Back in September I co-authored an article in the Guardian with Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass, about the need for a “coalition of progressive ideas” between Liberal Democat and Labour members. In truth, Neal did most of the heavy lifting on this, but I had no trouble signing up to it. In particular, I was keen on how we defined this so-called coalition:
Progressives in all these parties are committed to greater equality and dealing with the challenge of climate change, but the binding value is pluralism. We recognise the value of difference, distinct histories and tradition but are using them to develop a shared project that is stronger because it is based on consensus-building. What we seek is not a big tent – that has been tried and failed – but a camp site where we keep our independence but grow stronger within common boundaries. This is not a coalition of parties and votes but of ideas and hope.
For many, the events of the past fortnight render talk of a progressive alliance as naïve at best and even contemptable. For a lot of people on the “left,” the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition represents little more than a betrayal, and of the Lib Dems “selling out.” The Lib Dems will spend the next five years as little more than the puppets of an ideologically-driven Thatcherite Conservative Party, dazzled by the prospect of a handful of cabinet posts and a referendum on the Alternative Vote.
Not only do I think that narrative is factually wrong, but I worry that it is dangerous. In terms of the facts, everyone in the Lib Dems I have spoken to is all-too aware that junior partners of coalitions rarely do well out of the deal: we really aren’t getting into all this because we think the party itself is going to do especially well out of it, if at all. The majority of people would have preferred a Lib-Lab coalition; we just had a bottom line that Labour were not willing to match. Few seem to genuinely question the fact that such a coalition was both arithmetically difficult and lacked a significant degree of political will on the part of the Labour Party; nor does anyone seem to genuinely believe that a Tory minority administration would be either more progressive or provide the country with the stability it needs at a fragile time. And while cynicism about the deal abounds (much of which, it has to be said, may turn out to be well founded – nothing about this deal is risk-free), very few people seriously disagree that the concessions Nick Clegg and his team wrung from David Cameron were very considerable indeed.
The worst thing about this “Con-Dem” narrative is that it plays into the hands of another coalition: the regressive alliance. While you won’t see the likes of Nadine Dorries and John Reid penning joint articles in the Telegraph any time soon, the fact remains that there is a very real force in British politics which deplores political pluralism and enlightenment values and has a very considerable amount of influence within both the Conservatives and the Labour Party.
The Con-Dem narrative suits the purposes of headbanger mentality in the Conservative Party because the more it is encouraged the stronger it will be. If people on the centre left leave the Liberal Democrats in droves (something which, a small trickle notwithstanding, does not appear to be happening), then the junior coalition partner will be weakened and will struggle to hold its own in the inevitable battles for the heart and soul of the coalition government over the next few years.
But this Con-Dem narrative also helps the headbangers in the Labour Party. The last thing these people wanted was a coalition with the Lib Dems (which is why so many took to the airwaves to derail the Lib-Lab talks), the price of which would have been a reversal of Labour’s very many authoritarian policies and electoral reform. As far as they are concerned, if the Lib Dems can be crippled over the next few years, the return of two-party pendulum politics will be all-but inevitable.
A lot of progressive Labour members and supporters currently buy into this idea as well. They are making a huge mistake and one which, if they let their anger and frustration continue for much longer, they will live to regret. The key lesson to be learned from the electoral politics of the last 100 years is that pendulum politics always favours the right, even when there is a clear left consensus. Jo Grimond understood this. Roy Jenkins understood this. Even Tony Blair, before he got seduced by his headbanger wing and the prospect of a huge majority, understood this. Not only does the electoral system work against us, making the whole election contingent on a handful of swing voters in marginal constituencies, but the rightwing media get to call all the shots.
The dangers are there to see. The tone of the current Labour leadership debate has, thus far, been extremely depressing. Candidates seem to be lining up to out-compete each other in terms of who can be more right wing on immigration and workfare. Jon Cruddas, a man who has plenty of sensible and progressive things to say about both, has ruled himself out. And of course Labour has just spent the past couple of months attempting to portray the Conservatives as soft on crime. With Labour politicians saying very little about the economy and tax beyond some somewhat exaggerated hand wringing about the Tories’ promised £6 billion cuts in non-frontline services, there is currently very little to distinguish them as a progressive party at all.
It will be a tantalising and disturbing irony to have the Lib Dems spend the next five years preventing the Tories from lurching to right only to have Labour pushing in the opposite direction. Yet as things stand that is a very real prospect.
Fundamentally, what does Labour achieve by ensuring that the Lib Dem “sell out” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? It won’t help a single person on a low income. It will only undermine the public services Labour claims to want tp defend. And it won’t make the Conservatives any less electable in five years time, who will be seen as the dominant force in the coalition. The lack of a Lib Dem force in the 2015 election may make the public’s choice that much simpler, but it won’t make Labour’s job of winning any easier.
What can be done to prevent this? Fundamentally, we need to keep talking. This needs to be done at both a parliamentary level and at a grassroots one. From Labour, the rhetoric needs to change. Instead of dismissing the coalition as a victory for the right, Labour ought to be challenging its claim to be progressive. A smart Labour leader will not wallow in the comfort zone of oppositionism but instead focus on finding new ways to tempt Liberal Democrat backbenchers into supporting positions that the Tory Taliban will find beyond the pale. The word on every Labour politician’s lips should not be “condemnation” but “lovebomb”. That’s if they are interested in long term strategic gains rather than the sort of short term tactical populism that became so discredited under the Gordon Brown era.
One important factor appears to have been missed by the political commentariat: while the new government is certainly centre-right, the House of Commons itself will be centre-left. With the Lib Dems’ rightwing disproportionately now sitting on the government benches (with a few notable exceptions such as Steve Webb), the select committees – set to be stronger than ever under the Wright reforms – are likely to disproportionately include Lib Dem MPs from the left. This is likely to be the most scrutinised government and most powerful parliament in living memory.
The progressive majority has not been shut out of power in this Parliament. It is dominant in the Commons and exerts a restraining influence on government. If these two factors can be combined, we will see nothing less than the realignment of the left that so many have fought for for decades. But to achieve that, people within both the Lib Dems and Labour need to look beyond mere party interest and move beyond the simplistic dividing lines that tend to dominate British politics between “government” and “opposition”. In a hung parliament, this is a false dichotomy.
If the opportunities are great, the risks are greater still. If the experiences of the eighties, nineties and noughties have taught us anything, it is that Labour cannot win alone. Not without going further along the road to becoming a conservative, reactionary party more concerned with power than fighting for its concept of the Good Society. Triangulation always ends up backfiring on you in the end.
There are some siren voices within Labour itself for whom that would be an unequivocally good thing. For the progressive majority within Labour, the time has come to stand up to such pernicious small-mindedness.
In short, to all my Labour friends: you really need to get over it. And fast.