Play nice together

The opposition parties need to work together if they want to beat the Conservatives

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A sensible party system for Britain probably wouldn’t have the Labour or Conservative parties. There would be a socialist party, a leftish Green party, a greenish NIMBY party, a working class “fund the NHS, hang the paedos” party, a social democratic and liberal party, a right of centre liberal pro-business party, a national-conservative party, secessionist nationalist parties and some flotsam and jetsam to the right of the nat-cons. 

Such a realignment would be liberating: we’d no longer have to share a party with people we despise for the sake of winning an election — though both main parties are sweaty, overcrowded political omnibuses, there are also several tribes crammed into the Lib Dems’ creaking Mini. 

Given the undeniable results of our current electoral system, why don’t Labour and the Lib Dems merge? To answer this question is to address the history of why we’re two parties. 

Political systems are not normally designed from scratch. There’s a lot of history, happenstance and Darwinian evolution involved, particularly when the barriers to entry are as high as they are in Britain. There have only been three times when a new party has broken in and transformed the political landscape — the Labour party in 1918, the Liberals and SNP in 1974 and UKIP in 2015.

We have ended up with a system with a profound structural advantage for the right, partly because the realignment after the coalition in 2010 was not the one we might have expected. In the past, Conservative-Liberal cooperation has produced “National Liberal” formations and each time the Liberal breakaways have given the Conservatives new infusions of political talent, electoral support, money and, perhaps most importantly, ideas. 

Perversely, the Lib Dems ceasing to be a viable party of protest was when the political system went haywire

In its history, the Tory party has discovered the free market, democracy, consensus and the voters of mill towns through its embrace of Liberal fragments. Even Margaret Thatcher owed a debt to Manchester Liberalism. Without occasional top-ups, the Conservatives slide into representing rentiers and rent-seekers, winning votes through bread, circuses and jingoism.

Contemplating the Tory ascendancy in 1900, Lord Salisbury worried that giving his combative, jingoistic electorate what it wanted would mean “the country has evil times before it.” Mrs Thatcher’s posthumous triumph has been to make “fuck business” — pithy words unlikely to have come willingly to Alderman Roberts’s lips — a viable political formula.

She created a tier of home-owners with good pensions who largely don’t care about the productive elements of the economy. The influence of what we once knew as business has been replaced by a financial system which makes former PMs servants of non-domiciled oligarchs (worse still, mere would-be oligarchs). But it is also Cameron’s fault for not being nice enough to the Lib Dems. His 2015 strategy was to cannibalise their vote rather than graft some of the party’s tissue onto the Tory body. 

Instead, the party’s vote, personnel and ideological framework was augmented after 2016 from the nationalist right. By absorbing most of the UKIP vote, and chipping off socially conservative former Labour voters (usually those with houses and legacy pensions) the Tories have assembled a 40-45 per cent vote share, enough for a comfortable majority. With the opposition divided, the system, to put it mildly, is working for the Tories.

This alignment gives the Conservatives two additional sources of strength. Their coalition is well distributed to get the best results out of the electoral system, for the same reason that 52 per cent of the vote would probably have put Leave ahead in 63 per cent of constituencies in the 2016 referendum. The opposition vote in England is concentrated in urban enclaves, where large majorities don’t help much. The other boost is that the anti-Tory vote is divided between the Lib Dems, Greens and Labour. 

Maybe there is some comfort to be taken from gloomy old Salisbury; perhaps Astra-Zeneca is for the electorate of 2021 what Mafikeng was for the voters of 1900, a shot in the arm that distracts people from what troubles them. It took only six years until the Liberals, from the hopeless despair of 1900, to win their greatest, if final, triumph. But they did not do it alone. They came to terms with the forces of Labour and (after 1910) with Irish nationalism, and in this there is a lesson for today’s Labour party. 

Labour can’t afford to hate the Lib Dems and resent the Greens. Liberalism did that a century ago, and paid the price. Naturally Labour people don’t have to like Lib Dems, but then we don’t seem to much like other members of the Labour Party, so that’s not a fatal obstacle to co-operation. The issues that separate Labour from Lib Dem are cultural as much as political. There is a certain amount of the narcissism of small differences, but also some weightier considerations. Local politics is where the conflict is at its most intense. Lib Dems in cities (and remember, a lot of politically active centre-left folk live in cities) see municipal Labour as unimaginative, entitled, tribal, machine-based and sometimes corrupt. Labour people see local Lib Dems as unprincipled, incoherent opportunists and dirty campaigners. 

Labour at its heart is a collectivist party, built on the idea of working-class solidarity and the structure of the trade union movement; hence some of its political lurches since the decline of union membership and mass workplaces in the 1980s. The Lib Dems, by contrast, do not really get trade unionism; their sympathies in the old days were often with the difficult individualist who would refuse to join a closed shop, rather than the majority’s collective interest or class identity. 

The union ethos is a source of strength for Labour, but also of some psychological peculiarities; trade unions do not exist to take over businesses, but to negotiate the best deal within the structures that exist. It gives Labour an oppositionist, self-righteous mentality, more comfortable bending the sinful establishment to its will rather than wielding power directly.

The other component of Labour, the intellectual, idealistic left, is also uncomfortable with power and compromise. The solution has often been to rely on pragmatists and machine politicians — the Herbert Morrisons and Denis Healeys of the party, who have little time for idealistic liberals or socialists.

Labour attitudes to Lib Dems are affected by this complex history and by internal politics that cut across the left-right divide. There are left wingers who are sympathetic to the Lib Dems and see the advantages of a progressive alliance, and those who despise them as crypto-Tories; there are right wingers who see Lib Dems as comrades over Europe and fellow reformers, and those who loathe them as slippery and irresponsible.

Many of us who always wanted to get along with the Lib Dems were unprepared for the alacrity with which they started spouting Conservative economics and using misleading clichés like “maxed out the credit card” in 2010. We felt taken for mugs as a result. I still bear some scars, but a lot of bad blood has flowed under the bridge. I think most of us know that the Lib Dems — including those Conservative MPs who joined in 2018-19 — loathe what the Tories have become under Johnson just as much as we do — if not more, because they tend to be high-minded about corruption and the rule of law. Rather than absorb liberals as Baldwin’s Tories did, the current Conservative party arguably has less liberal DNA in its make-up than any of its Baldwin-onwards predecessors.

One of the problems in thinking about the Lib Dems is that there are at least three ideological approaches (liberalism, centrism, localism) close to the heart of the party. One, as the name suggests, is liberalism — individual freedom, constitutionalism, devolution and the democratic rule of law — is an old and honourable creed but one which has forked into many branches.

Those of us on the Left need to accept that the next election will be fought under the first-past-the-post system

In the 20th Century, when socialism and capitalism were contending ideological forces, liberals often found themselves in the centre ground, arguing that capitalism should be more humane but that state ownership and trade union power were not the answers. Liberalism therefore can mutate into centrism — a belief in consensus, at its worst a position like the ribbon on the rope in a tug of war between the big players. 

Ideological liberals (of whichever stripe) and over-pragmatic centrists do not necessarily get on. Stir in other ideologies — social democrats and ecologists — and you have a small, pluralistic and disputatious party, before even talking about localism.

One of the consistent strands of the Liberal’s political approach has been standing up for the “periphery” against the power centres. The “Celtic fringe” of rural Wales, the Highlands and Cornwall sustained the party through its wilderness years. It relied on individual MPs’ charisma, often with a populist anti-establishment localist hue — the unlamented Cyril Smith as professional northerner, Jeremy Thorpe dropping in and out of a Devon accent. The Liberals were the awkward squad, the ones who stood up against all those smart buggers from London.

 Fast forward to 2010 and the Coalition. Nick Clegg was the epitome of a smart Londoner, in coalition with fellow smart Londoners David Cameron and George Osborne, doing not very popular things and on the other side of the increasingly prominent European issue from many of their southwestern voters. Perversely, the Lib Dems ceasing to be a viable party of protest was when the political system went haywire. 

In theory, community politics is supposed to be a radical force and in the late 1960s it was identified with the Lib Dems’ self-conscious left; it owes a debt to Saul Alinsky and community organising, and the idea of disadvantaged communities asserting themselves against the local and national power structure. Activists in those communities would take up the problems that mattered locally. But this is the path to a party as franchise operation. Different communities have different interests, and the central, national party fails to do the work of reconciling and prioritising those interests. The Lib Dems of Ashfield, Burnley and Redcar, for instance, could sound pretty right wing long before UKIP and the Tories came through. At a local level, Lib Dems did the manufacture and exploitation of grievance long before it became the mainstay of national politics.

I do not believe in a merger between Labour and the Lib Dems. There would be splits on each side and all that would have been achieved is the creation of three parties where previously there were two — all very logical in my ideal party system, but not a good idea given the electoral realities. But this does not rule out convergence; the wily Aldo Moro spoke of the “converging parallels” of the Christian Democrats and the Communists, knowing that parallel lines only come together at the infinity point.

What would a realistic model of convergence involve? The first, basic step is to realise that the centre-left is probably going to get more plural rather than less. Do we really expect the proportion of the electorate who are Green or Green-adjacent to stay at five per cent or so despite what has happened all over Europe? Do we really think that cultured NIMBYism is on the way out, or that a social democratic party that wants more houses built should adopt that position? A plural centre-left is not always going to mean dividing a cake of equal size; it should mean that each party has voters whom it can detach from the Conservatives’ coalition more easily than the others.

Those of us on the Left need to accept that the next election will be fought under the first-past-the-post system: this is basic realism. Being popular matters less than being popular in the right places, and that involves not splitting the vote between people who could potentially work together. None of the other parties could work happily with today’s Tories, so why not recognise this? After all, the Liberals did in 1906, coming to an electoral pact with the infant Labour party. The Liberals withstood ferocious Conservative attacks on their parliamentary dependence on the Home Rule party rather better in the December 1910 election than Labour did with the similar SNP-will-hold-you-to-ransom scare of 2015.

I would argue for unilateral Labour withdrawals in constituencies where the Lib Dems stand a reasonable chance against the Tories

Convergence entails first trying to co-ordinate the critique of the Conservatives, so that the parties are putting out mutually reinforcing messages — rather as Blair and Ashdown did in the 1990s. Working together on short-term campaigns against the Conservatives, such as exposing scandals, is the minimum. This might as well involve a common front with the Greens and the nationalists as well. I would go further, and produce a joint statement of aims and values for a future government and ideally some policy priorities, well before an election. 

This would start to get the electorate used to parties working together and reduce the impact of “hung parliament chaos” scares in the campaign period. The Conservatives’ hegemonic project involves representing their views as some sort of national consensus, to which opposition is marginal and bizarre — like Blair’s vainglorious talk of “New Labour” being “the political wing of the British people”, but meaning it. Having the opposition converge around some ideas and talking points helps establish an alternative that can resist the pressure. No strategies will succeed unless the Conservative vote comes down from the 40-45 per cent high water mark it has occupied since 2019. Those votes have to be picked off street by street.

Even right-wing liberalism should be able to go along with a common front against a government such as this one. As in some periods of 19th century England, the most productive parts of the economy are politically peripheral. For Nonconformist mill towns and the industrial metropolis of Manchester, read the creative industries and international businesses working in the cities. To be crudely straightforward, here as in America, there are plenty of progressive people with money.

The next step is electoral co-ordination. This might mean, as in 1997, a sort of non-aggression pact in which target seats and spheres of influence are agreed, building on some of the grass-roots initiatives of 2017 and 2019. The electoral geography of 2019 should make targeting relatively easy. There are vanishingly few seats where the parties are in direct competition with each other; the highest Labour share in a Lib Dem seat is 11 per cent (in Bath) and of the 9 seats where the Lib Dems ran second to Labour, the gap is less than 20 per cent in only two (Sheffield Hallam and Cambridge). 

There are a handful of conflicts that let the Conservatives through the middle in plush areas of London, the legacy of the over-ambitious Swinson-era Lib Dem strategy of targeting glamour seats, but those are pretty easy to parcel out (Fulham, Kensington, Finchley and Westminster for Labour, Wimbledon for the Lib Dems).

The evidence from the 2019 General Election is that a full electoral pact then would have been of limited benefit to Labour, but would have helped the Liberal Democrats. If deprived of a Labour candidate, most Labour-supporting electors would have voted Lib Dem or Green with varying degrees of grumpiness. Rather than a full pact, I would argue for unilateral Labour withdrawals in constituencies where the Lib Dems stand a reasonable chance against the Tories.

I can sense a sharp intake of breath from the tribal Labour right at this point. They will call me defeatist, and perhaps argue that a national party has a responsibility to offer a candidate everywhere and Clem Attlee didn’t win in 1945 by pacts and contrivances. In fact, there were 18 constituencies (not counting Northern Ireland and the university seats) where Labour did not stand candidates in the 1945 general election. In six of them, this helped the Liberals to win the seat and in another three Labour’s absence allowed smaller left-wing parties (Common Wealth in Chelmsford and the Independent Labour Party in two seats in Glasgow) to defeat the Conservatives. The Tories were nine seats worse off than they would have been otherwise. It made little difference in 1945, but might have done in other circumstances, and might do in 2024. Or 2023.

Even the benighted local elections of 2021 point to some of the fruits of co-operation. Despite Cambridge being one of the few Lib-Lab battlegrounds, the parties and their voters got on well enough to deprive the Tories of their majority on Cambridgeshire County Council and, improbably, elect a Labour regional mayor. Labour stand-downs for Lib Dems in the county elections, and a big flow of Lib Dem second preferences in the mayoral election, won the day. Labour magnanimity paid off.

In the longer term, Labour might have to take the risk of nursing a viper. The 1903 pact between the dominant Liberals and the infant Labour parliamentary party has come full circle, but as Keynes observed , in the long run we’re all dead. Young people — by which I mean anyone under 40 — have received remarkably little that they wanted from the political system. Contrary to some wishful thinking on the Left, repeated kicks in the teeth are more likely to lead to alienation and non-participation than revolutionary change. There is limited time left to show that there is any point engaging in political activity rather than devising a simulated virtual reality world where nice things happen. 

My advice to Labour is to take the risk and embrace a more pluralist future. It will be easier to deal with any problems in power than it is in opposition. Ultimately, the answer has to be electoral reform, which only a government can deliver. A centre-left voting 25 per cent Labour, 15 per cent Lib Dem and 15 per cent Green is doomed under FPTP, but it’s a governing progressive majority under PR. The Lib Dems, burned from their experience with Blair in 1997, would be sensible to ask for guarantees as part of any popular front, and it would be enlightened self-interest for Labour to give them. Perhaps after a while under PR, the party system might even evolve from its current foetid state into something sensible and honest. 

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