Time Labour learned the difference between enemies and adversaries
—Political turning points are not always dramatic. Sometimes they are signalled by the slow, sad note of a deflating balloon. So it was with the end of Labour and Liberal Democrat cooperation after the 1997 landslide.
As an aide to Paddy Ashdown, I sat on the fringes of the cabinet room in 1998 and watched as Tony Blair’s blue eyes glazed over at having to endure a discussion about constitutional reform. Listening to Robert Maclennan and the late Robin Cook expand on their enthusiasms – part of the joint cabinet committee that, in fairness, helped prepare the ground for several important measures including the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information – the prime minister shifted in his seat and chewed absent-mindedly at the tip of his tie.
This moment of excruciating boredom for the Labour leader was probably the high water mark of Lib-Labbery. Afterwards, as Roy Jenkins’ report on voting reform gathered dust on a shelf in No 10, the relationship between Blair and Ashdown became fraught, cooled and died. It was no longer necessary – the Tories had been swept out, showed no signs of recovery, and the idea of a coalition withered.
In the post-Blair era, even before the fateful formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat joint government in May 2010, the two tribes of activists and members of parliament clashed loudly. Whispered conversations involving those like Vince Cable, who have tried to keep the lines of communication open, were drowned out.
After the Clegg-Cameron double act, many on the left will find it a struggle to see all this ancient history as relevant. One defeated Labour candidate put it thus: ‘I don’t care about the Liberal Democrats, I just want to crush them.’
But as both parties survey the wreckage of last year’s general election, any hard-headed appraisal of how either Labour or the Liberal Democrats can challenge Conservative dominance cannot ignore the fact that their fortunes are linked once again.
In rehearsing the many causes of both the Liberal Democrat wipeout and the Labour failure last May – there have been more postmortems than a primetime television drama – too little attention is paid to the demise of the anti-Conservative tactical vote that proved so important in 1997 and after.
The Liberal Democrats, smaller in size and with a long-established culture of targeting, know there are many seats they can never take. But Labour may need to accept something similar, albeit on a different scale.
Of course, looking at the sea of blue currently lapping across the map of southern England, it takes a strong dose of optimism to imagine islands of yellow or red reappearing. But why not start here: Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics points out there are 32 Conservative seats and two Scottish National party constituencies where the combined Labour and Liberal Democrat vote last May was more than the winning party’s. Labour came second in 17 of them; in the other 17 the Liberal Democrats were the runners-up.
Long, historical strength in the south-west and years of hard electoral graft across parts of the south-east make those regions naturally fertile territory for any revival of Liberal Democrat fortunes. South-west London, where only one Liberal Democrat MP hung on, has a similar recent history. Labour cannot win in most of these seats, but Liberal Democrat gains would alter the parliamentary arithmetic.
Electoral pacts may repel voters; but the clearly complementary pattern of winnable seats tells its own story about where to deploy resources. And tribal loathing between Labour and the Liberal Democrats – on both sides – is now a hindrance to removing the Conservatives from office. During the 2015 campaign, Labour particularly seemed to have forgotten the importance of the party’s famous joke about why MPs and footsoldiers should concentrate their fire on the Conservatives rather than Liberal Democrat rivals: ‘Business before pleasure.’
One or two were clearly taking too much pleasure in trying to pick off Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam, which resulted, perversely, in a tactical shift of Tory voters to the Liberal Democrats in that seat – hard not to wonder whether all those resources deployed down the road in Morley and Outwood might have saved Ed Balls for the nation.
Michael Ignatieff, seeking lessons to draw from Justin Trudeau’s victory in Canada, has written that, ‘one of the essential skills of democratic politics is to know the difference between an enemy and an adversary’. In the persuasion business, he argues, you should be able to see that adversaries can be future allies too.
Lib-Labbery has tended to be an elite and sometimes secretive business, especially when it was known as ‘The Project’ during the Blair-Ashdown years. This causes resentment among activists and backbenchers in both tribes. But in the current predicament, everyone, from enthusiasts for policy cooperation to electoral pragmatists, may need to get on board.
Miranda Green is a journalist and former press secretary to Paddy Ashdown as leader of the Liberal Democrats
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.