The Lib Dem love that dare not speak its name

by George Kendall

Since 1997, the Liberal Democrats have had an awful secret.

After 2001, we bitterly denounced the Labour government. We railed against their authoritarian policies on civil liberties and the illegal war in Iraq. In cities across the north of England, we were locked in mortal combat for control of local government.

However, when respective Lib Dems have gathered, after sidelong glances to ensure the wrong people aren’t listening, there’s something we have only admitted with hushed voices.

Sometimes we’d speak with comic evasions, “Of course,” we’d say. “I hated the Labour government.” And everyone would nod.

“Except the devolution to Scotland and Wales, but that was down to Robert Maclennan and Robin Cook. Labour only agreed with great reluctance.

“Oh, and the Freedom of Information Act, but we all know Blair hated it.

“I suppose they did reduce the number of hereditary Lords, but why not elect them?

“And why do they get credit for the Independence of the Bank of England? After all, that was shamelessly stealing our policy.

“They did introduce civil partnerships, but we’ve gone further.

“And they take all the credit for the increase in overseas aid, when that was driven by the Jubilee 2000 campaign. And that was founded by a Lib Dem.

“Fair’s fair, I suppose. The NHS did need more funding, even if they took a few years to get around to it.

“Electoral reform for the European elections may have been an improvement, but they should have introduced it to the House of Commons..

“I suppose the Minimum Wage was all right.” And we’d pause, unable to think what else to say.

We never spoke the obvious punchline. However, if we were honest, in the back of our minds, we could hear ourselves saying, “Apart from that, what did the 1997 Labour government ever do for us?”

Now, almost two decades later, the world has changed. Corbynistas rail against Labour’s record in government, and the Tories ridicule it. But, for us, sometimes the boundary between love and hate is narrower than we realise.

Despite all that has happened since, perhaps it’s time for some of us to admit that, in truth, we loved the 1997 government.

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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27 Responses to “The Lib Dem love that dare not speak its name”

  1. Stephen Howse says:

    It’s not just the self proclaimed social democrats in my party that think like this, by the way. I’d call myself an economic liberal and while some things Blair would go on to do leave me cold, from 1997-2001 he headed up the best government of my lifetime. That blend of radicalism, economic sense, zest for the job and progressive social reform hasn’t been matched.

  2. Mark Wright says:

    Interesting article George. I’ve said before that I think the 1997-2001 Blair government was the best in modern history (I.e. since the 60s). All of your items in your article except civil partnerships were in that term. But after that, things went downhill quickly, triggered largely by the reaction to 9/11. I think if Labour and the Lib Dems had ended up in coalition after the 2001 election, things would have been very different – better different.

    The second best government in modern history, IMO, was the Coalition.

  3. NHSGP says:

    We railed against their authoritarian policies on civil liberties and the illegal war in Iraq


    The bizarre part is that to get what you want you have to have authoritarian policies on tax and business.

    No opt out, and you would use the threat of violence and violence to get your way.

    No opt out from the mad ideas, the state is going to take your money and use violence to get its way.

    Consent? Bugger that, we will just impose consent.

    Look at lots of posts from the left. Hate filled rants. Until recently it was red on red violence. Now there’s a brief alternative of having a go at IDS/Tories.

  4. NHSGP says:

    Apart from that, what did the 1997 Labour government ever do for us?”


    Dump 6 trillion of debt for the young and the next government to suffer under.

  5. TCO says:

    If the 1997 Labour Government had introduced the voting reform that was in its manifesto it would have been one of, if not the greatest postwar government. Sadly everything that happened following every subsequent election is a direct consequence of that failure.

  6. Colin Green says:

    I’d never thought about it this way before. I guess illiberal ideas like 90 day detention without trial stick more in the memory than the minimum wage and a partial reform of the Lords. Perhaps Blair’s first term wasn’t too bad after all.

  7. Mike Stallard says:

    I am for LEAVE which is rapidly turning into being very right wing!
    However, I can see that for a lot of people – a lot of people – the LibDems, the antiCorbyn anti Momentum Labour and the REMAIN Conservatives have a very great deal in common.
    All you want is a leader of the charisma of Tony Blair and – Bingo! – you will sweep the board.

  8. Rob Jackson says:

    Great article. I was a Labour member until 2013. As far as I was concerned, things only started going wrong when Brown took over the leadership from Blair. I was, and still am at heart a Blairite. Ed Miliband was a useless leader; how different things might have been had his brother won the leadership election! But that’s history. Now I’ve joined the LibDems, and with George Kendall, we’re setting up the Social Democrat Group with the aim of welcoming other disillusioned centre left Labour people to join us, and fill the gap that currently exists for the centre left in UK politics.

  9. John P Reid says:

    There are libdems who want out of the EU
    By the way,until Chilcot comes out,Iraq can’t be recognized as illegal, just based on a lie

  10. @John P Reid

    Hi John,

    My piece was intended to give a taste of what LibDems sometimes say in private, with a strong dash of humour. I hope, with that in mind, you can enjoy it.

    In fact, there are some LibDems who were in favour of the Iraq invasion, like Paddy Ashdown. I am sure Paddy doesn’t regard the war as illegal. And, when it comes to International Law, what is illegal and legal is a *very* subjective opinion.

    As you say, there are a few LibDems activists who are in favour of Brexit. You could say the same of any difference between LibDems and Labour.

    What I was trying to do what reveal something that we don’t talk enough about, that many in the LibDems and many in moderate Labour have a lot in common. That, while our competitive political system forced us to attack the Labour government, privately, some of us liked you better than we admitted.

    If, as I believe, there will eventually be a realignment between the LibDems and moderate Labour, we need to start being more open about what we like about each other.

  11. TCO says:

    If our political system were better aligned, we’d have three main parties:

    – a socialist party (Corbyn’s Labour, Social Liberal Lib Dems)
    – a nationalist (small n) party (Tory right and UKIP – protectionist, “little England”, pro-wealth, anti EU)
    – a liberal party (moderate Labour, Social Democrat and Orange Book Lib Dems, Europhile left-wing Tories).

    Its a shame that FPTP forces all of us into totally unsuitable alliances.

  12. TCO says:

    @George Kendall there should be a much larger realignment in British politics:

    – a socialist party (Corbyn’s Labour, Greens, Social Liberal Lib Dems)
    – a liberal party (moderate Labour, Social Democrat and Orange Book Lib Dems, moderate Europhile Tories)
    – a national party (Mainstream anti-EU Tory right, UKIP)

    It’s such a shame that the current electoral system forces all of us into such totally unsuitable alliances.

  13. Hi TCO,

    I think speculating about post-realignment politics is unhelpful at the moment. All it’s likely to do is infuriate people who are put into parties where they don’t feel they belong. What we should be doing now is building bridges, not burning them.

    I’m also not convinced that the non-Brexit Tories are as compatible with social democracy as you say. I won’t name them, but it’s they who’ve been the driving force behind some of the most regressive measures. Remembering that awful summer budget last year, I wonder how many of them have a compassionate bone in their “compassionate conservative” bodies.

    I also think you’re being unfair to our social liberal friends. Many of them are very moderate, and would undoubtedly be in the liberal party.

    One thing worth noting, though. If we had had electoral reform, and that had allowed a viable full-bloodied socialist party, this crisis for Labour moderates would never have happened.
    The Corbynistas would have joined that party, and then been able to see if full-bloodied socialism could win the support of the UK electorate.

    They’d have done poorly, but they’d have had representation in parliament. So there would be no danger of them feeling they had to join the social democrat/liberal party in order to participate in democracy, and that’s mean the social democrat/liberal party would be able to be democratic with its members, without worrying about a leftwing takeover.

  14. Ian says:

    Yes, moderate Labour believes in the right things, mostly, but then they had a bad habit of mostly setting about achieving them in the wrong way. Examples of well meaning policies that turned into implementation nightmares ended up everywhere.

    And, yes, most LibDems were smiling in 1997, but back then we never realised it meant signing up to GW Bush’s foreign policy, with all the catastrophic consequences thereafter. Indeed remember we were promised an ‘ethical’ foreign policy; how sick that sounds now. And promised lots of other things, including fair voting (oops, a big mistake not delivering such a vital pre-requisite for Corbyn style leftism!)

    And whose opinion of Blair’s character has been boosted by his actions and behaviour since leaving office?

  15. paul barker says:

    Its far too soon to speculate about the results of The Realignement of British Politics but we can all see that its already begun.
    One thing we can do now is think about methods of moving things along – what might help & what definitely wont. One thing that definitely wont help is the planned Coup by Labour Centrists/Rightwingers & currently pencilled in for early August, allegedly. Its a really, really bad idea so lets just kill it now.
    I still think the War between Left & Right in Labour could be avoided if both sides admitted that Labour is now Two Parties living in one body. Divorce doesnt have to be bitter & messy, the split could be managed.
    Thanks to the Libdems we all know when the next General Election will be, theres plenty of time to manage an agreed seperation.

  16. Hi Ian,

    I think that’s a bit unfair. Labour in 97 made mistakes, but every government does, and sometimes the reasons for those mistakes are less clear when you look back.

    For example, I think keeping to the Tory spending plans for the first two years was wrong, it set public services up for a famine, then a feast, when a slower steady increase would have meant more effective spending. But, in the run-up to 97, Labour were terrified of a repeat of 92, and the consequences of a fifth Tory victory, so they made this rash commitment. Having done so, they wanted to keep the promise. I suspect most Labour supporters, looking back, would have preferred that promise could have been avoided.

    Regarding Iraq, that was after the 1997-2001 government. And, don’t forget, we had a few pro-Iraq invasion people, such as Paddy. I think, with hindsight, most moderate Labour people think Iraq was a mistake. Why don’t we give them a break on that one? Blair’s long gone. And we and they need to look forwards now. After all, we now have a common enemy, in a Tory government which, if they get their act together after the referendum, could be running this country for 20+ years.

    Regarding electoral reform, I agree. Most moderate Labour people remain against. However, I hope, as Labour members reflect on the implications of FPTP with the present party make-up, that they’ll come round on that issue.

  17. Tafia says:

    TCO – unless voting reform is based on the individual regions as opposed to the all up total across the UK, then Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotkand will just view it as yet another example of institutionalised English racism.

  18. anosrep says:

    New Labour really doesn’t deserve credit for some of these. Chucking out hereditary peers in favour of politically appointed life peers just replaced one oligarchy with another. Increasing NHS funding isn’t an achievement when so much of that money was trousered by PFI contractors and other privatisation parasites who cost the taxpayer far, far more than the public sector way while providing a worse service. And European electoral reform wasn’t New Labour’s doing, it was brought about by the new EU rules.

    The rest of the list…well, yes, they were good things. But vastly, immeasurably outweighed by the murder of over a million Iraqis.

  19. Hi Paul Barker,

    I can entirely understand sensible Labour members not wanting to leave just yet. It must have been a horrendeous shock to find themselves with a leader who associates with Troskyists and a Marxist-influenced Shadow Chancellor.

    It’s only been six months. Some of them have been pounding the streets for Labour for 30 years. They’ll be hoping against hope that they can save the party they love. And, for now, they’ll publicly dismiss any suggestion that a realignment could happen, for fear that it’ll undermine their efforts to take Labour back from the hard left.

    It’s clear many have already left. I know some who have made the journey over to the Lib Dems. But I fear there will be others who are withdrawing from politics, never to return. This must be avoided, because we will need them all if a realignment is to have any chance of ending perpetual Tory rule.

    But with those who are staying in Labour for now, the key thing is for us to build better relations with them.

    That’s important, whatever happens. Because, if you and I are wrong, and they can retake the Labour leadership, I doubt Labour can beat the Tories on their own. Their brand will be deeply damaged by association with the hard left, and their move back to the centre ground will be painfully slow, just as it was from 1979 to 1997.

  20. TCO says:

    Tafia – what point are you making? The best voting reform for Westminster would be to introduce STV in multi-member constituencies. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own Parliaments elected by different types of proportional representation. Until such time as they vote to leave the UK then they will continue to send representatives to Westminster. How you equate that with racism, I’ve no idea (and I speak as a Welsh-born Englishman with a Scots-born Irish wife).

  21. TCO says:

    @George Kendall I don’t think there are large numbers of centrist Tories, but there are a few and they seem to put pragamatism and influence highest, possibly coupled to family and traditional loyalties. Social Liberalism is, or should be, common to all Liberals, but there are some who self-identify as Social Liberals who appear to be Socialists in all but name, and seem to have ended up as Liberal Democrats because they have an anti-authoritarian or contrarian streak. There are certainly some who openly sympathise with Corbyn.

  22. @anosrep

    The above article was deliberately about the 1997-2001 government, because I wanted to dwell on the positives of that first term, which I know many LibDems have quietly applauded.

    However, the Labour governmnet’s involvement in the Iraq war is an enormous issue, and it shouldn’t be disregarded.

    1) I think we should be conciliatory with those who have changed their positions. Many moderate Labour members who I have encountered in recent months, believe that the Iraq war was a mistake. If we want to build better relations with moderate Labour, we should accept that change of position.

    2) I think we should avoid extreme language. The reason many Labour members supported the war in Iraq was not out of a blood-thirsty desire to murder a million people. Many genuinely believed that there were weapons of mass destruction, and that this made the invasion necessary. Ann Clywd was undoubtedly motivated by the appalling human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein, and I think there were many like her.

    Many acknowledge, with hindsight, that the war was a mistake. There are some who still don’t, and believe that without the war, even worse human suffering would have resulted – they are probably mistaken, but I think they are sincere in their belief.

    None of us know how many civilians died as a result of the war. The numbers are enormous, and heart-breaking. There have been various estimates from 150k to a million. From what I have read, the vast majority of those were not killed by coalition soldiers.

    Many were killed by opponents of the Coalition, who deliberately targeted civilians. Those killings wouldn’t have happened if the invasion had not taken place, but to imply that it was Labour who murdered them is unnecessarily provocative. Unless, of course, alienating moderate Labour activists in order to discourage them from building links with the LibDems is the objective.

    I think our priority now should be to build an electable alliance which can defeat the Tories. Iraq is important, but we shouldn’t let it poison relations between LibDems and moderate Labour.

  23. @TCO
    You’re right there are some decent Tories who truly are in politics to “stand up for the vulnerable”. I’d be happy to be in the same party as them.

    However, I’m concerned that some of those in the Tories who are described as moderate, are in politics to protect people like them, the affluent, not the weak. Or they are just in it for personal power. Of course, all parties have people like that, but I wouldn’t want to issue an open invitation to them. If we did that, we would only repel moderate social democrats.

    It’s true that there are a few within the LibDems who sympathise with Corbyn, but a few, a very few. And even they are probably sympathising with the moderate veneer that he has projected, rather than the reality of the hard left people he has appointed to his inner team. My hope is that, when the reality of Corbynism becomes apparent, many who are Corbyn supporters right now will realise that social democracy is a better way.

    If realignment comes, and we want to build a political force capable of defeating the Tories, we should be trying to build a wide coalition. I’m keen we avoiding using language that implies we’d want people to leave. Rather, I’d like us to use language that draws people in.

    I’d be very surprised if voting reform, if it involved lists, didn’t have regions which included Northern Ireland, and the nations of Scotland and Wales. The obvious list system to use would be the one recommended, but sadly not adopted, in the 97 government: AV+.

    In my opinion, some of the extra funding of the NHS was not well spent. However, to imply that there have been no benefits in the significant increases in health spending is, surely, absurd. And I think we should celebrate those improvements.

    I agree that we should have elected rather than appointed peers. But, appointed peers are vastly preferable to hereditary. Let’s face it, much of the decision-making in any democracy in the world is appointed, from civil servants, to the EU Commission, to the chairs of quangos.

  24. Rob Jackson says:

    @George Kendall: ‘There are some who still don’t, and believe that without the war, even worse human suffering would have resulted – they are probably mistaken, but I think they are sincere in their belief.’ As you know, I’m strongly of that opinion, and probably there are not many LibDems who share my views, with the (notable) exception of Paddy Ashdown. I’m pleased that the Social Democrat Group has chosen to be inclusive in welcoming all those who believe in social democracy, recognising that a range of views will be held among its members.

  25. Tafia says:

    TCO – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own Parliaments elected by different types of proportional representation.

    Neither Wales nor Northern Ireland have a Parliament. Only Scotland does and that only has limited powers.

  26. Martin Haigh says:

    Thank you George for your article and comments. The absurd internecine bloodletting over Iraq must stop. The war was a mistake, but it doesn’t mean that the last Labour government was irredeemably evil. High time we all moved on.

  27. @Martin Haigh

    Hi Martin,

    I only just saw your comment. Thank you.

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