Can we please just ignore the Lib Dems?

by Rob Marchant

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.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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11 Responses to “Can we please just ignore the Lib Dems?”

  1. Red Trev says:

    While I concur with much that has been said it is still my,oft repeated proposition,that we should not simply stand aside and wait for this criminal Government to implode.I believe we should be making an open appeal to the Liberals to bring down this Government by making our own ‘open and progressive offer’.Join us in a fully inclusive coalition and they get full PR without a referendum. This may seem,to some Socialists, as going to far but,it is my contention that the absolute greatest priority,beyond even the fixing of the economy(which is nowhere near as broken as the Tories would have the gullible believe)is the destruction of the Conservative party.There simply cannot be an advance to Socialism,in the country,without the amputation of the main organ of state control,the Tory Party,beyond its use to the parasitic-class.The parties destruction is the most important prerequisite to that sweeping Socialisation of Britain which we all desire.

  2. Clem the Gem says:

    We in Labour are in a different position than for many years. Since May 2010, thousands have joined the party (myself included), many without previous experience of the Lib Dems as at best unreliable allies.
    The Lib Dems themselves are in a confused state to say the least on the ground – unused to justifying unpopular class-war measures.
    The filibuster in The Lords is a legitimate response to a parts of the Reform Bill which seeks to gerrymander our political system.
    When this Bill becomes law, particularly if the AV Referendum produces a No majority, we in Labour could face exclusion from power for a generation. We will have to build alliances at all levels with Lib Dems, Greens and others in order to prevent a further Tory government.

  3. William says:

    Red Trev,Labour polled 29 percent at the General election.You can talk about ‘destruction’,’amputation’,and ‘sweeping socialisation’, until you are blue in the face,but the fact is the electorate welcomed Tony Blair and roundly rejected Gordon Brown and his henchmen,who now are in charge of the official opposition.By the way,David Owen was respected by his opponents because the man had manners, like Clegg and Cameron, a trait rather lacking post Blair,in our party.

  4. redmik says:

    Interesting post Rob. Even more interesting is the designation ‘former labour party manager’ since it is my belief that the party’s ‘managers’ are the ones most responsible for the current parlous state of the party.

    I had an email on 26/9/10 at 1.30pm from a TULO person at Labour’s Conference to inform me that Ed had been announced as the new leader. I was also asked to send my own personal message to Ed. This is what I sent:

    “Cautious congrats Ed,
    On 24th August you addressed an open letter to LibDem voters saying: ‘Leaving your party is the most honourable course when your party leadership leaves you’.
    Do these remarks apply to Labour Party members such as myself (resigned in April after 46 years membership, 28 as a Labour councillor and given the National Merit Award in 2008) ?
    As Convenor of ‘democracy4stoke’ I cannot accept the imposition of candidates (at all levels) and the destruction of democracy for grassroots party members.

    Mick Williams,
    Convenor D4S.
    26/9/10 at 12.30pm.”

    Since I have not had the courtesy of a reply I have had to speculate as to its probable nature and this, of course has had the benefit of four months hindsight. Sadly, nothing seems to have changed except that more people are now recognising the deficiencies of today’s Labour Party. [I base this on the several responses I received following my letter published in the Guardian of 25/11/10 – “The change Labour needs” – in which I advised Ed to seek the views of those who had left Labour rather than those who never were.]

    It remains my view that unless such information as was published in the LabOUR Commission interim report of 2007 is taken on board and acted upon there will be little hope for a ‘democratic socialist’ Labour Party in the future.

    And as someone who still had a vote in the leadership election when asked who it would be cast for I invariably replied “Harry Perkins”. Usual response was ‘never heard of him’ – which is a very sad commentary on the political literacy of those on the left.

    In democracy,

    Mick Williams.

  5. David Morris says:

    Interesting post. I agree with some of your points, but not all of them.

    I’ve posted my full response to this post here:

    I’m not a member of any political party, but I think it’s foolish to consider ignoring the Lib Dems. The fact is that they are part of government and some of their MPs hold influencial positions.

    I realise that current polling data shows that they have an 8-9% vote share, but polls can be wrong occasionally. As well as that, we aren’t even half way through the coalition’s full term. Plenty of th things can change in that time and the Labour Party still need to formulate more alternative policy to make themselves attractive to ordinary voters and members of the Lib Dems.

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Red Trev: I fear our chances of bringing down the government are pretty much nil. Even so, that does not mean we have to wait for it to implode – our imperative can and should be a third option: provide a credible alternative by the next election.

    @Clem: am not in fact against the filibuster per se, simply pointing out that winding up the Lib Dems is somewhat incompatible with reaching out to them. If indeed the result of the referendum ends up really hitting our seat-winning capability, I agree that we will have to form alliances with whomever. But I am not sure how likely this is.

    @William, I am not sure that David Owen was all that respected. Many certainly respected his intellect, and probably an equal number found him foolish as a result of his huge ego. I certainly don’t think he did our Party any great favours.

    @redmik, I’d hope you would judge people by their expressed views rather than their jobs! I do have some sympathy with your frustrations on the selection process (see my post “The democracy of Monty Python” here on LabourList). There are some circumstances (e.g. by-elections) where it is perfectly right to impose candidates on grounds of shortness of time, but what is wrong in my view is to ban certain groups from standing in some selections and to distort the process through a multitude of quotas.

    @David, I have had a brief look at your post – thank you for your considered points. Have decided that it deserves a more detailed response, which I will post tomorrow. By the way, I like your blog and you may just be surprised to know I have previously quoted from it.

  7. Can you ignore the Lib Dems if you want to court their voters? Ignore the 8-9% for now, and consider that those winnable seats that are in the south tend to be lost when we have an unfavourable split of the Lib Dem-Labour vote.

    It’s particularly notable that in seats we won or which saw especially big anti-Tory swings in 1997 (particularly in areas of the south close to London) there was a big Labour to Lib Dem swing in 2010. That suggests to me a sizeable anti-Tory vote.

    Of course, not all Lib Dems are anti-Tory, but many are. If we’re serious about winning a large number of southern seats, we need to squeeze the Lib Dem vote there relentlessly, which will require a degree of focus on them and quite possibly more populist grandstanding than certain sections of the party are comfortable with.

    And I’m not just talking about seats like Norwich South. I also include seats like Chelmsford, where we never got close because we never squeezed the Lib Dem vote enough.

    It’s not the only part of an electoral strategy, but it’s a necessary component if we are as interested in winning in the south as people suggest we should be.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @David, thanks again for your detailed thoughts. Would like to correct two misunderstandings: firstly, I don’t represent Labour Uncut’s view, as you imply in your piece – I just post here. There are wide-ranging views expressed here, mostly contradicting each other and that’s the enjoyable part of it. Secondly, am not suggesting we stop campaigning against the Lib Dems, clearly that wouldn’t work. But I am saying that the national message should focus on the Tories, and that cooperation will not really work.

    I think we largely agree on the 5 points, except I would comment that even without large numbers of them happening, defections can still be politically significant, e.g. ex-minister Shaun Woodward in 1999 really made the Tories seem in disarray and Labour “the only show in town”.

    Re the final point, I respectfully believe you’re mistaken about the progressive majority because you miss the fact that the Lib Dems are really two parties. So, we are not even talking about the whole 8-9%, we are talking about only the *left* of the party, which is only a few percentage points. Those on the right aligned with the Coalition will certainly give us nothing. Those on the left will give us little, if anything. To get them we expend a large amount of energy for little gain, and in the process alienate those on the right of our own party.

    By the way the fact that some Lib Dems hold important positions is not that relevant, because those Lib Dems are the ones least likely to come with us. They have made their beds and there is no real way back for them.

    I don’t see why this makes us complacent and ignorant, I just think we need to be looking to the people of Britain, not to other parties.

    @Edward: absolutely you can ignore the party while courting the voters. We do it all the time! And, as I noted above, we should of course have a strategy for beating them on the ground. But that is for beating them, not for cooperating with them – a very different thing.

  9. Cole says:

    The important thing is that we really want LibDem voters from May more than anything else. The polls suggest we’ve already got around 40% of them – but we need to hang onto them & squeeze a few more if possible. Do the maths; it’s a key (if not THE key) to winning the next election.

  10. Rob Marchant says:

    @Cole, I think we all agree, we certainly want Lib Dem voters. But this article is about the benefits of cooperation with the Lib Dems – not the same thing.

  11. David Morris says:

    Apologies for the misunderstanding about your relationship with this blog. I’m glad that I know now because I frequently read Labour Uncut and could quite easily quote from it/respond to it again in the near future.

    The point about Shaun Woodward is an interesting one. It was only half way through the first term for New Labour, which means the Tories were in disarray anyway. Did his defection really make that much of a difference to their situation at the time?

    As for the point about the Lib Dems being two parties, I think its safe to say that all parties have multiple factions. It’s nothing that’s unique to them. The last Liberal/SDP/Lib Dem MP to defect was in 1948, so there must be something keeping them there.

    I used the words ‘complacent’ and ‘ignorant’ because by ignoring the policies and progress of the third party, you will have no plans if their approval ratings go up and they do relatively well in the next election.

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