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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.