Labour should stop flirting with the toxic Lib Dems

There is nothing progressive left in the party of Clegg, Laws and Alexander, writes Simon Danczuk MP.

It was Bill Shankly who famously said, "first is first and second is nowhere". At half time in this parliamentary term there are some in the Labour Party who’d do well to listen to the former Liverpool maestro. Heading towards a General Election we should be doing all we can to cultivate a winning spirit and not contemplate for one second the prospect of losing and forming a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Our energies should be firmly fixed on winning a majority not thinking about a coalition consolation prize.

Harriet Harman is right to say there should be “no cosying up to the Lib Dems”, but there remains a residual persistence in some quarters to continue some sort of dalliance. This appears to be built around the fanciful notion of a "progressive alliance", which is completely at odds with the reality of Clegg’s party.

There simply is no point pretending the party of Clegg, Laws and Alexander is a progressive force. Despite their pantomime conference caricatures of nasty Tories every year the reality backstage is that many Liberal Democrats in the Coalition are extremely comfortable with their Conservative counterparts. You didn’t have to look far from the main stage at last year’s Liberal Democrat conference to witness a love-in between Greg Clark and Ed Davey. These people deserve each other.

Troweling a thin veneer of progressive politics onto the Liberal Democrats is pointless. Their brand is toxic. Anyone who has campaigned against the Liberal Democrats in a marginal seat will know the Liberal Democrat values that Nick Clegg boasts of are a myth. The only value they hold is that of survival.

“A candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets,” reasoned Cicero in 65 B.C and Liberal Democrats follow this to the letter, making all kinds of promises to every voter and practicing their usual brand of gravity defying contortionism.

Joining forces with a party whose Effective Opposition handbook advises activists to “be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly,” can only be seen as a regressive step.

Worse still, we run the risk of presenting our opponents with the slogan of ‘Vote Ed Miliband, get Nick Clegg’. We should be straining every sinew to build on the momentum that Ed Miliband is creating and leave the Liberal Democrats behind in the slow lane.

There are, of course, many who say that coalitions are here to stay but that argument cuts no ice with me. This is the first coalition we’ve had in 70 years and it clearly isn’t working. The rose garden rhetoric of providing stability for the country has given way to a painful reality of Downing Street dithering, a double dip recession and coalition paralysis afflicting policy making. The country needs dynamic and decisive government not endless spats and bickering between Liberal Democrats and Tories.

We should be learning lessons from the coalition’s many failings not seeking to repeat their mistakes. It’s clear that both parties can’t be trusted as tribalism has long since replaced the good intentions behind the coalition agreement. And if the Liberal Democrats can’t be trusted in Government now why should they be trusted in 2015? Having lost out on getting most of their policies through Government this time round no doubt they would be much more ruthless next time and who knows what ridiculous policies they’d try and force on the Labour Party.

When the coalition was formed it was largely supported by the public. But I no longer detect any public appetite for more coalitions. It’s left a bad taste. Too much policy cross dressing just looks like political parties have lost any sense of identity and are being led by shallow expediency rather than a real conviction or sense of purpose. We should never lose sight of this. Now is the time to replace a mentality of wooing with one of winning.

Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale

Nick Clegg gestures at his party's conference. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit