Monday, 24 January 2011

Can we please just ignore the Lib Dems?

While recent headlines may have all but obliterated from memory Ed’s recent Fabians speech, it is also worth lingering on his more prescriptive, post-Oldham Guardian article from the day before. If Ed did not go as far as Neal Lawson did and metaphorically throw open the gates of Victoria Street to Lib Dem members to invite them in for tea, he certainly signalled a rapprochement which might live to be seen as unwise. Unwise because it seems doomed to fail, and unwise also because such a failure would be likely to come back and bite us. When you attempt to woo, rejection leaves you looking undesirable.

There are some important barriers to cooperation. First, the Lib Dems themselves: as the FT wryly observed, if you want to cooperate with another party, best not filibuster it in the Lords on its touchstone issue (voting reform), or describe it as “tragic”. Also, be aware that it may be counterproductive: some Lib Dems may just react angrily to what they see as an opportunist attempt to split their party. Or it may simply be ignored, by most.

Second, the strategy neglects a vital fact about the majority of Labour party members, which any staffer could tell you. They hate the Lib Dems. For better or for worse. Now, perhaps this tribalism is not good: but it is a reality for many who have fought them and found them to lack principle. “At least you know where you are with the Tories”, is a common refrain. Furthermore, try as I might, I cannot swallow that, seventy years on from their heyday, they are still the party of Beveridge and Keynes. And merely the ghastly spectre of a returning David Owen would be enough to kill the idea of cooperation for most of us.

But, putting aside these barriers, let us try and outline the possible practical ways – I make it five – in which we might make use of a new understanding.

First, MPs crossing the floor. This would be great, but it won’t happen now. We are too weak. Important defections happen when you are strong and the others are weak, like Tories to us and the Lib Dems in the last days of Major.

Next, recruiting Lib Dem members: be my guest. But we may well have had pretty much all we are likely to already. The rest seem unlikely to jump ship in numbers, after this inevitable post-election adjustment (this is of course pure conjecture: but the reasoning is, if they haven’t left by now in disgust, they’re in it for the long haul).

We could simply interpret it, as suggested in the same FT article, as courting the Lib Dem vote, rather than their members – which, yes, absolutely we should. But this is not cooperation: all parties always try and pull votes from other parties. It’s called campaigning.

Informal cooperation in the House on various issues: fine, as far as it goes. We and a few rebel Lib Dem MPs may annoy the government a little by making it lose the odd vote – and so we should – but we are hardly going to bring it down.

Finally, there could be some kind of grand progressive coalition (possibly with a split-off, rump Lib Dem party) in the future. Well, I’m all for a progressive coalition if we need to and it works, but it goes without saying that you only need to do this if you don’t get an overall majority. Why would you want to otherwise? Leave the door open to cooperation, towards the next election, fine – as Tony Blair did with Paddy Ashdown – but that requires very little energy.

Proposition: this is not a winning strategy. Most or all of it will not work. Discuss.

The alternative? There is a simple and effective strategy for dealing with the Lib Dems: ignore them. Ignore them completely. Pay them merely passing courtesy and concentrate our fire on the Tories. This points up their irrelevance and does not alienate those few on their left flank who might just be useful allies later.

While we do our own thing, some of them will eventually be drawn to us, and welcome. While we reach out to them, on the other hand, we look desperate. By the way, if we really want to attract good people from other parties, the simplest way is to act as if we were suddenly newly single: get ourselves together, scrub up and look presentable. We must dance like no-one is watching. Not trawl around the room looking for a partner.

The awkward truth is that there is no progressive majority, at least, not in the sense being proposed. A combination of the left wing of the Lib Dems and our own current political direction would not be the same as the alliance tentatively discussed pre-1997. It would be smaller, and further from the centre. And it would not command the support of a majority of voters. It is the big tent strategy in a little tent. Rather than truly reaching out, we are preaching to the choir. Again.

As one commenter (Byrdfelt) replied to Ed’s assertion that,
“We must become the progressives’ champion”,
“No, you must become the people’s champion”.
It is as simple as that.

This post also at Labour Uncut and quoted in John Rentoul's blog at The Independent

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