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 the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.