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.