For the first time in a generation we have the whole centre-left vote behind one party

3rd September, 2012 4:43 pm

Mark Ferguson was right to puncture Polly Toynbee and Peter Hain’s separate overtures to the Lib Dems last week.

The timing of these interventions was odd in that we are only half way through the Parliament, ahead in the opinion polls, seem to have seen off the boundary changes, and are likely to get a further lift from the Corby and other results on 15th November.

It doesn’t look like we need to contemplate a coalition.

Rehabilitating the Lib Dems, by suggesting to voters they are an acceptable centre-left partner to Labour, rather than the people who put the Tories in and caused the current mess, risks both de-motivating our own Labour supporters and causing a gradual drift back towards the Lib Dems.

You would have thought Polly would have learned from the Guardian and Compass’ flirtation with the Lib Dems in the run up to 2010. They won’t repay friendliness and talk of progressive majorities pre-election with a group hug after it. They will bank the extra votes they get from naive left-wingers, make a calculated decision about who they should get into bed with, and just as likely go off with the Tories again.

They must react to approaches from Labour figures with bemusement. If you are a Lib Dem politician you have chosen not to be Labour. You don’t feel an affinity with us, or you would have joined us. Your heart doesn’t stir with the same impulses as us. If you are a Lib Dem, Labour is one of your competitors who you might have to reluctantly do business with, not your long-lost progressive cousin.

But for some Labour people there seems to be a delusional sense that the Lib Dems are prodigal sons, or rather a prodigal father. This dates right back to the pre-1900 days when there was a real debate in our ranks about whether Lib/Labbery – acting as the trade union vote gatherers for the Liberals in return for crumbs of parliamentary representation from the Liberal table, was a better bet than the perils of an independent Labour Party.

Within Labour’s ranks there are plenty of people with a kind of guilt complex or cultural cringe towards competing parties on the left. Because these Labour people feel bad about some of the compromises and tough decisions we have to take as a potential party of government, they project the idealised powerless but pure leftwinger they want to
be onto members of another party, be that the Greens, Communists, Respect or Lib Dems. We see that in the reluctance some Labour people have to take on the Greens, or the bizarre giving of a platform this summer to the Respect candidate for the Manchester Central by-election by the Labour left-orientated Left Futures website. The feeling is not reciprocated by parties that are ruthlessly seeking to take votes off Labour, and don’t differentiate between “good” and “bad” Labourites when they seize council or parliamentary seats off us. Oddly a similar phenomenon exists on the right of British politics, with many rightwing Tories looking on UKIP not as a practical electoral threat
but as an idealised model of what they want their own party to look like.

Perhaps there is also an element of wishful-thinking going on about the size of the centre-left in Britain. If we play make-believe and claim the Lib Dems as somehow an adjunct to ourselves, we arrive at a nice big number and can kid ourselves that our own politics are shared by a progressive majority which we just need to mobilise or pull together into a broad enough coalition. If however, we worst case it and count the Lib Dems where they actually are in real life politics, as part of a conservative majority, it presents us with an altogether less cheerful political scenario. The answer perhaps lies somewhere in between – there is a progressive majority on key social issues like defending the NHS, but it either doesn’t exist or has to be fought for on many, more electorally resonant, issues like the economy.

The Lib Dems going into coalition with the Tories ought to have destroyed forever the mindset that they are somehow our long lost sister party.

But some Labour people are so desperate to cling to this illusion that they have invented a new paradigm. In this version of reality there are “rightwing” Lib Dems who like the Orange Book, and a hidden guerrilla force of “leftwing” Lib Dems, largely from SDP backgrounds, who are the true grassroots of the Party and are just waiting for the right code to be transmitted in the pages of the Guardian by Polly, at which point they will rise up, seize control of the Lib Dems and propel us into power without the need for a majority win in a General Election.

The problem is that these “leftwing” Lib Dems all voted to go into Coalition with the Tories too, just like the “rightwing” ones. And have voted for all the dreadful measures like the NHS reforms too. They are just as guilty as Clegg & co.

And the internal Lib Dem factions are not easy to map either. Take the chap being touted as a “leftwing” replacement for Clegg. Vince Cable was one of the authors of the free market Orange Book. Vince Cable was the Shadow Chancellor who said in 2008 “it is entirely wrong for the government to assume the economy should be stimulated by yet more public spending rather than tax cuts”.

If truly “leftwing” Lib Dems do exist, their cause inside their party is unlikely to be helped by external encouragement by Labour.

The wing of the Lib Dems that is allegedly nearest to Labour on terms of policy has historically been the one that has been most viciously politically hostile to Labour on the ground. That’s because if you are a Lib Dem presenting yourself as centre-left, you are often partly motivated by the purely cynical grounds that you are in an urban area trying to take Labour votes, and you see the end-game as the Lib Dems reducing Labour to rump or museum-piece, and replacing it as the centre-left alternative to the Tories. Cable’s own career hinged on a decision in 1981 to defect from Labour to the SDP to try to do this – the SDPers weren’t seeking to work with Labour, which they had just walked away from in considerable acrimony, they were seeking to replace it. The ones who have had second thoughts have rejoined Labour, and in some cases made a noble contribution since. You have to be pretty rightwing or have developed a deep ingrained cultural hatred of the Labour Party to have stayed outside it even in the run-up to 1997, and then gone in with the Tories in 2010.

My take is that the realignment of British voters after the formation of the Coalition in 2010 represented a critical historical opportunity for Labour. For the first time in a generation we have the whole centre-left vote behind one party. We need to consolidate that and get all those ex-Lib Dem voters to actually vote Labour in 2015. Then perhaps we can have a Nordic-style party system with one social democratic party facing a splintered array of centre-right parties (the Lib Dems, Tories and UKIP), reversing the historical pattern of a divided left. I want to see us unite centre-left voters behind Labour, not artificially unite parties in a coalition.

Thus far we have won ex-Lib Dem voters to Labour by attacking the Lib Dems for their participation in the Coalition and their multiple betrayals of the perhaps naive faith basically left voters put in them.

Going soft on the Lib Dems in the hope that it might bolster the wing of them that we could do business with is a risky suggestion. Taking the heat off them could see them partially rehabilitated or de-toxified, their vote drift back up, and Clegg and the Orange Bookers actually consolidated in charge of the party. If their vote drifts up because we don’t attack them as hard as they deserve, it increases the number of MPs they are likely to win and this mathematically increases the probability of a hung parliament.

Unless you believe that a Labour majority in 2015 is impossible to achieve – which implies believing we cannot gain Milton Keynes South, requiring a 4.7% swing, to get 326 seats – then doing anything that increases the chances of a hung parliament is a bad idea. Particularly when 8 of the 69 seats below Milton Keynes South in the attack list are Lib Dem seats.

If we end up in a hung parliament again, of course we have to talk to the Lib Dems to try to bust up the current dreadful Coalition. Of course that would be easier if they depose Clegg. But let’s cross that bridge if we come to it. Meantime the job we have to do, just like any other political party, is fight to take as many votes as possible off of all our competitors, and not get distracted into flights of fancy about creating a Lib Dem partner that might never exist.

Value our free and unique service?

LabourList has more readers than ever before - but we need your support. Our dedicated coverage of Labour's policies and personalities, internal debates, selections and elections relies on donations from our readers.

If you can support LabourList’s unique and free service then please click here.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • There is nothing remotely left wing about New Labour or its personnel like Harman, Burnham or Balls. The party today is centre right in it philosophy and polices. Only the Greens are truly left of centre or dare I say it socialist.

    • Clearly, David Arrowsmith, you have lost contact with the meaning of the words “centre right”

    • John_Dore

      And the problem is?

    • NT86

      The same Green Party which just elected a middle class former Guardian journalist as its new leader. I think environmentalism and climate change are very important issues but the approach the Green’s take puts them at odds with modern life. They’re not socialists they’re luddites who try to lecture ordinary people about what’s best for them. Outside of Brighton, Islington and perhaps Norwich they’re unelectable. Plus they’re ideological opposition to nuclear power (which I think should be used alongside developing improved renewable technology) is not of this planet.

  • Ironknee

    yes, at last someone who is not going to sell out Labour to the LibDems

  • markfergusonuk

    The Green Party? Would they be the ones who regularly oppose house building projects that would allow working people to live in affordable social housing?

    And I find it odd that your go to New Labour politician is Harriet Harman…

    • DavePostles

      Affordable social housing could be built on brownfield sites, with the central government defraying the costs of clearing the sites.  Housing will only be affordable for people if it is located near their places of work, not in the greenbelt with huge transport costs to travel from home to place of work.  The Greens offer policies based on communitarianism, mutualism, progressive taxation, and renewable energy.  Those policies are further to the left than current Labour.

    • aracataca

      They might be Mark. Or they might be the sister party of the Irish Green party- you know the ones that propped up a government of millionaire property developers who bankrupted the country by putting the debts of the banks on to the government’s balance sheet in Ireland and who were annihilated in the Irish General Election of 2011.

      •  Yeah, but you’re comparing the most right-wing green party in Europe with one of the most left (alongside the Dutch and maybe some from Nordic Green-left)…

    • John_Dore

      Thanks for the moderation Mark. Its Bollocks.

    •  Not fair to claim that the Greens are anywhere near as right-wing as the Lib Dems.

      They are the only other party with a councillor that are not phobic about the state or collective action generally. And some of their policies are much, much more about social justice than those you have picked.

      If we had to have a coalition with someone, in my view they would be our closest partners.

      None of this is to say they shouldn’t be defeated, of course.

  • The whole LibDem party should be consigned to history. One only emphasis again and again that LibDems should never be forgiven for colluding with the Tories in the destruction of the welfare state. They all had a choice and they all chose to support a disgusting far right agenda. Had people known before the election where the Libdems stood then they would not have have held the balance of power. They all mislead the British people and deserve political extinction at the next election. One single Vote for the Libdems is one vote to many, may they enjoy their ignoble pyrrhic victory while it lasts for we will never forget where they stand.

  • AlanGiles

    The Lib-Dems big problem is that they have always tried to be all things to all men and women. Adopt a leftish stance in Constituency A adopt a rightish-Tory wet aproach in Constituency B.

    But…. “Compassionate Conservatives” try the same trick with disgruntled Labour voters and Labour right-wingers try to capture the Tories hearts by adopting a very strict pose on defence and welfare.

    The big problem for all three parties now is that the general public don’t trust any of them.

    Any party should have a set of values that are non-negotiable , some core beliefs. Policy has to be adapted to circumstance and time, but when you try to ingratiate yourself with everybody at the same time, you end up either convincing nobody or disappointing everybody

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      You are correct Alan, but is is perhaps explicable (if not noble) in a wider context.

      Across the electorate (about 45 million people), there is a bell curve of distribution of opinion that is loaded towards the centre.

      This being fairly obvious, and with social factors coming into play (ie the diminution of voting along “hereditary” lines, and being far more prepared to try different parties), the party strategist and leaders all tend to chase the centre votes.

      Party members and loyalists – a statistical minority of the electorate, even if all added together – tend to prefer positions and policies considerably off the centre***.  This is why Tony Blair became very unpopular in Labour, and both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are unpopular with most tories and Lib Dems.

      Therefore party strategists and leaders have two problems, how to appeal to the broad mass of the electorate who like things fairly central, and how to keep their members happy and paying the subscriptions.

      The practical answer, from their perspective, is to appeal to the centre.  How do you weigh 1,000 non-members’ votes against the subscription of an activist?  If you lose 10 members, but gain 10,000 votes nationally, is it worth it?  In terms of being in power, it assuredly is. I would also observe that because the subscriptions to the Labour Party are understandably made as affordable as possible for the low-waged and unwaged, I imagine that the cash value of those subscriptions do not gain a lot of respect in Victoria Street when a new policy proposal may gain 10,000 more votes but result in 10 members leaving the party in disgust.

      ***The Lib Dems really are split, with both centrist / slightly right and quite considerably left “poles” in their party.  This is not a party that can hold itself together for much longer:  Clegg’s 2010 decision on coalition is merely an accelerating factor in a predictable Lib Dem split, probably after a disastrous 2015 election.

      • I’m not so sure I agree any more in terms of the make-up of the parties. At one time Labour activists were clearly to the left of the party’s centre, but with party membership of all parties now so low, this seems to have coincided with many on the left of Labour leaving the party – and most haven’t returned.
        Tory activists are probably more to the Right but then, they were out of power so there was less reason for right wingers to leave. Certainly some appear to have bailed out to UKIP.
        The LD’s benefitted from a localised ‘take the politics out of politics’ appeal which had very little connection to any ideological position, so you really do get people in the LD’s with, it seems, no coherent idea why.

        I do think our electoral system contributes to this as well. Two large catch all parties who would both be split into at least two if not three different parties if in, say, Holland

      • Redshift1

        It depends how reliable the very simplistic bell curve theory is really isn’t it? 

        I mean for a start, not all policies are spatial issues, so to plot things like unemployment levels and growth on a left-right axis is a difficult task in the first place. Secondly, ‘towards the centre’ is one thing, but it is also incredibly vague. It can simultaneously be true that people pull away from extremes but they want parties to stand up for some clear values. Finally and leading on from my last point, even if such a graph can be reasonably constructed – could it not be the case that actually there are two peaks in the graph around both the centre-left and centre-right rather than a single point in the middle. 

        There is a fundamental danger to triangulating towards the centre, that even centrist voters are put off by a lack of values. 

  • You do realise that many Lib Dems see Labour and the Tories as one and the same? It’s no good acting left in opposition and then acting like Tories in Government.

  • robertcp

    I am more sympathetic towards coalitions than Luke but his last paragraph sums up the situation very well.  There is no point thinking about an arrangement with the Lib Dems in a hung parliament until it happens. 

    My personal view is that coalitions are a good idea and this coalition has at least got rid of the taboo about them.  Everybody now accepts that there will be negotiations about a coalition or another arrangement if there is a hung parliament in 2015.

  • markfergusonuk

    What – like the Lib Dems have?

  • markfergusonuk

    I think you’ll find they’re unelectable in Islington now too…

  • markfergusonuk

    No John, it’s not – and your response has proved why it’s neccessary…

  • markfergusonuk

    I wasn’t talking about green belt building – I was talking about house building in – for example – London, Zone 2…

    • AlanGiles

       Mark, I have distanced myself from this a bit, since if I said too much
      about Ms. Bennett or the Greens, I would get the usual responses from
      the usual suspects, but  speaking only for myself, I am all for building more social housing in non-green belt land, BUT we must have the infrastructure available to offer new tenants the full range of essential services. For example, here in Havering, hundreds of new houses are being built but we have only one hospital in the borough, which will get busier when the A & E and maternity facilities in the neighbouring borough (Redbridge, King Georges) are closed as they are scheduled to do. I think John P Reid would be able to confirm these facts. Nothing wrong in housebuilding in many parts of London, (for a start how about the Olympic site, which really comes to then end of the road on Sunday) but the Calamity Coalition want to make it easier to build on green-belt land: of course, living in a green belt area means there is not much likliehood of social housing being built there.

      As for Ms. Bennett, she worked as a journalist not only on the Guardian (which seems to be starting to be a naughty word), but the “Independent”  and the “Times” as well,  and has a qulaification in Agricultural science. Will she be a success? I have no idea, but it is too early to write her off.

      • Redshift1

        If they were the left-wing party they make out, they’d have picked Cranie. 

        • AlanGiles

           Funnily enough Ms Bennett’s first speech sums up my dilemma with the party: I am totally in favour of getting rid of Trident, which is an expensive and useless comfort blanket, freeing ourselves of obligations in Afghanistan, which will never be resolved, and protecting the green belt. Where I drift away is that I don’t think it feasible to cease building airports. There would lie the way to economic stagnation. I think Boris Johnson’s absurd idea of using Cliffe in Kent, as an island airport in the Thames should be stamped on (apart from enviromental devestation it would probably not be a good idea to have an airport on a foggy stretch of river – imagine the delayed and rerouted flights half of the year). I also think the residents on the flypath of Heathrow do not deserve yet more noise and pollution. I would think expanding  Stanstead would be the only practical option as things stand, if it has to be in South East England, but the Greens can’t stand in the way of people going about their work and leisure.

          But at least they are clear on their policies now, and are not having a 3 year review which I feel is far too long a time to drift.

          • aracataca

            And let’s not forget that Green Party leaders can do car crash interviews on TV:
            and that they are much closer to the Lib Dems than we may think:… 

          • AlanGiles

             Talking of car crash interviews, the Stephen Twigg BBC TV interview with Andrew Neil on June 10th…… worth a look.

            I don’t know why you get so upset about the Greens, Bill. They might hold on in Brighton in 2015, and if they are lucky they might gain one more seat.

            If Labour is doing as well as the likes of Luke Akehurst think they will, why grudge them TWO seats at Westminster?.

            I think Labour might become a bit too complacent. Some of them seem to think all they have to do is wait for the coalition to explode, and they will automatically march into No 10 again. This complacency smacks of arrogance when we know the “policy review” will take up to three years (i.e. the Spring of 2015)

            Luke is quite wrong: the whole of the Centre-Left is NOT behind Labour since we don’t know what policies will be followed. More of the same, and I suspect many who left will stay away.

          • Redshift1

            The Labour Party needs to reach out to the left. That, I cannot agree with more. 

            That isn’t the same as me having a open-arms stance with the Greens as a party. They behave on a local level in the same way as the Lib Dems do (or did is more accurate now). They are opportunistic, and they’d fuck over your most left-wing Labour councillor, if it meant having a green councillor who was basically a Tory that joined them because they were opposing a development he didn’t like (I think it’s easy to forget for people that don’t have an active Green Party in their area that actually this isn’t uncommon). 

            Many of their members I have a huge amount of time for personally and politically, but we have to win them (in some cases back) over by being more relevant to their values, than the greens are.

    • DavePostles

       There is a world outside London.

    • DavePostles

       There is a world outside London.

      • markfergusonuk

        I’m well aware of that, but that doesn’t stop me using a London example every now and then when pertinent

        • DavePostles

          In the wider scheme of policy, these are minor transgressions, compared with the calamities advocated by New Labour.  Where is Labour on the protection of welfare?  Where is Labour on advocacy with the Coalition of Resistance?  Labour is pusillanimous on the major issues.

          • markfergusonuk

            So Labour should sign up to the “Coalition of Resistance”? You see that’s where you and I differ I think, because I didn’t want Labour to be a resistance, I want Labour to be a government.

          • DavePostles

             I see no point in the current consensus amongst the Labour shadow cabinet becoming government policy.  I would like a real Labour government, but, sadly, it is not prospective with this lot of trimmers.  I would imagine that the Greens would refuse to join a rainbow coalition with this lot.  If Labour manages to win a majority in 2015, it will be through a negative vote and it will disappoint, IMHO.  At least the Greens act as a ginger group for real left-of-centre policies.  Yes, Labour should support the CoR, which works closely with the TUC and False Economy.  In fact, only a few left-of-centre Labour MPs have signed up independently.  TUC and CoR are united in opposing the cuts that are causing so much distress and harm.  The march on 20th October is a collaborative effort between TUC, CoA, and False Economy. 

      • Redshift1

        They’ve done this in Lancaster too.

  • I think to be fair to Vince Cable, he has been trying to come away from his free market liberal turn in 2008.

    • postageincluded

      To be fair, he goes wherever the wind blows.

    • Redshift1

      He doesn’t seem to have tried that hard that he’d vote down the privatisation of the NHS, etc

      • He is a Cabinet minister so he values collective responsibility more than principle in that regard. I take it you heard about his texting antiques regarding Ed Miliband’s speech.

  • postageincluded

    Agree almost entirely, Mark. The only thing I’d add is that even if you don’t believe a Labour majority is possible in 2015, there’s still no point in getting chummy with the LDs. There’s more than one way to hang a parliament: the nearer we are to a majority the better, so we can set the terms. That means making sure that every LD voter with a conscience sees Labour as the only possible vote – even if they need the famous Toynbee nose-peg to do it

  • i_bid

     While I completely agree that Labour would be stupid to go
    conciliatory/soft on the Liberals and deprive themselves of a once in a
    generation opportunity for united left, it does strike me that the
    problem Labour has it is not remotely of the Left, and having Akehurst
    (well documented for holding right-wing views) argue it – whilst
    lecturing ‘naive leftists’, doesn’t make it any more convincing (nor
    does Mark Ferguson’s whataboutery about other scarcely Left parties).

    So you’ve got the perverse
    prospect of the Liberals dumping Clegg and immediately winning back a
    sizeable amount of defectors, even after all they’ve done, because
    Labour are just so unattractive a prospect for left of centre types, who
    justifiably believe most of these unforgivable policies would’ve been
    done by Labour, but without the constrains of a Tory coalition. 

  • AlanGiles

     It is strange how,  suddenly,  the “Guardian” – in some Labour  people’s eyes – has become as toxic a brand as “The Sun” used to be. Just saying…..

    • Because they backed the Lib Dems at the last election, despite being a Labour paper.

  • Daniel Speight

    The problem is that these “leftwing” Lib Dems all voted to go into
    Coalition with the Tories too, just like the “rightwing” ones. And have
    voted for all the dreadful measures like the NHS reforms too. They are
    just as guilty as Clegg & co.

    The problem some may have Luke is the suspicion that some of the right/Blairite/Progress types also would have leapt into a coalition with whowever might have offered them power. You know people like Mandelson, Fields and Hutton who made it pretty clear.

    • John_Dore

      Better to have a hand in the tiller than sat outside moaning.

      • Serbitar

        What a weird and mixed (up) metaphor!

  • Serbitar

    “For the first time in a generation we have the whole centre-left vote behind one party”

    To be honest I think a far more likely outcome in respect to the next general election would be a record number of abstentions from centre-left voters disappointed by the all of the choices on offer and walking away from the electoral process altogether as a consequence. I really don’t see armies of men and women formally centre-left politically lining up behind the Labour Party. I do not think that simply “not being the Tories or the Liberal Democrats” will necessarily swing the election in the Labour Party’s favour given its record in government most notably its disastrously half-baked and ill thought out package of “welfare reforms” all of which seem to have done terrible harm to so many good people and innocents and no good at all to anyone worth mentioning.   

  • Redshift1

    Very much agree.

    Although your Nordic point is a bit odd, since in most cases the social democratic party joins coalitions with other left parties…

    •  In all cases, I believe. The days of the Social Democrats getting 40% of the vote are long gone throughout Norden.

      Mind you, that’s not an argument for coalition when it’s not necessary.

      • Redshift1

        Indeed, and of course we don’t have the list systems that the Nordic countries do, which means we have less and broader parties. 

        I am perplexed about why Luke would get this wrong. 

  • Redshift1

    The Greens?! Most of their councillors are more bothered about NIMBY development issues than they are about social justice.

  • markfergusonuk

    The Greens would turn down being in a coalition with Labour because the Green Party is a pressure group, not a serious political party

  • Daniel Speight

    Taking it that John Dore would approve of a coalition with the Tories then.

  • Daniel Speight

    There are some warnings in Europe for how badly things can go wrong for social democratic parties moving too close to the centre. Labour’s sister parties in both Greece and Holland are finding that the core vote is moving to parties further to the left. If the party needs role model for success it only needs to look across the Channel at France.

  • This must be a first – a piece by Luke that I agree with entirely!

  • David Brede

    I recall a post election Fabian meeting where the surprise guest Vince Cable casually repudiated the stance the Lib Dems took at the election and advanced the case he took in the Orange Book.

    If there are Lib Dems who are dismayed by their party’s electoral pact and the stance of its leaders they can always tear up their yellow cards and sign up to Labour?


LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends