Labour-Lib Dem coalition back on the agenda

Figures from both parties unite in defence of the centre-left

From Bournemouth

There was strong talk of a Labour-Lib Dem partnership at the IPPR fringe meeting I've just returned from. The former Liberal Democrat leader Ming Campbell declared that in the event of a Conservative victory his party would be compelled to work more closely with Labour.

"If Armageddon happened and we were faced with a Tory government, then the argument for increased co-operation with the centre left might not be a matter of choice, but a matter of compulsion," he said.

The conviction with which he spoke those words suggested that the same could apply in the event of a hung parliament, potentially leading to a coalition. He repeated his mantra that the party should aim for "maximum votes, maximum seats and maximum influence" at the next election (what else should they do?), but this now seems a mere formality.

It was notable that Campbell and his fellow panellists, including Labour's Charles Clarke and Shirley Williams (Vince didn't make it), repeatedly referred to the future of the "centre left" rather than their own parties. Clarke gently chided the Lib Dems for sometimes lapsing into "pure oppositionism" but argued that the differences between the parties, most obviously on civil liberties, could be thrashed out. All of the panel expressed their concern that David Cameron's European policies could leave Britain on the brink of withdrawal from the EU.

It's not surprising that, with the Conservative lead increasingly impregnable, thoughts should turn to a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. The two parties have consistently retained enough support between them to block the Tories from office. As Neal Lawson and James Graham write in their Guardian article today: "The combined votes of the two parties have averaged 55% since 1945; the Tories only 40%."

It's also now clear that Nick Clegg has abandoned the party's policy of "equidistance" between Labour and the Conservatives. In his recent Demos pamphlet, The Liberal Moment, Clegg may have argued that the Liberal Democrats could replace Labour as the leading progressive party, but in doing so he acknowledged that it was Labour, not the Tories, that had been a force for progress in recent decades.

In response, leading Lib Dems have intensified their attacks on Conservative policy. Chris Huhne's speech this afternoon was the most explicit sign of this yet. The party's home affairs spokesman declared: "Now that it's clear beyond doubt that Labour can't win, it's time for us to take the gloves off with the Tories."

He also delivered the most effective assault I've seen from a senior politician on Cameron's shameful alliance with Europe's reactionaries:

David Cameron says he cares about climate change, but then joins up with the Czech ODS that denies it exists. Cameron says he will stand up for gay people, but then allies himself with a Polish party of homophobes. He says he cares about human rights, but then cuddles up to a Latvian party that celebrates Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS. You can tell a lot about a party by the company it keeps.

Europe is one area where Labour and the Liberal Democrats should co-operate far more closely than they have done. It's understandable that the Lib Dems don't want to prop up an unpopular government, but it would be irresponsible of them not to come to the aid of progressive politics.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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