Where next for Lib-Lab cooperation?

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2010

Two former Labour leadership possibles-never-contenders have talked in the past week about the future prospects for the Lib Dems and the Labour party forming a coalition at some point in the future. Their differing stances say a lot about the current state of British politics. But what they say about the future?

First up, John Denham, the shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, who made plain his anger at the Lib Dems last week, according to a report in The Independent:

Labour would demand the resignation of Nick Clegg before doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats in a future hung parliament, a senior Labour figure has said. … Mr Denham told the Fabian Review: “The Lib Dems have ceded all right to say they are a progressive party. If we use the next years to address the parlous state of the Labour Party, and if the Lib Dems change, that might open up possibilities.”

And then comes James Purnell, yesterday appointed the Chairman of the centre left think-tank ippr:

This is a critical time in our politics. Following election defeat, Labour is choosing a new leader and starting the process of coming up with new policies. Ippr will be central to the debates about how the centre left rebuilds and becomes a stronger force for change. At the same time, the new Coalition government has made much of its commitment to progressive ideas. Ippr has good relations with the new administration and we continue to aim to develop ideas that are adopted as policy, in Westminster and beyond.”

There’s no doubt the Coalition has ruptured the old politics-as-usual.

Labour views of the Lib Dems seem to sit somewhere between cold fury and hot indignation that Nick Clegg’s party could have dared contemplate agreement with the Tories. Lib Dems are responding in kind with any one or more of the following combination: a shrug, a look of reproachful hurt, reciprocated anger, guilt, confusion, or the hope of future rapprochement.

Myself, I veer towards the latter. The past two months have been painful ones for those closely involved in party politics, who care deeply about their parties. The visceral tribal repsonse that’s been provoked has been, I guess, inevitable.

But it’s also been unhealthy. Unhealthy not just because that kind of petty, knee-jerk, my-party-right-or-wrong attitude deters sympathetic, unattached voters; but also because it stultifies creative thinking. There’s little doubt Labour was, after 13 years of government, tired and in desperate need of intellectual renewal. There’s equally little doubt that, with little or no experience of government, the Coalition is going to make some naive mistakes by dreaming up new policies which experience will show don’t work in practice, however neat they appear on paper.

What we need is some creative tension, a dialectic which allows space for compromise not simply within the Coalition, but also between the Coalition and Labour: an open Purnell approach rather than a closen Denham one.

Healthier dialogue between the Lib Dems and Labour will be good in its own right. But there’s a practical reason, too. The two parties need each other, more so than either perhaps recognises at the moment.

The Lib Dems cannot always carry on in coalition with the Tories: the partnership will inevitably end. Maybe constructively, and by choice. Maybe messily, in bitter divorce. The Lib Dems need an alternative to the Tories. More importantly, the Labour party – for all its faults, and they are too numerous to mention – will act as a corrective in the next five years. That, after all, is what opposition is and should be about.

And while Labour might be happy right now to cruise on the back of doubts about the Coalition and the concerns of Lib Dem sympathisers, there will come a time when they, too, will want a partner to talk to. Sure, Labour may tell themselves all they need do is elect a new leader and wait til the next election. And perhaps, just perhaps, that will work. But sooner or later the Parliamentary arithmetic will need them to think about talking to the Lib Dems. And just as Labour will act as a corrective to Lib Dem thinking, so does Labour – if it wants to be progressive – need a liberal counterpoint.

For all the sound and fury of recent weeks, then, the Lib Dems and Labour need each other. The real question is: can we find ways in the next few years to work together without being at each other’s throats?