Just before the Batley and Spen by-election (1sr July) the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ed Davey issued the following public statement:
“Voters are far smarter than people give them credit for. Liberal Democrat voters may well notice that this is a Labour-held seat with the Tories in a close second, and they’ll draw their own conclusions. But that shouldn’t be stitched up in a back room by party leaders.”
The voters took Sir Ed’s hint, the Liberal Democrat vote fell to a miserable 3%, and Labour narrowly held the seat.
Had Sir Keir Starmer made a similar statement before yesterday's North Shropshire by-election he would have been able to take some of the credit for massive humiliation suffered by the Tories. Sadly he chose to remain silent, and all the credit must go to our new Liberal Democrat MP, Helen Morgan, the wonderful Liberal Democrat by-election team, and the "smarter than people think" voters, along with those who stayed at home.
To be fair, I've seen claims that the Labour Party HQ chose to stand aside and not put much effort into the campaign.
Not so,however, a group of Labour diehards who took their cue from Labour First and its spokesperson Luke Akehurst .
In an article vigorously opposing tactical voting and published just a few days before the North Shropshire by-election Mr Akehurst wrote:
It is quite difficult to justify viewing [the Liberal Democrats] as potential progressive partners when they enthusiastically embraced a coalition with David Cameron for five years, ushered in austerity and horrific cuts to public services, and reneged on solemn pledges they had made to left-wing voters such as students.
Why should we trust them, and how can we expect Labour voters to feel comfortable backing them, when tactical anti-Tory voters in 2010 saw the Lib Dem MPs they had elected going into government with the Tories?
He then adds:
The Lib Dems have no claim to be the main challenger based on general election results. Labour was a clear second in North Shropshire in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Lib Dems only narrowly managed second in 2010. Labour almost won the seat in 1997, the Lib Dems have never been anywhere near it.We don’t need a progressive alliance with minor parties because what Labour is at its best is a progressive alliance in and of itself.
You can read the full article here .
The Labour diehards spread enough of these views around the constituency, I'm told, to cause the bookmakers to change their odds and make the Tories favourites to hold the seat.
Fortunately they were mistaken. Helen Morgen won with 17 957 votes to the Tories' 12 032 (a swing of +43%) with Labour coming a poor third on 3 686 votes (11%, which would have meant a lost deposit in the good old days.)
The problem I see with Mr Akehurst and those of the Labour First ilk is they believe that campaigning for what they see as the purity of their cause is more important than actually forming part of a government that could implement some of it. They and they alone have the recipe for a perfect world and will not see it besmirched by any other recipe.
Fine if that were a possibility, and maybe it was in 1945.
But I suspect those days are over, and even if they're not, how many years of corrupt and ineffective minority Tory government are they prepared to endure before the the glorious transformation becomes possible (and when it did, under Tony Blair, they don't seem to think it was all that glorious). Just how long are they prepared to wait?
The criticisms levelled at the Liberal Democrats in the first quotation above are not fake news. We did indeed "usher ...in austerity and horrific cuts to public services, and reneged on solemn pledges [we] had made to left-wing voters such as students." much to the horror and dismay of many party party members, including me (and this is not hindsight but documented on this blog and elsewhere). And we are sorry for it and have been cruelly punished for it.
But parties in government make mistakes, and parties in coalitions make compromises.
And let us be clear that the Labour Party in government has not been the Simon Pure wearer of St Michael underpants that Labour First would have us believe.
Which government invaded Iraq on a false prospectus which lead to around 200 000 violent civilian deaths and a state now teetering on failure; introduced PFIs which lumbered hospitals and local authorities with enormous debts far exceeding the initial costs of the projects; first promised not to introduce student fees, than introduced them at £1 000 a year up front, then tripled them?
Which party proposed the Alternative Vote for the reform of the electoral system, then failed to campaign for it; had the chance to reform the House of Lords but blocked the allocation of parliamentary time to deal with it?
And its a bit rich to blame the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Tories when the alternative of a Lib-Lab coalition, favoured by Gordon Brown, was vetoed by big beasts such as Jack Straw and David Blunkett.
Name calling is a fruitless exercise. We need to recognise what we have in common, accept each others' imperfections, and form an imperfect progressive coalition as a viable alternative to the horrors of continued Tory rule.
The "smarter than we think" electors recognise this: blinkered party loyalists should not stand it its way.