What prospect for Lib Dem / Labour cooperation in the next Parliament?

by Stephen Tall on August 23, 2010

The message from Labour-sympathising Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley in this morning’s paper is a stark one: “Labour is playing bad politics.” The reason?

The leadership campaign is turning into a tin-ear, foot-in-mouth competition about who can be nastiest to the Liberal Democrats. As candidates desperately try to prove themselves more true Labour, more tribal than the next guy, they are in danger of missing the big picture about our changing politics. They could end up wrecking their party’s position for the next generation, which is their own.

All political parties sometimes reach for their tribal comfort blanket, especially after a heavy election defeat. But briefly wrapping yourself in it to keep out the cold is one thing; permanently sleeping in it is quite another. The article continues:

The biggest tone change in politics has been the transition from the raw warfare of the latter days of New Labour towards the apparently collegiate and good-humoured attitude of the coalition. … the crucial thing is that the public seem to like the spirit of co-operation.

At the moment, Labour politicians and activists seem to feel their sense of outrage against the Lib Dems is shared by the wider public. If so, they’re meeting a very different set of voters from the ones I’m encountering. Labour MP Tom Harris summed up Opposition Labour’s petulant attitude when he tweeted his tit-for-tat response to Jackie Ashley’s article: “If Jackie Ashley wants us to admit mistakes, she should admit her paper made one in supporting LibDems at election.”

Tone matters. Ask Nick Bye, elected mayor of Torbay, who last year put himself forward to become the Tory parliamentary candidate for Torbay. As he himself recounted, his attack on the Lib Dems (“The biggest myth in British politics is that Liberal Democrats are such nice people”) went down a storm in the internal party meeting, but “in front of a wider audience, it fell as flat as a pancake.”

And the problem, as Ms Ashley notes later in her article, is that Labour’s tactics are driving a real wedge between Labour and the Lib Dems, despite the overlap in a number of areas of policy:

[The Lib Dems] have much more in common with Labour than with the Conservatives: indeed this is something they are already discovering for themselves. … Privately, this is something Labour politicians are cheerfully thinking about too. For the fact remains that on a range of issues from taxation to social mobility, from tuition fees to Trident, Lib Dem and Labour voters are usually coming from the same place.

I think this understates the areas of agreement there are currently with the Conservatives, most notably on restoring the civil liberties Labour casually tossed to one side, and stripping the quango state Labour constructed at huge public expense and cost to local democracy. For the moment at least, the Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives is a necessary corrective to 13 years of Labour rule.

As for the economy, the differences between the three parties are far slighter than Labour pretend: after all, Alistair Darling promised Labour’s cuts would be “deeper and tougher” than Mrs Thatcher’s, and was all set to increase VAT as well. None of the parties was entirely candid during the election campaign – Labour just happen to have the temporary advantage of dodging the need to be candid afterwards, either.

So, for now, the Coalition agreement between Lib Dems and Conservatives makes sense. But spool forward 3-4 years to the scenario of a British economy that’s growing healthily again, and a deficit that’s been greatly reduced. The parties are drawing up their respective plans for the next Parliament at the heart of which will be the question: do we cut the increased taxes of the last five years, or do we increase the cut spending of the last five years? It’s not hard to forsee Lib Dems and Conservatives finding themselves on opposite sides of the argument over that question.

At which point, there could well be an opportunity for the Lib Dems and Labour to move forward on those areas of public policy where they share common ground. Labour may well prefer to scorn such moves, and maintain their current default setting of betrayed anger. But it will be a real shame for the future of progressive politics if they choose to do so.