They may be an idiotic rabble: but they’re still family – sort of

by Kevin Meagher

THE late Roy Jenkins, grand-daddy of “the radical centre” must be turning in his grave. That’s assuming, of course, that the late and never knowingly under-lunched apostle of Lib-Labbery has room to manoeuvre.

His abiding belief was that the schism between socialists and liberals at the start of the twentieth century needlessly gifted decades of political hegemony to the Conservatives. As a former chancellor, his maths were spot-on. The Tories governed for seven decades out of ten. The forces of the centre-left were divided and impotent for two-thirds of the last century.

There are grand theories about why this happened. But here is an altogether simpler explanation. If you turned on your television this week you would have seen them in all their glory. The loons, crackpots and pedants of the Liberal Democrat party. How on earth could we ever work with these people?

Harsh, perhaps, but the point is that there are good reasons why Lib-Lab co-operation is more talked about than witnessed. For all their posturing about embodying “new politics”, the Lib Dems are no less tribal or insular than Labour. And they are just as pig-headed and unwilling to stretch out the hand of co-operation (if not of friendship) across the political divide.

They are, to be sure, a frustrating brood; mixing piety and skulduggery, high idealism with that irritatingly abstract quality that sees them constantly elevate fringe issues over peoples’ more pressing everyday concerns.

So they will break their promises about tuition fees, vote for the evisceration of the NHS and sign-up for devastating spending cuts and neo-liberal economics. But show them a bill about curbing leylandii and then you’ll see some passion.

I once lobbied one of their most prominent figures about a wind farm development in his patch. A man of impeccable, indeed award-winning, environmental credentials.

“What about fell runners”? he asked.

“What about them”? I replied.

“They might run into your windmills”.

“Er, the moors are rather large… I suspect that won’t happen”.

“But you don’t know that for sure, they might do…I can’t support this project”.

“On the theoretical basis that a fell runner might not see a 400 foot tall structure and run into it”?

“Er, yes”.

Hypocrisy, indecision and a lack of focus on the big picture mars their politics. The rigours of actually being in government are only slowly correcting this tendency. But even after all that, there is still space for co-operation and the occasional meeting of minds.

They are, after all, a coalition themselves. Being trapped in a lift and forced to listen to Sarah Teather’s inane jokes might be about as pleasurable as passing a kidney stone, but Paddy Ashdown would be a tolerable companion. (He’d probably be able to climb out too).

Danny Alexander may have burned his bridges with everyone to the left of Milton Friedman, but Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Tim Farron, Ming Campbell and Simon Hughes remain people we can work with, surely?

One of the central, defining characteristics of Ed Miliband’s leadership will be how he handles relations with the Lib Dems. Some in the party want him to go for the jugular. At the moment, their electoral support only breaks double figures on a good week. Time to grind them into the dust. Make them pay.

But what if the electorate’s muddled verdict last year is visited upon us again? What if, rather than an aberration, inconclusive elections, hung parliaments and coalition governments are here to stay?

Ed has to plan for a scenario at the next election where we ace the Tories as the party with the most seats, but still fall short of the ability to govern on our own. For yellow Tories like David Laws, it would be a no-brainer to throw in their lot with their Conservative pals again. We need to stop that from happening.

And then there’s Nick. Ah, yes. Useful idiot? Careerist sell-out? And that’s just what many in his own party think about him.

Of course many within Labour remain bitter at the alacrity with which he jumped into bed with the Conservatives to form this “Tory-led government”. Rightly so. That is why intuitive reservations about the alternative vote hardened into messianic opposition among many members at the thought of dishing out some early payback to Nick and his gang.

But now, at some level, we need to normalise relations with them. Channels of communication and co-operation need to be opened up. Common ground sought. By all means squeeze away in elections. Their soft, centre-left support is genuinely revolted at their tie-up with the Tories and they deserve to be punished for it.

There is, however, a space on the centre-left that Labour does not naturally occupy. We are never going to be green or civil libertarian enough for some. These post-material values voters will ensure that however much they are squeezed, the Lib Dems are not going to disappear altogether.

So whatever remains of the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party after the next election, may prove to be the difference between the possibility of Labour-led coalition government or another five years of Cameron and Clegg.

Last year, the arithmetic of an anti-Tory alliance did not stack up; but there was something deeper going on too. While Cameron wasted no time in making his “big comprehensive offer” to Nick Clegg, we were asleep at the wheel. When it came to the crunch, all that early Blairite talk about “the project” of sharing power in a grand centrist political alliance came to nothing. We were unprepared, unable and probably unwilling to negotiate a deal, never mind seal one.

The Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, wants his party’s marriage with the Tories dissolved by the time of the next election. We may have been jilted at the altar last time around, but it would be folly, on an historical scale, to pass up the chance to form that Tory-stopping alliance if the moment comes again.

Many within Labour remain unconvinced. But listen out for a low hum under Liverpool’s BT convention centre next week. It may well be “Woy’s” reduced corporeal remains revolving like they are in a centrifuge, warning against the prospect of another needless Tory-dominated century.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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One Response to “They may be an idiotic rabble: but they’re still family – sort of”

  1. swatantra says:

    Jenkins was wrong in his premise.
    Basically Britain is a conservative country and the people don’t like change. Thats why we haven’t had a civil war on our soil for centuries. And the only fighting was over Anglicans and Catholics and who should acceed to the throne.
    True there was dissent and radicalism and riots of the peasantry but in the end it amounted to nothing. No revolution.
    Labour was lucky to win outright in 1945 but only because of the War. It won in 1997 outrght because Blair brought his own brand of conservatism into Labour.
    Labour are unlikely to win outright again because the country will have got used to coalitions, like in Belgium, the country can function quite well tankyou without even a formal govt.
    Where Jenkins is right is in saying that the Left factions and Parties must come together with the Centre and defeat the Forces of Reaction. but its not the Lib Dems we should be looking to; they are really a Party of the Right.

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