Countering the coalition: Don’t attack the Lib Dems

Nick CleggThe “Countering the coalition” column

By Hadleigh Roberts

In the previous three parts, I have covered various opportunities that have arisen from the peculiarity of a coalition government, argued that the coalition will remain intact until the end of the parliament and why Labour should not try to drive a wedge between the two parties. The first trilogy was about what we should do, this next one will try to explain how to do it. It is lots of fun and easy to do, but the Labour Party needs to be disciplined enough to resist attacking the Lib Dems over the betrayal of their voters. As the parable of the Labour MP on a cliff edge goes: kick off the Tory before the Lib Dem; put business before pleasure.

In many ways, this is not the New Politics but an even more secure return to two-party politics. As much as we would like to say that it was Labour that denied the Tories the majority they took for granted, until the Lib Dems gave it to them, the increased number of ‘others’ in the commons make it more and more difficult for any party to win a majority. This is the real damage done by the Lib Dems, and perhaps in the future we will have to add the Greens to that list.

To that extent, we should prepare ourselves for two party politics and focus our arguments against the real enemy of the Tory Party.

It is important to remember the real reason that the coalition exists: the Tories could not get a majority by themselves. The fact that Conservatives released the “Hung Parliament” scare video should show that they invited the Lib Dems into the government not by choice but by necessity. Cameron will rightly want to go it alone as soon as he can, though given his own announcements on fixed terms and dissolution he will have to bide his time unlike Wilson in 1974. Even if Cameron does wish to continue the coalition for a second term, it will be almost impossible to convince his backbenchers.

The key point is that the coalition is not a marriage of two equal partners; it is a hostile takeover of a big company consuming a little one, and not all the Lib Dem shareholders will agree.

A similar example is President Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Few people realise that his government is actually UMP-Nouveau Centre. The Nouveau Centre was originally part of the Mouvement Democrate (MoDem), a party very similar to our Liberal Democrats, which will be a point of focus in Part Five, but it was formed by a group of MPs who decided to break away and ally with Sarkozy.

The worry for the UMP is that the Nouveau Centre will present its own candidate in the presidential election in 2012, draining a few important percentage points away from Sarkozy and at a time where he is currently on level pegging with the Socialist Leader Martine Aubry. The Nouveau Centre thus tries to assert its independence despite not having any, being a tiny minority within the government.

The lesson from France is that the best kind of Lib Dem squeeze for Labour will be to drop all the clumsy and ineffective lines it has been using since May. References to the “ConDem Party” and repetition of the word “coalition” and “betrayal” serve no purpose except that it creates a novelty factor that will undoubtedly prolong the honeymoon period.

It is appropriate to treat the coalition not as something strange but as something that is all too familiar; this is a Tory Government in all but name. It is up to Labour to call it as it is.

By doing this, it takes away the room to manoeuvre that both parties are currently enjoying. They cannot keep using the excuse that their weakness, hypocrisy, u-turns and climb-downs are simply a result of having to compromise, and that it is the “other party” that is responsible for all the bad things while they take the credit for the rest. In interviews, you can be sure that when things are going well a Conservative will represent the government but when it gets tough, they will wheel out a hapless Lib Dem fall guy. We have already seen it on Question Time over the last few weeks.

This reinforcement of collective responsibility is the only way Labour can hold the government to account from opposition. The central theme is not to play on what the Lib Dems have done to form the coalition but instead Labour should emphasise their similarities over their differences. It is vital that any Lib Dems who would associate themselves more with the left come to Labour instead of “others” however, it is possible that protest voting is just a component of the Lib Dem DNA.

Ultimately, we have to keep in mind that the Lib Dems are just there to make up the numbers on the Tory backbenches. We should therefore show them up as what they are: useful idiots.

Repeatedly, the Tories have taken advantage of the Lib Dems who are hopelessly out of their depth and essentially benign in that the Tories are winning the internal arguments so easily. On the economy, on foreign policy, on Europe, on health, immigration, families and more the Tories get their way, and that is just the original coalition agreement. It is clear that the Liberal leadership is content to let the Conservatives run free, providing that they get a ride on the odd hobbyhorse. Instead of proportional representation, a referendum on proportional representation or the alternative vote, they seem to be happy with a paltry referendum on the alternative vote, which the Conservatives (and Labour if we have any sense) will oppose. There is no better example of giving a baby its bottle without literally presenting Clegg with one. Before the election, the Lib Dems were given an inflated amount of publicity which Labour now needs to suffocate by sidelining and dismissing the yellow dummies at the back.

Here I have described how Labour should change its response to the Lib Dems; in Part Five I will examine how the Lib Dems have changed by themselves.

You can read Hadleigh Roberts’ blog at hadleighroberts.co.uk

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