Labour should put the Lib Dems out of their misery

by Jonathan Todd

When was the last time a Labour leader uncompromisingly made the pro-EU case in a head-to-head dual with Nigel Farage? Or floated licensing “head shops” for the sale of drugs? Or offered free sex to everyone in the former Yugoslavia?

It’s the Liberal Democrats, not Labour, that have reached out to liberal left voters on these issues. Their desperation to recover some of these voters, lost to Labour since forming a government with the Conservatives, has not extended to sexual favours. I just have a memory of Chris Morris “reporting” that Bono Vox, as he called the U2 singer, had made this proposition to the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. And I wonder whether the Liberal Democrats will get to that stage.

Because, while their tactics are getting more exotic, their poll ratings steadfastly refuse to get off the floor – in fact, the latest Comres poll sees them at 7 per cent, falling below the floor. Paradoxically, the polls also indicate that there is a decent chance that they’ll be in government in the next parliament. It can be debated whether Labour or the Tories are most likely to win the largest number of seats. But they both face a steep challenge to win a majority.

The battlefield is akin to World War I. Lions slogging it out on #labourdoorstep and the like. Donkeys unable to break out of their cultural and political citadels. Unless Labour can convince enough voters, predominantly in the south, that we have the competence to govern or the Tories can persuade sufficient, particularly in the north, that they have the heart to do so fairly, then neither will hold a majority. And the largest party in such a hung parliament may be tempted to come to an arrangement with the Liberal Democrats, creating the likelihood of them being in government for a decade.

At party conference last year, Nick Clegg went for the jugular of the donkeys, arguing that neither Labour nor the Tories should be in government alone. As Labour lacks competence and the Tories fairness. While this accurately speaks to one of the key perceived fault lines of the political landscapes, it places at least as much weight on asking the electorate to love the idea of coalition as it does on loving the Liberal Democrats.

In the words of Jeremy Browne, it renders the Liberal Democrats “an ill-defined moderating centrist party”. Ill-defined as water is, taking the shape of whatever it is placed in. This topography formed by the parties that they sit between: Labour and the Tories. Moderating by splitting the difference between these two.

On Clegg’s terms, the Liberal Democrats cannot tell us what they are unless Labour and the Tories first say what they are. Browne would prefer that they are guided instead by liberalism. In this sense, however, Browne is making the same point as that made by Richard Reeves, an ex-advisor of Clegg, in a Demos pamphlet published at Liberal Democrat conference in 2012.

“A Liberal Party promoting real liberalism?” Reeves concludes, “it has to be worth a try”. This is what Browne wants too. He just feels Clegg isn’t trying hard enough. “Maybe,” Browne recently mused, “I’m a more defiantly loyal supporter of Nick Clegg than Nick Clegg is of himself.” This presumes, not unreasonably that Clegg’s heart beats on the liberal side of his party – rather than the social democratic that Tim Farron is now central to. Similarly, Reeves made clear where he thinks Clegg’s sympathies lie by titling his pamphlet “a liberal inside”.

Browne and Reeves are not about, therefore, to lead a social democratic coup and seek to have Farron or Vince Cable installed as leader before the general election. They want Clegg to be loyal to what they see as his true self and press on with the kind of liberal things that make Farron and Cable nervous. What this would amount to in substantive policy terms is not clear. Perhaps free sex for everyone in the former Yugoslavia.

While the differences between Browne and Clegg may be more of degree (how liberal to be) than of kind (whether to be social democratic), the harsh truth is that nothing seems to improve the Liberal Democrats polling. Maybe they’ll get desperate enough to try to replace Clegg, perhaps at conference this year. But more likely they’ll fall back on the cockroach qualities that Farron has praised.

These qualities allowed them to retain Eastleigh, while the former member was in prison and their national polling was terrible. It too will keep them more MPs beyond May 2015 than national polling indicates. But they may be more vulnerable in seats where Labour is running second (Burnley, Manchester Withington, Redcar) and where long-standing MPs are standing down (Bath, Berwick, Somerton and Frome).

The kindest thing would be for Labour to usurp the centre ground that Clegg is seeking to hold, making it more likely that Labour will form a majority and giving the Liberal Democrats the breathing space of opposition to figure out what exactly unites them. But the policy agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats highlighted by George Eaton on the Staggers and Labour’s campaigning reported by Uncut indicate that Labour’s donkeys are preparing for government with the Liberal Democrats. Rather than agonise over what Clegg really is inside, if anything at all, they should be lions.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut 

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4 Responses to “Labour should put the Lib Dems out of their misery”

  1. uglyfatbloke says:

    It might be an idea to embrace personal liberty as a Labour value, which it certainly should be, if we are not to see the Greens take over from the glib-dumbs.
    Some better-known glibs will survive the GE through the incumbency factor, a few will lose for the same reason…Danny Alexander will be lucky to come third at the next GE. The glibs are languishing on 7%-ish in England and Wales, but they are doing even more badly in Scotland – though admittedly it’s that much harder territory since they have to compete with Labour and the gnats, who pretty much put the glibs out of business at the last Holyrood election and are likely to finish them off in 2015 apart from Orkney and Shetland and maybe Charlie Kennedy.
    There is a reasonable possibility that there will not be enough glib-dumb MPs after May 2015 to have all that much impact on Commons arithmetic. If they do not up their game sharpish they may well have fewer MPs than the gnats (Scottish and Welsh). This is not at all far-fetched; it every nearly happened in 1974 – there was only ta disparity of maybe 4 or 5 seats between the glibs and the Scottish gnats.
    The difference now is that the gnats may become the beneficiaries of FPTP. They still have a healthy lead in the polls and if it look s like Cameron will win a second term they may well improve on that position. If FPTP has enabled Labour to get 80% of Scottish seats for 40% of the vote it can do the same for the Salmondistas.

  2. Robert says:

    Labour should be a moderately left of centre party and Jonathan should join the Lib Dems if he wants to be in a centre party. Labour’s return to the centre-left is one of the reasons that the Lib Dems are doomed in seats where Labour came second in 2010. Former Lib Dem voters will hopefully also help Labour win Conservative seats in 2015.

  3. John Reid says:

    Left wing or socialist, doesn’t mean liberal, pre 1974 Labour was a socially Conservative party, and Jim Claaghan and a Young David Blunkett were sceptical of the permissive society, and Roy Jenkins social reforms,

  4. paul barker says:

    This is a great idea, move Labour to the centre ground, Unite takes away all its money, Labour go bankrupt. Then the Labour moderates can join The Libdems, the Left can go & build the Revolutionary Party & everybody is happy.

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