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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”