The Lib Dems are not the party some of Labour’s soft left like to think they are. This is not to denigrate the Lib Dems in any way. Most of the people I know who share this opinion are – in fact – Lib Dems. It’s quite insulting to them to be held up in the imagination of others as a left wing party with an interest in civil liberties. They believe the Lib Dems are a Liberal party with a strong emphasis on individual freedoms including some quite right wing emphasis on economic freedoms.
There are – of course – also social liberals within the party who are more left leaning. But they do not occupy most positions of power, nor when they are in positions of power (say party president or deputy leader) do they exercise power in the way the left of the Lib Dems might expect (by voting against the Welfare Uprating Bill for example).
Ultimately, the political priorities of the Liberal Democrats are not the political priorities of any other party. That’s why they exist. If they had a shared set of priorities with Labour or the Conservatives they would be Labour or Conservative.
Last year, I counselled against too brutal a reaction to the idea of a future coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. I still believe that behind the scenes preparation must be done in case Labour cannot form a majority government. But I believe that some in my party and outside it are now going too far in their enthusiasm for such an option.
There are several lessons we must learn not just from the negotiations in May 2010 (for which Labour were unprepared) but also from relations between the two parties in the coalition and the continuing impact of coalition government on their members.
Whether those at the top like it or not, the members of political parties on the ground really – really – loathe each other. I have a few friends who are Lib Dems. We get on reasonably well. But that doesn’t stop my feelings about their party being almost visceral. They come from difficult times in Hackney as Labour and the Lib Dems fought a street war against each other for control of the council. But mostly, they come from a by election fight in neighbouring Tower Hamlets in 1992. I learned then that there were no depths to which the Lib Dems would not sink to win by elections or simply to stop Labour from doing so.
The Lib Dems – of course – feel exactly the same way about Labour. My time at their conference was spent listening to them discuss the Labour party over and over again. Few raised their ire more than Ed Balls, but as far as they were concerned, every single member of the Labour party was a war-mongering, ultra-authoritarian, power-crazed loons. They’ve fought us hard on issues like Iraq, 90 day detention and tuition fees, bringing these national issues to bear extremely successfully in local elections and on doorsteps up and down the country. They’ve been campaigning against us as a national government ever since the tentative rapprochement between Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair fell apart in the wake of Labour’s landslide majority (another thing for which we will never be forgiven).
I’m all for preparing for all eventualities. I was never a boy scout, but I like the motto. But those preparations have to fall within the realms of reality. If Labour are to quietly (and I stress quietly) prepare for a post 2015 relationship with the Lib Dems, they must view them as the party they are not the Party we wish they were.
The party they are has hardened in their Libertarianism. The members of Lib Dem Voice just voted the policy director of the Adam Smith Institute their 'Liberal Voice of the Year'. This is a party that contains David Laws and Danny Alexander. They are both in reasonably safe seats and would have to be part of any future Labour/ Lib Dem government. If the Lib Dem vote collapses as I expect it to, they will lose around a third to half their seats. Many of those will be MPs of the left of their party. So again, what remains may well be further to the right still.
Labour cannot be romantic about any future coalition partners. We must deal in good faith. But that good faith means recognising the Liberal Democrats for the party they really are, not for the party a small minority of their activists and ours would wish them to be.