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. 

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.