If the Tories are to be beaten, Labour and the Lib Dems need to start working together

by George Kendall

2015 was a disaster for the centre-left.

The Liberal Democrats lost a swathe of seats to the Tories. Moderate Labour members lost their party to the far left. Some are in despair, and are considering withdrawal from politics, perhaps to return once a viable moderate opposition to the Tories is re-established.

However, under first-past-the-post, such an opposition isn’t inevitable. Post-war Japan was run by a single right-wing party, almost continuously for fifty years. Nothing is forever, but, if we wait for change, we may wait a very long time.

Do we want to see the Conservatives in power for decades? If that happens, step by step they will shrink the state and cut taxes for the rich. They will edge the country ever closer to a dog-eat-dog capitalism where the rich enjoy fabulous wealth, but the poor endure desperate insecurity. It would not happen overnight, but it could happen.

The far left believe if they control the opposition, it is inevitable that they will eventually take power.

In a perfect storm, with a recession, and if Tories have an unpopular leader and are divided over a controversial policy, it might be possible, but I think it is very unlikely. Even in 1992, when the country was in recession after thirteen years of Tory rule, the Conservatives still won.

However, even if the far left are right about eventually winning power, it would be a disaster. Having raised unrealistic expectations, they would be hit by the harsh reality of our need to trade in a competitive world, and they would damage our economic and our finances by trying to square the impossible. Perhaps worse, their attitude to the USA and NATO would undermine our alliances, just at a time when new powers are emerging which have no respect for the principles of liberal democracy. They would then be decisively defeated, to be followed by another lengthy period of Tory hegemony.

It is six months since Corbyn was elected leader, and the moderates in the Labour party are still thinking through their options. Perhaps they think they have a realistic chance to regain control. We cannot know, because they would be foolish to talk openly about this.

A few speculate that, if the Labour party does poorly in elections this May, they can overthrow Corbyn and force a more moderate replacement. This is fantasy. For it to happen, the soft left who elected Corbyn would have to turn decisively against him.

It took the despair of three general election defeats, 1983, 1987 and 1992, for the membership to turn against the left, and accept the need to reach out to the centre-ground. How long will it take this time? Certainly not one set of local elections. If Corbyn is not gone by September, one of the key advantages of the parliamentary party will have gone. The leadership will change the rules, so that, even if Corbyn resigns, a candidate of the far left can stand for leader without parliamentary support.

If they hope to replace Corbyn before the 2020 election, the moderates will need the membership on their side. However, the polling evidence indicates that, far from the membership turning against Corbyn, they are rallying to him. Since the last general election, the new members who have joined have predominately been of the far left, the members leaving have been moderates.

This exodus of moderates is not a new phenomenon. YouGov estimate that half of those who voted in the 2010 Labour leadership election had left by 2015, and that the more recent members are far more left-wing.

However, if moderates cannot replace Corbyn before 2018, it will probably be too late. Once the boundary review takes effect, a breakaway from the Labour party is almost inevitable. Most Labour MPs will have to reapply for new seats, and, with an increasingly left-wing membership, many moderates will fail to be selected. What then will the deselected MPs have to lose? Why not break away?

The future is always uncertain. It is understandable that MPs cling to the small chance that they can take their party back from the far left, before it is too late. Of course they are delaying until they have no other option.

For those of us who are not elected politicians, we do not need to delay. If we think a realignment of the centre-left is likely, we can start to do the spade work now.

That is what the Social Democrat Group is about. We are a Liberal Democrat group, and we would welcome moderates to join our party. However, we also want to be a forum for those who do not join, but who want to explore the possibility of a new centre-left alternative.

It is too early to say how a realignment might happen. It might be a new SDP, forming an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. It might be a new party formed of the Liberal Democrats and Labour moderates.

Regardless, there are things we can do now to help it succeed.

In the last election, the Liberal Democrats have been badly knocked back. If their fightback is successful, that will hugely help the chances of a realignment

For Labour members too, there are things to do.

Over the last five years, relations between moderate Labour and the Liberal Democrats have not been good. We need to improve them. Moderate Labour members, and those who have switched to the Liberal Democrats, need to stay in touch with each other. The EU referendum campaign is an excellent opportunity for activists in both parties to work together.

We also need to start talking about policy. Not to create policy positions, but to break down the myths we have about each other. We need to understand and respect our differences. However, once we start talking, we may find we have much more in common than we realised.

In the Social Democrat Group, we want to help this process. For example, in the forthcoming Spring conference of the Liberal Democrats, we are organising a fringe meeting where Vince Cable and Roger Liddle will discuss, “Where now for the centre-left?” If you would like to work with us, whether you are a members of the Liberal Democrats or Labour, or not a member of any party, please sign up for our mailing list, please join our discussions on the Facebook page, and please tell your friends about us.

British politics are in flux. Most people are waiting to see what will happen. Instead, we can take the initiative, and take action to shape the future.

George Kendall is convener of the Social Democrat Group – a Liberal Democrat organisation to develop the social democrat tradition of the Liberal Democrats, and to build links with social democrats in the Labour party


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21 Responses to “If the Tories are to be beaten, Labour and the Lib Dems need to start working together”

  1. John says:

    Unfortunately after the coalition I can’t see many Corbynistas sighting up, although many on the London GLA assembly,hardly a blieite crew,were full of praise for The libdems stopping the Tories introducing policies that ,Toeres wanted

    The libdems were of course against Trident renewal and like labour are pro the Eu(shame relky as many sensible popular labour members like the Blue labour crowd,are against it. Now labour are pro police commissioners, no the Libdems abstained from putting up candidates,agin there’s a division,

    Off topic, but the libdems support legalising sex workers job, and there was cross party support in 2095 when Charles Clarke and Hazel a learns introduced it before Blair stopped it,

  2. Peter Kenny says:

    I am always surprised that Lib Dems talk about their massive loss of support and seats as if it was a misfortune dropped from above, instead of the result of their own choices, their own politics.

    The tone is still of superior wisdom, oddly ignored by us poor fools.

    You’ll get no Labour MPs to join you because you have so little to offer.

  3. Mike Homfray says:

    As a left-winger, I support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and wish Labour to be a socialist party

    However, I also support electoral reform, because it is patently clear our current system is not working and is producing some quite bizarre electoral arithmetic as the last election displayed. It also discourages choice.

    With electoral reform, there would be a more natural alignment of parties, and co-operation after elections based on more limited agreement rather than trying to force everyone into one of two large blocs.

  4. There you go boys and girls, join the social democrat Liberal group and you too may be able to join in coalition with the Tories one day. Come on Atul, Samuel and Rob, what are you waiting for. You may have to change the name of this website though.

  5. Mike Stallard says:

    Hello! Is anyone still there?
    Maybe some people have been looking at the News?
    No?
    Immigration? Agreement with Turkey? Referendum?
    Meanwhile in the bunker: will Corbyn oust Buggins or will Buggins survive the attack by Muggins? I cannot wait to find out…
    VOTE LABOUR! We need the chauffeur driven car!

  6. James says:

    There you go boys and girls, join the far left labour party and you too may be able to wallow in nostalgia with the trotskyists forever without changing a diddly squat. Come on Atul, Samuel and Rob, what are you waiting for. You may have to change the website name to `effective labour`

  7. John P Reid says:

    The Tories will be in power for along time, Paddy ash down said of the 1992 election,where the libdems had equal distance from Tory and labour, they didn’t realize how unpopular labour still was with the electorate and,should have only promised to have worked with the Tories, like they did over Maastrict

    It’s noted that if the 1992 election was today, with immigration the Tories wouldn’t have got an overall majority now

    If say 20 years from now we have another 1992 style election ,and the Tories were the biggest party,it’s possible they may need libdems, assuming we still have FPTP,and ukip don’t have the MPs to back them up

  8. I support George’s comments entirely. As an ex-Labour member who has joined the LibDems, I see no future for the centre-left in the current Labour Party. What the Social Democrat Group is trying to do is to provide a forum for all those on the centre left to enable them to discuss possible ways forward. Whether moderate Labour MPs form a new party, or decide to work more closely with us is a matter for the future.

  9. Ryland1 says:

    Yes, 2015 was a bad year for the centre – left; problem is the Lib Dems are not part of it! The orange bookers took their party off to the right and they reaped what they sewed! No sympathy for Vince and friends from the SDP wing of Lib Dems – you took the cabinet seats when your Social Democratic roots ought to have led you to vote against Council Tax, GP commissioning and a long list of other Tory policies.

    Sorry, No sympathy, and no chance of working together for how do we know you wil not support Osborne/May/Johnson in the event of a hung parliament in 2021??

  10. paul barker says:

    For those Labour members who are leaving, the simplest way to encourage the re-alignement of The Centre-Left would be to join The LibDems. Its easy to see why Centrist Labour MPs stay on but for ordinary members the future holds nothing but frustration & increasing isolation in a Party moving ever farther Left.

  11. Thanks for the replies, guys.

    @John

    You’re right. An initiative for moderate Labour and the Liberal Democrats to produce a centre-left alternative to the Tories wouldn’t interest most Corbynites. However, if we make our case well enough, perhaps some of them will come round to moderate social democracy.

    As for moderate Labour and the Lib Dems, there are obvious areas of tension. The Lib Dems are not unilateralist, however they are in favour of a reduced deterrent, whereas most Labour moderates want the four boat Trident option. The Lib Dems are putting up Police Commissioner Candidates. However, there are other important differences, for example on identity cards. This isn’t an insuperable problem. Similar differences existed between the SDP and the Liberal party in the 1980s, and all significant political movements are broad coalitions.

    I do agree, however, that it won’t be easy. Perhaps I will write about these difficulties in more detail on a later occasion. All the more reason to start building better relations now, and began a debate within our own parties about a way forward.

    @Peter Kenny

    I’m sorry if you had the impression that I think myself superior to others. In my view, good Social Democracy needs humility. If we want to pursue the policies that will be most effective in reducing poverty, rather than following an ideological framework, we need to be constantly questioning our own opinions, because there is always a strong chance that someone else has a better solution.

    You’re right, of course, that the Lib Dems suffered a terrible election last year. But, if this project can get started, and if it can overcome the initial hurdles, eventually, our background will become irrelevant. Other issues will seem unimportant compared to our primary mission, to provide a moderate alternative that can defeat the Tories.

    @Mike Homfray

    Hi Mike. I very much agree about electoral reform. And this is an issue where some moderate Labour MPs have a different opinion. However, if I am right that there will be a split, then I believe moderate MPs will soon realise the importance of change.

    Frankly, I don’t blame supporters of Corbyn for wanting to take over Labour. Politics is a rough trade, and, with a winner-takes-all electoral system, trying to get fully socialist MPs elected through Labour was your only realistic alternative. 2015 has been a disaster for the centre-left. I think it could be a disaster for the UK, because I think full-bloodied socialism will be unelectable, and doom the country to near-perpetual Tory rule. But you disagree, and you have the right to fight for that different opinion. The real culprit is the electoral system.

    @Danny Speight

    Hello again, Danny, I take a different view to you. I very much agree with Mike Smithson: “The real Red Tories are those whose actions will lead to another Conservative majority and they are, of course, the followers of Corbyn and McDonnell.”

    @John P Reid

    I suspect that the Tories would win an election like 1992 again. This is especially true with all the changes they are now bringing in: the forthcoming boundary changes, cuts to union funding, the freedom for Tory Central Office to spend central money in key marginals (which did not exist in 1992), and the increasing importance of technology (and therefore money) to election campaigns, that.

    And, if the primary opposition is led by Corbyn, McDonnell or another of their ilk, they would do so easily.

    @Ryland1

    Obviously, I think differently. I agree with Edward Docx in his Guardian piece: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/19/britain-lib-dem-autumn-statement-osborn-corbyn

  12. Martin says:

    Ryland1:

    I am not sure what (or who) you mean by “orange bookers” (it looks like coded language to me), but your narrative of going “off to the right” matches oddly with economics that broadly followed Darling/Johnson prescriptions and a politics that was somewhere to the left of most of Blair’s premiership.

    But then perhaps, neither do yo have sympathy for the Labour Party’s woes.

  13. Madasafish says:

    Labour are working hard to be the established Opposition Party – with 150 seats.

    I think if they go on in this vein, they will succeed.

  14. Tafia says:

    The orange bookers took their party off to the right

    The orange bookers have always been economically right wing. The original Whips were far more right wing than the Tories.

    Within the LibDems, the Liberal element are economically liberal (ie right wing), while the SDP element are socially liberal (ie left wing)

  15. @Tafia

    The idea that the SDP element are the leftwing of the Lib Dems is a myth put out by ill-informed journalists. It’s a myth so widespread that most Lib Dems have wearily given up trying to correct it.

    Ex-SDP types (like me) are found across the political spectrum of the Lib Dems, however, I think most of us in the mainstream of the party, rather than on the left or the right.

    The left wing and the right wing usually both think of themselves as Liberals. (Their respective fringe groups are called http://www.socialliberal.net/ and http://www.liberalreform.org.uk/)

    When we started the Social Democrat Group last year, I was prepared for hostility from those who think of themselves as Liberals. In fact, we’ve had very little indeed. And we’ve specifically had Liberals, both on the left and the right of the party, explicitly welcome our formation.

  16. Tafia says:

    George, the SDP element had it’s routes in Labour’s breakaways. They were left wing – not as left wing as Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Brown, Miliband and Corbyn, but more left wing than Blair and more left wing than the likes of Umanna, Cooper, Flint etc

  17. dicegeorge says:

    Yes. A Progressive Alliance.
    Especially as the Tories are redefining boundaries.
    I’m a green liberal and of course dont agree with everything every libdem says. The 2000 votes for westminster came out that the only possible alliance was LibDems and Tory, for which I blame the voters, and the broadcasters, and the Tory publicists.

  18. neilh says:

    I am a labour party member and find myself agreeing with much of what you write here. In common with many other moderate labour party members, I think we are stuffed under Corbyn. The situation is absolutely hopeless and I don’t see a way back at the moment, every day this goes on the labour party is harmed. But who knows what will happen next, it will not stay this way for four years, that’s for sure.

    Ultimately I think you will find that there is a lot of resentment within labour towards the lib dems for the oportunistic positions that they took firstly in the run up to the 2010 election to the left of labour, and then during the 2010-2015 in coalition with the tories. Ironically perhaps I think the record of the lib dems in government was good on balance and I personally would be happy to have seen the coalition continue, however chaotic the decision making was it is better than the situation we have now, where the tories have free reign and there is an incompetent and ineffective labour opposition led by corbyn.

  19. @neilh

    Hi Neil,

    Thank you so much for your post.

    I’m sure that you are right about anger in Labour about Lib Dem opportunism. It probably won’t surprise you, that that’s one of the criticisms I hear in the Lib Dems about Labour’s actions during the coalition.

    But, frankly, that’s all ancient history.

    Since it became clear that Corbyn would win the Labour leadership, I’ve been convinced that a realignment is inevitable. But I’ve been worried that anger from recent years would make that far more difficult than it needs to be.

    To get myself away from a Lib Dem tribalist way of thinking, I’ve taken to following Labour people, and it’s had an effect on me. Although I’ve never met them, I feel I’ve started to get to know and like them. I’ve read them sharing the same outrage at the cold indifference of a two-faced Prime Minister, who preaches compassion, and does the opposite.

    I very much understand the horror of many moderates, at what is being done to the credibility of Labour as a viable opposition to Labour. However, I don’t feel the same horror. I’m pretty convinced that the best way to provide a long-term alternative to the Tories is a realignment.

    One of my great fears is of Labour remaining large enough to prevent realignment under the present electoral system, but too unelectable to ever displace the Tories.

    I think most British people are instinctively moderate, and happy to be progressive, if they think the money will be spent responsibly. I do not think the current Conservative parliamentary party is in any way representative of them. I believe most Labour MPs (and most Lib Dems), are far more in tune with the average voters values.

    Sadly, it seems to me that the Labour membership is representative. Perhaps moderates can persuade them back into the centre-ground, but I fear the best they could hope for is soft leftwing popularism, which would convince no one.

    My other fear is that moderate Labour MPs will think more about their jobs as MPs, than about the interests of the country. And that others, opting for the quiet life, will simply withdraw from politics, and take up a career elsewhere.

    My hope is that there are enough moderate Labour people to join with like-minded people in the Liberal Democrats, to start the process of making an alignment possible.

    A Labour break-up won’t happen till 2018, so we have a couple of years to do some of the groundwork. If, Neil, or any other moderate reading, you’d like to talk about this in confidence, if you have a Facebook account, you can always send me a private message.

    If confidentiality isn’t an issue, do chat with us openly on that our Facebook page.

    Best,
    George

  20. Jen says:

    Dicegeorge – there was another viable coalition in 2010, a coalition of Conservatives and Labour.

    A shame Labour wouldn’t countenance it: the big problem for the left in the 2010-2015 coalition was that the Tories had six MPs for every Liberal and so things were heavily weighted toward the Tory approach. If Labour had stepped up to the job it would have been a much more evenly weighted pairing.

  21. @Jen
    Thanks for the comment. Sorry for the late reply, I only just saw it.

    I agree Labour and the Tories were, theoretically a viable coalition, but Labour would have seen it as political suicide – they’d probably have been right.

    The Lib Dems felt duty bound to try … the rest is history.

    (PS If you want to continue the discussion, if you use Facebook, it’s best to comment on one of the threads on https://www.facebook.com/SocialDemocratGroup/
    I’ll get a notification on that, which will mean I can respond)

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