The coalition of ideas is needed more than ever

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.

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7 comments on “The coalition of ideas is needed more than ever
  1. Andrea Gill says:

    I for one will be keeping a close eye on the voting records of all MPs but in particular the Labour ones, comparing how they vote with what they promised in their own manifesto…

  2. Stuart White says:

    James: as a Labour social liberal I obviously sympathise with your position. I do think that the options open to the Lib Dems after the election were all bad, and there is a reasonable case that the option your party took was the best of a bad lot. So we in Labour should not get huffy and sanctimonious.

    That said…

    We Labour social liberals are pretty outspoken when it comes to criticising our own party, e.g. my own posts at Next Left on civil liberties themes. What I see much less of – though perhaps I have just missed it – is a similar degree of self-criticism by social liberal Lib Dems. For example, when the Fabians published a very good criticism of the Lib Dem income tax policy, the response from Lib Dems, including yourself, was extremely defensive. If you want to make common cuase with Labour’s social liberasl, as I hope you will, then I think you need to be more willing to give your own party – and the Coalition government – some stick.

  3. James Graham says:


    Tim Horton’s paper on the Lib Dem’s tax policy was little more than a partisan attack. From the cover onwards, the bulk of it was focused on making silly smears such as suggesting that because Paul Staines agrees with it, raising personal allowance is a policy that only rightwing libertarians could possibly agree with. It wasn’t a sincere attempt at criticism, just a pre-election bit of propaganda.

    While Tim was scoring cheap points, the SLF were publicly criticising Nick Clegg’s suggestion that the party should include a commitment in its manifesto to only tackle the deficit via cuts in spending. I think most people would laugh at suggestions that people like Evan Harris – and myself – have been shy over the years in criticising the party when we felt it was warranted.

    One thing that surprised me about the Horton analysis is that it didn’t even suggest the most obvious way to make the LD policy more redistributive, which is to lower the threshold for the higher rate of income tax by the same amount personal allowance is raised. This would have meant that noone earning more than £37k would have got the tax rise while making it more affordable and retaining the many positive aspects of the policy. Yet by taking a dogmatic stance, insisting that anyone opposed to high income taxes is a dangerous libertarian (something which only amuses a Georgist such as myself), you simply shut yourself out of the debate. I hope that can be rectified over the next few weeks and the Fabians will adopt a less dogmatic and partisan stance in future.

    It is fair to say that we haven’t been especially critical over the past few weeks, although we have made our key concerns about the coalition agreement very clear. Either way, while we are not going to declare war on the coalition, expect a more critical tone as Parliament gets down to specifics.

    On one point I will completely concede to you: the party’s position on the Child Trust Fund was misguided and we should not have axed it. While it is not as major a policy as the Fabians seem to think it is, and a perfect example of why half-measures fail to inspire the public (the only parent I know who supported the policy is a very well heeled Tory voter), you are right that it was a step in the right direction in terms of asset-based welfare and we should not have built on it instead of burying it.

    I was wrong and you were right.

  4. Stuart White says:

    James: I very much appreciate your comments on the Child Trust Fund. I do think that previous generations of Liberals who promoted the ‘Ownership for all’ agenda – great Liberals like Elliot Dodds – would have been flabbergasted at the Lib Dem policy on this. On the Fabian analysis of the Lib Dem tax policy, I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree. (Please note that though I blog at Next Left, the Fabian site, and I am a Fabian member, I do not speak for the Fabians and am perfectly happy to criticise the arguments coming from Fabian HQ if I think they are wrong.)

    On the wider issue of giving the right of your party some stick and standing up for social liberalism, I am happy to stand corrected that you have been doing this. Keep up the good work!

  5. What are the future electoral consequences of the Coalition agreement? Lib Dems have so entrenched themselves in the coalition that it will be impossible to disengage in the next few years. Imagine edging towards 2015 and the next general election. Whether the coalition is perceived as successful or a failure, both Cons and Lib Dems will have to fight to defend the coalition corner. Why would Cons and Lib Dems fight each other and let Labour through in those circumstances? The inevitable logic of an entrenched coalition is a future electoral agreemnt or pact between the two parties! I don’t support that at all being someone who has always argued for a realignment of the Left but we cannot discount the strong possibility that we are witnessing a longer term realignment of the centre right through electoral alliances.

  6. James Graham says:

    Simon, I don’t claim to have a crystal ball but you shouldn’t either. I don’t accept for one second that the Lib Dems have irrevocally entrenched themselves in with the Tories. I accept that that is a risk, but I also know that there are plenty of party members and MPs for whom that would be simply unacceptable.

    Equally, it is hard to fathom where you are coming from regarding ideas about some kind of electoral pact. Did the Lib Dems and Labour form a pact in Scotland after being in coalition after eight years? What are the historical or international precedents for that claim?

    Like this particular coalition or not, the simple fact is that coalition politics is the norm not the exception worldwide, and it does not automatically lead to permanent alliances. I am very alive indeed to the risk that this coalition may be a political failure, but the certainty you have placed on such a doomsday scenario is badly misplaced. Worse, if too many people on the left agree with you, they risk it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  7. James, what a vociferous response! I was simply raising an issue which should be thought about earlier rather than later. I am fully aware that coalition politics is the norm rather than the UK’s traditional adversarial approach, and of course all those who favour electoral reform, as I do, should accept that coalition will result. It seems to me that it would be incredible for coalition parties to fight each other at the next election. They would be jointly responsible for the success or failure of the coalition programme – all of it not just the bits they liked.

    So, as the next election date hoves into view the pressure to have an electoral pact would be immense – especially in the face of a resurgent Labour Party. Herein lies the danger of a new centre right force.

    How are we going to react when different policy pressures arise? For example, if Labour managed to get its act together, a big “if” I know, and they put an amendment to the voting reform bill designed to introduce AV+ on to a referendum question rather than AV, how will the Liberal Democrats vote? student tuition fees?

    The argument that the individual components of the coalition will have the freedom to vote differently won’t wash in the long term. A government is a government -with cabinet responsibility for the whole programme.

    Finally, I full accept that maybe some long held political assumptions should be re-assessed but I hold to one clear principle – there are conservative forces and progressive forces in society which are in conflict. When push comes to shove on a range of major issues where will the Lib Dems stand?

5 Pings/Trackbacks for "The coalition of ideas is needed more than ever"
  1. [...] written an opinion piece on the Social Liberal Forum website about why the Labour Party is making a major strategic blunder by embracing the [...]

  2. [...] couple of weeks ago I wrote about the regressive alliance seeking to undermine the new coalition government at every turn.  If that seemed vague and [...]

  3. [...] are worth highlighting here: My fears that Labour would end up getting trapped into a mindset of “what’s bad for the coalition is good for us” have proven to be well founded, and it is an infection which has spread across the board, even [...]

  4. [...] Graham some months ago: My fears that Labour would end up getting trapped into a mindset of “what’s bad for the coalition is good for us” have proven to be well founded, and it is an infection which has spread across the board, even [...]

  5. [...] Graham some months ago: My fears that Labour would end up getting trapped into a mindset of “what’s bad for the coalition is good for us” have proven to be well founded, and it is an infection which has spread across the board, even [...]

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