Would the Lib Dems consider a pact with Labour? Of course

After what the Tories have thrown at us, the odd insulting speech will not block dealings with Labou

"Lickspittle". It’s a great word to use as an insult, rolling deliciously off the tongue in all its onomatopoeic glory. The sort of thing New Statesman readers write about me in the comments section on a weekly basis. And I’m sure it reflects how many Labour supporters genuinely feel about the Lib Dems, collaborators with the evil Tories.

Only it wasn’t a Labour member who threw that particular bon mot in our direction from the green benches. It was a Tory. With friends like that, eh?

So when I get asked, should the electoral arithmetic in 2015 end up suggesting a Lib Dem coalition with Labour, would we consider it, it’s a bit of an eyes to heaven, and deep sighs all round moment

Of course we would.

Does anyone really think after everything the Tories have thrown at us – including just the other week the Prime Minister telling his PPCs that he has effectively dealt with us  - that the odd insulting speech or overture to our support would block us dealing with Labour? And for all the "Yellow Tories" insults, we’re not Conservatives. Nor are we Labour. We’re Liberals.

This is not to say that there wouldn’t be some hurdles to overcome. We’d have to be convinced that we would genuinely get more Liberal policies in place, like taking 2 million workers out of tax altogether (let’s not forget, Labour MPs voted against that – what were they thinking?). We’d probably take a view on how progressive Labour had been over supposedly shared ambitions – Lords reform being an obvious example.

And this time, ahead of any negotiations, we’d have to rethink our strategy in government.

Having maintained from the word go that the "not a cigarette paper between us" strategy in government was the road to disaster (however short term a tactic it may have been) I believe any negotiations with potential partners in government must include some safeguards about what areas of policy we would own – perhaps giving us responsibility for single departments rather than shared responsibility across all. (Tim Montgomerie was suggesting the opposite yesterday, indicating he felt an end to the current differentiation strategy is a good idea. Maybe for the Conservatives. Not for us, thanks).

And of course, there is the danger that, having gone into coalition with the Tories, jumping into bed with Labour will lead to the accusation that "they’ll sleep with anyone". Which will only be avoided by setting up some pretty clear criteria for who’ll we’ll talk to up front, before a vote is cast. And honestly, if that’s the worst of it, I think we’d cope.

I know Labour doesn’t want to talk to us. Of course you don’t and you’re probably already trolling "dream on" remarks in the comments section. You want to win a majority off your own back. I don’t blame you. For what its worth, I want the same for us.

But if you the good people of Britain decide that a Lib-Lab pact is the way forward in 2015, I’m not going to turn my face away in a sulk. And neither, frankly, is Ed Miliband.

We’ll see you in 70 Whitehall.
 

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser