Neal Lawson says Yes
Crystal-ball gazing in politics is a fool’s game. Who saw in advance the Centre–Right coalition we currently have? And what do we mean by ‘work’? This coalition is working in the sense that it looks fairly solid and has a programme – regardless of how much someone like me doesn’t like what it’s doing. But could there be a Centre–Left alternative?
That is what was always expected. A progressive realignment of the Centre–Left and the reunification of Social Liberalism and Liberal Socialism has been the Holy Grail of many. Certainly me. Why? In part, for electoral reasons. In every election since the Second World War the progressive vote combined has out-stripped the Conservative vote, but under ‘first past the post’ the Tories usually win (take note, Labour – ‘No’ to AV). But it’s about more than that.
For Labour and the wider Left to have any chance of success – and ‘by success’ I mean the reduction of inequality and control over climate change – then it’s going to have to become more liberal. By ‘more liberal’ I mean less statist and much more relaxed about people having the autonomy to run their lives. This is not just an operational or reform point. Yes, we have to democratise and localise services, but we have to make the goal of politics the ability of people to regain control over their lives – not just as shoppers (though that’s pretty hollow), but also in their workplaces, communities, the City, the media, and all the institutions and forces that currently exert undue influence over them, with little if any accountability. Socialism is about people deciding, often collectively, how to run their world.
A cursory glance at British politics would suggest that such a realignment is further away than ever. But take a closer look. As with Labour, so the Liberal Democrats have been the victims of a takeover by a small, rather neo-liberal elite. There will be a reaction to this – and there already is; witness their conference vote on rejecting NHS reforms. And remember, too, that, unlike Labour, they are still a democratic party. Then look at Labour. Ed Miliband has made repeated calls for Labour and Social Liberals to work together, and some have been invited into help the Party policy review. This is, in part, because Ed is more pluralistic than previous Labour leaders, but also because he rightly fears a two-versus-one campaign at the next election. My own organisation, which is mostly but no longer exclusively Labour, works closely with people around the Social Liberal Forum to develop policy and ideas, and to campaign together for shared beliefs.
People forget that there are likely to be four years to go until the next election. So much can, and will, happen. My hope is that Ed Miliband will continue to transform Labour, making it a force committed to greater equality, sustainability and democracy. This will define the Good Society. Over in the Lib Dem camp I hope one of three things happens; either the Social Liberals should take back control of their party, or they should split between the small groups of Orange Bookers and the rest. Alternatively, a large block could leave and join Labour or the Greens, who are, by necessity, the other part of any progressive alliance. What they can’t do is stay indefinitely in a coalition with George Osborne. Both tasks for Social Labour and Social Liberals are huge, but what matters is not so much the end point but the nature of the journey, and the way in which people on the Left start to work together now, begin to trust each other now, and see that there’s nothing to fear in a politics of firm beliefs and open minds.
“We’re already forming a progressive alliance rather than waiting for it to come down from above. Hung parliaments look likely to be a feature of British politics for some time to come”
Like it or not, parties are going to have to pick partners, or be consigned to the wilderness. But a progressive alliance will only happen if those who want it work at it. The job starts now.
Neal Lawson is chairman of the pressure group Compass, and author of All Consuming (Penguin)
Michael Dugher MP says No
A hundred years ago, the Liberal Party of Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill governed Britain. The Liberals introduced important social and political reforms, not least on old-age pensions, social insurance and the Parliament Act, in an attempt to be the alternative voice – what we would today call the ‘progressive’ alternative – to the Conservative Party. By the end of the First World War, however, the Liberals were in coalition with the Tories, and they were in complete political meltdown. Once they had served their purpose, their coalition partners kicked them out, and Winston Churchill became a Conservative.
Now, Nick Clegg is no Winston Churchill, but there’s something more than a little familiar about this and there things to ponder today. One of the great myths put about, particularly by electoral reformers in the Labour Party, is that there was a terrible split in progressive politics a century ago, and the Conservatives were able to dominate most of the 20th century in a way that would not have been possible had Labour and the Liberals formed a progressive alliance. But this is to misunderstand history.
The reason why the Liberals declined so quickly, and why Labour emerged, was precisely because the newly-enfranchised working man (and later, woman) knew that the only authentic, radical, progressive force for change in Britain was Labour, with its roots in working-class communities, specifically, in those days, through the trade unions and the co-operative movement. And just as the Liberals failed to offer the necessary progressive change a century ago, so their failure is being repeated lamentably in government today.
Yet the question is still posed as to whether or not Labour could enter into a progressive alliance with today’s Liberal Democrats. Under Nick Clegg – a man who not only chose to get into the bed with the Tories, but who seems to be enthusiastically enjoying his time between the sheets – the answer is an unequivocal no. Clegg is not merely leader of the Lib Dems, but for many years has been the poster boy for the so-called ‘Orange Book’ Liberals, the free-market Lib Dems like David Laws, Danny Alexander and Chris Huhne. These politicians have been exposed in recent months for what they really are: a bunch of ‘quasi-Conservatives’ who differ only from true Tories in their lack of hostility towards Europe. As David Laws said last November: “Working with the Conservatives in government has led to the ‘oranging’ process going on at a rapid rate”.
“Labour should reject the idea that a deal with the Lib Dems is our goal. History shows that when Labour has a broad appeal, we have a broad political reach. To believe that Labour cannot win again in this way is the politics of despair”
To talk of a progressive alliance is also to seek a silver bullet that does not exist. You cannot simply tot up Labour’s standing in the opinion polls, add it to what the Lib Dems are polling, and believe that we have the basis for a progressive alliance. Labour has to do the hard work. If we listen harder to the public, if we connect with them more, and if we understand their aspirations and concerns once again, then we can win back their trust.
We desperately want – and need – people who voted Lib Dem last time, but feel betrayed by Nick Clegg, to think about voting Labour next time. In the same way that Labour needs to remain in touch with its core vote, if we are to win again, we need sizable numbers of people who have previously voted for the Conservatives to consider voting Labour in the future.
Under Ed Miliband, Labour has embarked on that journey, but there’s no short cut and no quick fix. Political elites may put together grubby coalition governments, but it’s people – inspired and reassured – that act on mass to deliver breakthrough majorities. That should be the scale of Labour’s ambition, not a shot-gun wedding with the Lib Dems.
Michael Dugher is the Labour MP for Barnsley East and a shadow defence minister