Labour Has to Be Ready to Work with the Liberal Democrats

9 May

The news that Labour has started productively engaging with the Lib Dems is a promising development for centre-left politics. The parties simply have to work together now if they are to be in any way prepared for formal or informal collaboration against the common enemies of conservatism and neo-liberalism after the next General Election.

That the Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham is sending letters to Lib Dem MPs asking them to support his calls for “1. fair admissions 2. qualified teachers in schools 3. ‘face-to-face’ careers advice” at the third reading of the Education Bill on Wednesday is encouraging. Reaching out to the Coalition’s junior partners like this is significant on a couple of levels. It points to Burnham’s trust that the Lib Dems are not a lost cause for those interested in pluralist, centre-left politics. It is also a sign that some within Labour want to start building a working relationship with the Lib Dems as soon as possible, whether they are working (or conspiring as some would have it) with the Tories or not.

As Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy rightly points out, Labour’s and many others’ obsession with wanting Clegg, Cable, Huhne and Alexander to resign, fail or apologise has distracted attention from the real drivers of the government’s regressive proposals and policies, the Tories. Just as important though is that the Lib Dems need to be aware that they do have a viable choice in who they work with. Labour, the Greens and the broader left must be prepared to continue to build a working relationship with the Lib Dems to be ready to fight conservative and neo-liberal ideologies and politics both now and in the future.

Against the backdrop of NHS reforms unpopular with the Lib Dems, an article in yesterday’s Observer claims that Ed Miliband is openly calling for defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. The caption to the picture to the article states that Miliband would “welcome defectors” from the Lib Dems. I’m not convinced Miliband has actually said any such thing though. I can’t find any direct quotes in the article from Miliband clearly saying that nor am I able to find the original text by Miliband which the quotations in the article came from. [If anyone reading this finds such a text could you let me know?] The only quotations in the article which might be interpreted as encouraging defection are “They can come and work with us. My door is always open” and “Lib Dems have to work out which side they are on. Do they want to be on the Conservative side, backing the Conservative-led government, or on the progressive side? It really is time for them to make up their minds.” Miliband’s comments appear to me to respect Lib Dem cabinet ministers’ and MPs’ continuing membership of a Liberal Democrat party which could and should be able to work with Labour, the Greens and others. Again, these are promising signs from the Labour leadership. 

To publicly suggest that Lib Dems ought to leave their party would surely appear patronising, cynical and tribalistic. It assumes that there is no possibility for the Liberal Democrats to ever do good work with the Labour party in the future and that the Labour party has a monopoly on centre-left thought and action. Neither assumption would lead to a productive engagement with a party who should be an ally in the fight against the common enemy of those informed by conservative and neo-liberal traditions. There is a constructive and positive way forward without requiring Lib Dems to switch tribe. Co-operation between the two parties, the Greens and others outside of party politics allows for the broadest possible consensus against regressive, conservative and neo-liberal politics. The rest of the Labour party should follow Miliband and Burnham’s pluralist lead and treat the Lib Dems’ members and traditions with respect despite the current Lib Dem leadership’s disregard for those same members and traditions.

A caveat to all of this talk of co-operation is that it doesn’t seem possible for the most prominent Lib Dem adopters of neo-liberal economics – Clegg, Alexander and Laws – to continue to lead the party while in any formal collaboration with the Green party or a Labour party led by Ed Miliband. Clegg is electorally toxic and the light-touch economic policy espoused by him – but crucially not huge swathes of social liberals in his party – seems in direct opposition to Miliband’s and the Greens’ politics of democratic resistance to the negative effects of capital. There would surely have to be changes at the top of the Lib Dems before co-operation between the parties was formalised.

For their part, Labour needs to develop economic policies which resonate with the electorate, counter the ‘no alternative to cuts’ narrative and are convincing to other parties within the centre-left. Just saying “we’ll cut less than the Tories” doesn’t seem to do that. Building up a broader narrative based on stimulating not cutting an economy into growth is my preferred approach but I’m sure not the only way to encourage the centre-left unity necessary to oppose the Tories.

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3 Responses to “Labour Has to Be Ready to Work with the Liberal Democrats”

  1. Oranjepan 13/05/2011 at 18:47 #

    As a LibDem I’m interested to know how such language and argument is designed to appeal to me.

    Although by tendency I’m a cooperator on areas of shared interest your article suggests little more than a series of catchphrases and insults rather than anything which demonstrates the openness to joint action which it appears on initial reading to suggest you desire.

    Consequently it seems more like you are repeating an electorally-driven message rather than something meaningful, and that you are more concerned with being seen to be open than actually being open to cooperation.

    However it is the cause of some sceptical optimism that you wish to escape the accusations of cynicism, being patronising or tribal, so I’d like to put you to the test.

    I don’t often comment elsewhere, but I’m intrigued to see whether you are prepared to put your money where your mouth is and engage in real dialogue with a real LibDem (albeit pseudonymous).

    So let me kick off with a question related to the policy area which you concentrate on here – do you think Clegg, Cable and Alexander are following their hearts by implementing the cuts?


  2. Ed Paton-Williams 14/05/2011 at 21:30 #

    Oranjepan –
    Thanks for your interesting comment. The first thing to say is that although I’d vote for them tomorrow, I’m not actually a Labour member. I’ve recently become a member of Compass however which looks to increase co-operation between centre-left parties. So I’m not trying to speak on behalf of Labour per se. Your questions about the sincerity of my calls for joint action still stand I think though.

    I certainly think it’s important that Lib Dems call out others if they feel that the language being used doesn’t achieve its goals of reaching out. I’d be interested to hear what sort of language you think Labour, the Greens and others could use which would be acceptable to a Lib Dem audience in order to foster substantial dialogue and co-operation.

    I asked a friend of mine who’s a Labour member what she thought of your comment and she said:
    “It sort of feels like they’re getting a bit defensive, I sometimes feel that LDs are hostile to any offer of cooperation from Labour (as we’ve seen with Ed M’s repeated attempts) because it makes them feel uncomfortable about their alliance with the Tories. Like considering the prospect of a progressive coalition makes them think about what could have been.” This does strike me as somewhat cynical but she’s not an ‘If you’re not in the Labour party, you’re wrong’ tribalist so I think it’s useful and interesting to see just how much work needs to be done to increase dialogue between the parties.

    As an outsider of course it’s difficult to comment on the extent to which Clegg, Cable and Alexander are following their hearts when it comes to the cuts. It’s certainly not a big leap from some of the Orange Book’s proposals. Isn’t it just as important though to think of Clegg etc as representatives of Lib Dem members and voters? And in that respect they seem to me at least to be misrepresenting the will of their voters. Again, I’d be interested to hear your views on that.

    This might be of interest by the way.


  3. Oranjepan 18/05/2011 at 11:27 #

    I tried to condense my thoughts on this subject for a concise reply, but in the end i found it too big and wrote a blog post (I found some really good links too).

    BTW have you actually read the Orange Book? (just as a point of interest I don’t consider myself an OB and that’s not the origin for my monicker, but I do think it contains a number of good ideas)


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