The Lib Dem Tina myth

There were alternatives to this full-blown coalition of convenience with the Tories.

Do you remember Margaret Thatcher's slogan "There is no alternative" (aka "Tina")?

In recent days, I've clashed with Liberal Democrat MPs -- from the unconvincing and uncomfortable Simon Hughes to the pompous and prickly Greg Mulholland -- who have pushed the Tina line in order to defend the indefensible: their opportunistic coalition of convenience with Cameron's Conservatives. What else could we have done, bleat the Lib Dems? What was the alternative, they repeatedly ask?

As someone who was once a supporter and admirer of the Liberal Democrats, in the pre-Clegg era, let me refer to two of Clegg's more progressive predecessors. Here is Charles Kennedy in today's Observer:

I did not subscribe to the view that remaining in opposition ourselves, while extending responsible "confidence and supply" requirements to a minority Tory administration, was tantamount to a "do nothing" response. I felt that such a course of action would have enabled us to maintain a momentum in opposition, while Labour turned inwards.

Here is Paddy Ashdown on the Today programme last Tuesday, rubbishing the idea that a Labour/Lib Dem coalition would be unstable:

If this was a coalition made up of what you might call the panjandrum elements that you suggest, I would not be in favour of it. It is a coalition made up of Liberal Democrat and Labour in which we would dare the other elements if they wished to vote us down and, I can tell you, I can think of no political circumstances where that would happen.

Lib Dem apologists -- like the odious Greg Mulholland and various commenters on this blog -- can get as worked up and outraged as they like. But their own former leaders tell us that alternatives to this Tory/Lib Dem coalition were available: 1) a minority Conservative government relying on "supply and confidence" from the Liberal Democrats, and 2) a Lab-Lib minority coalition governing with the implicit support of the nationalists and others.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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