Labour should ease up on the Lib Dem baiting

Too many in the party are unable to accept that the age of majoritarian politics may be behind us.

Who do you push off a mountain first, Cameron or Clegg? Cameron, of course, business before pleasure.

A new variant of a very old gag, but one doing the rounds in Manchester at the Labour Party conference yesterday. Dislike for the Liberal Democrats is real in Labour’s ranks, but it shields a wider truth. It isn’t just the Lib Dems that many Labour people from activists to the frontbench despise, it’s the prospect of coalition government per se.

Labour has a mental block in accepting the age of majoritarian politics may be behind us. Rather than a quirk, the 2010 result may be the beginning of a new trend as innate tribalism among voters gives way to an age of electoral mercurialism. If so, the party is in trouble.

In the days that followed our inconclusive general election result in May 2010, it was David Cameron who was able to sweep in with his “big comprehensive offer” in order to get the Lib Dems into government. Labour’s negotiators, messrs Miliband and Balls among them, came up empty-handed. “I don't think the Labour team saw it as a discussion between equals” as Lib Dem negotiator (and now junior minister) Andrew Stunell put it. Rather than see the talks as a defeat, Labour grandees like John Reid and David Blunkett (and many other Labour MPs) opposed the very idea of a Lab-Lib coalition in the first place. Not a lot has changed since. Yesterday on The Staggers, my good friend Simon Danczuk , the Labour MP for Rochdale, described talk of a “progressive alliance” between the parties as a “fanciful notion” which is “completely at odds with the reality of Clegg’s party”.

Of course, Labour has long been its own coalition. The New Labour years were characterised by warring clans of Blairites and Brownites fighting a 13-year turf war at the top of government. But the thought of formal, inter, rather than intra-party coalitions, leaves Labour cold and many within the party refuse to countenance the day when it shares power, locked in a binary assumption: it's either government or opposition.

And yet Ed Miliband used the start of the Labour conference to rattle his sabre at the banks, threatening to split their retail and investment arms – a Vince Cable hardy perennial for the past two years (and evidence of the political cross-dressing that a demob-happy Tony Blair predicted). Yet the Labour leader still accused the Lib Dems yesterday of being “accomplices” the kind of language we can expect a lot more of this week.

As speakers from grassroots delegates, through to trade union leaders and frontbench politicians take to the podium this week there will be an informal competition for the best barbs at the Lib Dems’ expense – and Nick Clegg’s in particular. I will eat my conference pass if a single speaker suggests closer co-operation.

But on the margins of the conference, common sense is stirring. A new grouping, Labour4Democracy, has been launched campaigning for greater pluralism in politics. Led by John Denham and Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield, (one of the most urbane and reflective of Labour’s new intake), the grouping will work to improve relations with the Lib Dems – and others where there is common ground.

It would be silly for Labour to find itself unable to seal the deal with the Lib Dems in 2015 if there is another inconclusive result; especially as the gap between all the parties these days is never as great as it is often portrayed. After all, Labour’s conference slogan shows the way. "Rebuilding Britain" was the theme of the government’s Queen’s Speech too.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Ed Miliband referred to the Lib Dems as Tory "accomplices" yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Getty.
Show Hide image

Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.