Lord Bassam: "agonised" Lib Dems should co-operate with Labour

Labour's chief whip in the Lords attempts to woo his Lib Dem counterpart.

The next general election might be a good three years away, but that does not stop frequent speculation about what the next parliament might look like, and which way the Liberal Democrats would swing in the case of another hung parliament.

In the latest sign that Labour is thinking in exactly these terms, the party’s chief whip in the House of Lords, Lord Bassam, has written a letter to his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Lord Newby, urging him to meet with them more often. He wrote:

The last couple of years have been a bit bruising for your colleagues in this house, and no doubt they will be looking forward to a change of management to see if it brings some light relief.

. . .

I would keep a weather eye on the general election and thereafter. Your background as a flexible friend of other parties may come in handy. Keeping lines of communication open to the official opposition party might serve you well in the longer term.

It’s quite a leap for the man who tweeted in March: "I wouldn't want to wake up & find I was a Lib Dem today & have the selling of NHS on my conscience when I know I could say No."

Bassam’s overture to the Liberal Democrats is not particularly surprising in and of itself, as it follows reports that Vince Cable and Ed Miliband have been speaking on the phone, a sign of thawing relations.

However, the directness of the letter is striking. He goes on to urge Lib Dems to support Labour amendments, characterising them as "agonised souls trooping night after night into the Tory lobby to vote in favour of even more ghastly measures". He also says that the party faces another three years of being "the Millwall of British politics".

Direct, yes, but effective? That’s less certain. While Newby has declined to comment, the letter has not gone down well across the board. The Guardian quotes Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott as saying: "Sorry Steve, your charm offensive is all offensive and no charm. Calling us Millwall is not the way to build Lib-Lab co-operation on the red benches – if that's really your goal."

Indeed, no-one likes to be patronised, and Bassam’s characterisation of Lib Dems as the victims of coalition is damning with faint praise. But although several commentators have noted signs that Labour is relaxing its hostility to Nick Clegg’s party, it might be that they do not need to worry about the party not working with them. As our Liberal Democrat blogger Richard Morris wrote last month:

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?

Given that Bassam's overture to support has apparently managed to be simultaneously insulting, Labour should hope that this is correct.
 

Members of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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