If the Lib Dems want a coalition with Labour, they need to start work now

In 2010, the centre–left failed the people of this country. It must never do so again.

Dear Liberal Democrats,

As your party gathers in Brighton, the end game of your amazing governing odyssey, and whatever life takes place after it, can no longer be avoided. And the question is this, given it's impossible to imagine you are going to govern alone, who would you rather form a coalition with in less than two and half years' time: the Conservatives, Labour or simply the biggest party?

The electorate will help you make the actual decision, of course. If the numbers say it has to be the Tories again, then you must decide how to deal with that – coalition or confidence and supply? But I ask again - not what you think might happen but what do you want to happen and, therefore, what will you do to make it happen?

As someone who has long argued and worked for a progressive alliance in British politics, I can understand the maths and electoral reality. Being the third party means hoping no one has overall control and therefore a share of power for you. I can also understand how difficult it is to be a junior partner in a coalition. You have helped show that coalitions can work. People may not like the policies, just like any single party government, but they cannot say it's been weak. But it's not strong government, whether single party or coalition, that we ultimately want, but governments with the right sense of purpose and direction.

You can’t be blamed for the electoral outcome, but what you can't be forgiven for is not trying to achieve the best possible result.  If you genuinely don’t care which party you deal with, or if you would rather stick with the devil you know - then fine. But if you would rather see a progressive centre-left coalition then A) good and B) how are you going to help create the conditions in which you get one?

Now, I know your first reaction will be "but what about bloody Labour". What indeed? I’ve written endlessly about the party's problems and will continue to do so, but for all of Labour's faults, most of its hearts beat to the same rhythm as yours. It is on the side of poor and the dispossessed.

Of course, my party, which I'll turn to next week, has to grow up and decide whether it wants to stay in the wilderness or govern in partnership in the event of a hung parliament.  It’s a huge test. In a recent survey, 57 per cent of Labour List readers said they didn't want to talk to the Lib Dems. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis has said he will halt a pact. If Labour doesn’t secure a majority, one can only presume that they would rather have another centre-right coalition. So it won't be easy. Labour has a cultural revolution to go through to be part of the modern world.

It's likely that the test is coming. The pollster John Curtice has long predicted a hung parliament at the next election. He recently wrote, "the hung parliament brought about by the 2010 election was no accident. It was a consequence of long-term changes in pattern of party support that mean it is now persistently more difficult for either Labour or the Conservatives to win an overall majority". Bookmakers, too, think the next parliament will be hung.

In 2010, the centre–left collectively failed the people of this country. It must never do so again. It was a dereliction of duty that no one had done the policy work or built the relationships required for a progressive coalition. The numbers made it tough, but we weren’t even ready before the polls closed. Shall we leave it to Michael Gove and David Laws to stitch it up again?

That’s why we have to build relationships now – through policy, ideas debates and campaigns. We might find we have more in common than we think. Everything good about liberalism is social – it was New Liberalism that founded the welfare state and Beveridge who gave it its post-war form. It was Keynes who helped rebuild the post war economy and it is a Keynes we need today. On Europe, constitutional reform, climate change, civil liberties, a Plan B or Plan C, the best of both parties would provide a half-decent programme for government. Labour needs to be more liberal. The Liberals needs to be more social. So can we start to sketch out the outlines of a new coalition agreement to rebuild Britain? This doesn’t mean either party losing its identity or distinctiveness, it does mean preparing for the best feasible outcome.

So tell Vince Cable to keep texting Ed Miliband and Labour’s leader to keep texting back. Ed Balls should continue to find ways to agree with St. Vince and vice versa. Peter Hain should keep stating the obvious: that Labour should prepare for coalition with the Lib Dems because it will struggle to win an overall majority at the next election.

As the Tories shift right and Labour tries to refashion itself under Miliband, who do you really want to work with next time? Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Tim Farron, Ming Campbell, Paddy Ashdown, Simon Hughes – what do you want given you won't win alone? And if you want it, what are you prepared to do about it?  

The political crime would not be to react as best you can to the verdict of the people – it would be to have failed to even try and build something different and better before the people speak and in, so doing, influence what they might say.  For that, we all have a responsibility.

Enjoy your seaside break – and I look forward to your answers on a postcard.

Neal

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Which way will social liberals like Vince Cable turn if there's another hung parliament? Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition