Why I think it would be so difficult to make happen (but think it’s still worth considering).
The notion of an electoral pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats is being discussed more widely than at any time since the Blair-Ashdown ‘project’. Admittedly that doesn’t mean it’s being that widely discussed. There have been some articles in the Guardian and a segment on the Daily Politics about the notion. So the discussion is at a rather low level but real nonetheless.
That’s still remarkable. British politics is a tribal business and such discussions are easily construed as treachery. But the sight of the Tories entrenching themselves in government for the foreseeable future and a shared sense of desperation has created a sense amongst at least some that this might be worth exploring.
However, the obstacles are pretty vast. The most important are:
1. Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader
Don’t get me wrong, the new Labour leader has fans in the Lib Dems. A lot of party members were intensely opposed to bombing of Syria. And some joined with Labourites in being incredulous that men who had made statements expressing sympathy for terrorist groups were branded ‘terrorist sympathisers’.
Nonetheless, for a party with strong centrist tendencies he is a deeply unattractive figure. His economic policy seems doctrinaire and dangerous, his ambivalence on the EU and hostility to NATO jar with our internationalist instincts, and the reluctance to compromise that propelled his rise is so antithetical to a party that makes a positive virtue of it. So many (perhaps most) Lib Dems – including myself – would rather see the Conservatives continue to govern than see him become PM.
So from here on out I will be writing on the assumption that Labour moderates manage in the near future to rest back control of their party. I am unsure if that will happen but if it doesn’t the topic is simply academic: a party of the centre-left is not going to help the far-left defeat the centre-right.
2. Mutual antipathy
An ex-Lib Dem MP recently wrote of Labour moderates being branded Tories by the far left: “They can now get a taste of the shit they threw at us”. This visceral reaction is all the more striking because the MP in question is one whose personality and politics would make them a prime candidate to support an alignment with Labour.
One imagines that many right of centre Labourites had a similar reaction watching the party that had lambasted them for breaking a promise not to raise tuition fees, itself break a pledge not to raise tuition fees.
3. Genuine policy differences
The Labour right might agree more with the Lib Dems than they do with either the Tories or their own left-wing but there are plenty of substantive differences. Indeed, one major complicating factor is that the Labour MPs who are closest to the Lib Dems on economics are generally the furthest away on constitutional reform, law and order, and immigration.
There’s also the issue of trident to contend with. Lib Dem policy is against any renewal yet the maintenance of the system is of totemic importance for some Labour moderates.
4. Differences of style
The Labour right – at least in its Blairite iteration – is very focused on looking ‘tough’ and ‘credible’. By contrast, the preoccupation of the post-coalition Lib Dems is appearing trustworthy and compassionate. Hence our decision to elect Tim Farron as our leader.
5.What to do about the areas where the two parties are in direct competion
The number of such areas was dramatically reduced by the post-coalition collapse of the Lib Dems. Nonetheless, they do exist and they pose a dilemma. If the parties are trying to be in harmony nationally then fighting locally risks disrupting that. But calling a truce may turn activists in those areas against the bargain as a whole. And worse still if the two parties cease opposing each other in those areas then another party may come in and fill that void.
6. What to do about the Greens
Caroline Lucas has recently called for ““joint tickets” in some constituencies, with a representative from either Labour, Lib Dems or the Greens agreeing on key principles.” If we assume that Corbyn is gone and the moderates are back in control then her attitude would probably change. Nonetheless, if the Greens are not included then the anti-Tory vote is still split. But trying to include them makes it even harder to get everyone agreed on a policy platform.
7. Bad precedents
The SDP-Liberal alliance eventually turned into a near death experience for British Liberalism. The last Lib-Lab pact was followed by the Liberal’s taking significant losses. The brutal experience of coalition has not exactly enamoured Lib Dems to co-operation with other parties. And the various liberal splinter groups that have allied with the Conservative Party were eventually consumed by it. Lib Dems have reason to be wary of such arrangements.
8. How much do the two parties really have to offer each other?
Labour moderates might look at a party with 8 MPs and 7-8% in most opinion polls and wonder whether forming an alliance with them is worth the bother.
Conversely, the platter of warmed up SPADs the Labour right served up as potential PMs in their last leadership election will generate even less enthusiasm amongst Lib Dem members than they did among Labour ones.
9. Will Lib Dem voters play ball?
In 2015, quite a number of former Lib Dem voters seem to have bolted from the party in fear of the prospect of electing Ed Miliband prime minister. This illustrates one fairly major drawback of any alliance: the risk that it would lead to potential Lib Dem voters switching to the Tories. This is especially acute given that one impact of the coalition was to push the Party’s support base rightwards.
10. Might an alliance curtail the Lib Dems ability to take seats of the Tories?
There’s a strong argument that the best thing the Lib Dems can do for Labour is defeat the Tories in rural and suburban seats where the Labour Party itself cannot compete. And if you are going to being fighting in seats where the Labour Party is generally unpopular isn’t being in an alliance with it rather a handicap?
11. It doesn’t solve the fundamental problem
Add together, the Labour and Lib Dem votes in 2015 and they barely add up to more than the number the Tories achieved on their own. Now as we’ve seen you can’t simply transfer Lib Dem voters en masse to a Labour led centre-left alliance. Many would switch to the Tories or stay at the home. And the concessions Labour would presumably need to make to the Lib Dems would probably lead them to lose votes to the UKIP and the Greens. So in reality it is probably not possible for the centre-left to win simply by uniting its existing support, it needs to be attracting new voters.
To reinforce that point consider that the right-wing of British politics is at least as fragmented as the left and that the combined the votes of the Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP in 2015 amounted to an absolute majority.
The centre-left’s problem is not primarily that it is divided. It is that the electorate do not share its instincts on welfare, immigration and taxation. It either needs a plan to win under those constraints or change them. Forming alliances might make that easier but it doesn’t negate the need for it.
Having said all that I’m not prepared to totally dismiss the possibility because….well it’s an idea I feel the need to write a thousand words about in an analytical manner. When I hear other Lib Dems mention the idea I raise practical objections rather than questioning their intelligence and/or loyalty. That’s quite a change because I really don’t like the Labour Party. The majority of my time as a Liberal Democrat has been spent fighting it. Indeed, there have been stages in my life when defeating it was the main thing I got out of bed to do. Yet if Chuka Umunna or Stella Creasy were Labour leader I couldn’t honestly claim to be indifferent whether they or a Tory became Prime Minister. And if the Labour Party schisms – which is unlikely but nonetheless possible – then it seems a given that the Lib Dems will have to reach an understanding – tacit or otherwise – with one or other faction.
So as remote as the prospect of peace between Labour and the Liberal Democrats is it’s not one I feel able either to ignore nor oppose outright.