour leadership is strongly against such arrangements but sometimes voters take matters into their own hands.
More broadly, a “realignment of the Left” has been hovering in the background for most of the last half-century, if not longer. The late Paddy Ashdown was very keen on it, as you may have gathered from the obituaries.
The first “realignment” in which I was involved was in the late sixties or early seventies. David Steel, Ben Whittaker (a Labour MP) and Des Wilson (the Shelter founder, but not then in the Liberal party, but dubbed “the country’s best known Mr Wilson") tried to form a cross-party Radical Action Movement (RAM). I went to a meeting. It came to nothing when the other Mr Wilson (Harold) won a small majority in February 1974 and a bigger one later in the year.
The formation of the SDP and eventual merger with the Liberals was another attempt which ended in failure because the overwhelming majority of Labour MP remained loyal to what became “Old” Labour .
More recently was the “Project” which Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair toyed with in the 90s. Proportional representation of some sort (possibly not STV in multi-member constituencies) featured prominently. Blair lost all interest once Labour won its massive majority in 1997.
In other words, Labour tends to be interested in cooperation with the Liberal Party /Liberal Democrats when Labour is weak, and loses interest when it wins, or looks as though it can win, a majority, however small.
Many Labour members are bitter that the Liberal Democrats formed a Coalition with the Tories in 2010. As you know, neither Jack (the other Liberal at the meal) nor I think the formation of that Coalition was a mistake. If you believe in proportional representation then a balanced (better word than “ hung”) parliament is almost inevitable so the making and breaking of coalitions will, with PR, become a normal feature of our democracy (as it is in Germany and many other European countries.)
The mistakes in the 2010-15 Coalition arose from the naïve way in which the coalition was conducted – Liberal Democrats supporting everything rather than defining: these are the policies on which we agree and will give open support; these are the policies on which we have reservations but will not vote the government out; these are the areas in which we disagree and on which we will campaign and vote independentl. We should have been able to say on so many policies: they have 300+ MPs; we have only 57 – we don’t agree but we can’t stop them, only modify the damage this will do.
Also it is now evident that Nick Clegg trusted Cameron while from the beginning the Tories did their best to shaft us, among other things by pouring campaign funds into the seats we held in order to gain them – very successful.
What Labour critics fail to acknowledge is that, while the Liberal Democrats adopted a policy of negotiating first with the party with the biggest minority in the Commons. ie the Tories, there were also parallel but less publicised negotiations with Labour. Gordon Brown was very keen on these but prominent Labour figures, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and others, were strongly opposed and these negotiations foundered.
So from this, possibly somewhat biased, outsider’s perspective it appears that “die-hard Labour" believes that:
- · Labour holds the monopoly blueprint by which society is to be improved:
- e those with alternative suggestions (Liberal Democrats, Greens, some nationalists, feminists, et al )are trespassing on" our" turf and should jolly-well get out of the way.
In support of the second proposition, Liberal Democrats holding public office often get the impression that Labour hates us more than the Tories.
Add to that, not only did the Tories shaft us in the Coalition, but Labour, in my view shamefully, did so too, on two key rises of the Liberal Democrat programme:
1. Electoral Reform. We purposely ran the referendum on the “Alternative Vote” because this was policy the Labour Manifesto. Your then leader Ed Miliband publicly supported it and so did some other Labour leaders, but others publicly campaigned against and many MPs and much of your membership remained indifferent.
2. House of Lords reform was also in the Labour manifesto. Labour supported the Coalition proposal in principle and then blocked it by the back-door method of failing to vote for the parliamentary time to debate it. What hypocrisy.
These two shameful acts (of lack of action) support the two criticisms above: good ideas are only good if they come from Labour.
Tom asked if I thought our party would survive and even revive.
Of course it will, or something like it. There is a need in any democracy for a party which gives the highest priority to individual liberty commensurate with the liberty of others (increasing levels of surveillance made possible by modern technology make this increasingly vital); is enthusiastic about international co-operation; wants to set limits to inequality; advocates sharing sovereignty with Europe, the UN and eventually the rest of the world: is keen to promote real equality and not just equality of opportunity, wants a generous welfare safety-net for those who, through their own fault or otherwise, fail to flourish without help; puts long-term considerations (eg on climate change) before short-term advantage; believes in stake-holder participation in the conduct of economic enterprises and the profits made; and wants to reform the constitution to devolve as much power as sensible to the lowest possible e level.
In summary, a major difference between us and Labour arises from that last point. We are bottom-up reformers, Labour is top-down.
That doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a lot of overlap in our policies, especially in regard to welfare. So a re-alignment of the left could come as and when Labour recognises that it does not, after all, have a monopoly of what “the good society” should look like and is prepared to work with parties which share some of its ideas.
The key to this co-operation is electoral reform. For Labour to adopt that your die-hards must accept
a) that it is unlikely to be able in the future to win over-all majorities by itself, and
b) even if you do, that one party-massive majority government is not often good government (as witness the errors of the Blair years, for example)
One last point. Your argument about Liberal Democrats et al handing seats to the Tories by “interfering “ in your marginal seats is probably invalided. It assumes for example that, in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, most or even all our vote would transfer to Labour and thus dish the Tories.
Whereas it is true that most Liberal Democrat activists are to the left, that is not necessarily true of our electoral support (just as not all Labour voters are Socialists). Some of our support comes from “centrists” or those disgusted by the bullying arrogance of the two larger parties. Some will be “one-nation Tories” who (with god reason) feel that the Tories have moved too far to the Right. It is a fair bet that, in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, some of our supporters wouldn’t vote, and only about half of the rest would vote labour, with the other half voting Tory.
I believe there is research evidence to support this.
So I do not believe we are “queering your pitch.” I shall go on campaigning for my principles, and urge you to continue campaigning for yours – at least until you see the light.