Labour’s unending spite towards the Lib Dems is self-defeating

Even if Miliband thinks Clegg is dead in the water he must remember that voters are unimpressed by p

The longer Labour sustain double digit poll leads over the Conservatives, the more people start to ponder seriously the prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. It is not inconceivable that that the current government could unravel so spectacularly that the Labour leader marches into an undefended Downing Street like Joshua into Jericho.

But between victory and defeat there lies the awkward prospect of continuing stalemate. (I’ve written before about the strategic deadlock underpinning Britain’s hung politics.) In the rather likely event that no party emerges from the next election with a majority, Miliband would need to find some accommodation with the Liberal Democrats to form a government, whether in coalition or a less formal “confidence and supply” arrangement for parliamentary votes.

Naturally, this scenario is getting more attention as relations between the Tories and the Lib Dems in the current coalition fray. Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, a highly respected observer of political and electoral trends, recently used an article in a think tank journal to counsel Labour to be a bit less beastly to Nick Clegg’s party on the grounds that they might need their friendship before too long. Jim Pickard on the FT’s Westminster blog today reports that high-level contacts between the two parties do exist, although for the time being conversations seem limited to discussion of single-issue tactical considerations: banking, House of Lords reform.

Besides, the main point of contact for Labour appears to be Vince Cable, whose nostalgic impulses towards a revival of the old “progressive alliance” are tolerated by Clegg’s office but not shared. There was an excellent analysis of the prospects for a Lib-Lab pact on last night’s edition of the Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4. Well worth a listen. The conclusion seemed to be that most Labour MPs simply cannot get past their tribal loathing of the Lib Dems and visceral sense that Clegg’s decision to facilitate the installation of a Conservative Prime Minister was treasonous. The volumes of venom that have been sprayed over Lib Dem MPs in parliament seem to go beyond the usual antagonism of civilised politics. As one senior Lib Dem minister says of Labour: “They don’t mind the Tories because that’s part of the game, but they really hate us and want to destroy us.”  

To be fair, that is not an impossible goal. Coalition has not worked out so well for the Lib Dems in terms of poll ratings  -  Ukip periodically challenge them for third place. That weakness is giving Labour ever more confidence to simply ignore Clegg. Senior figures in the party have concluded that the Lib Dem leader is essentially finished in Westminster. From a tactical perspective it might be more worth Miliband’s while trying to decapitate the third party in the hope of working with a more amenable successor. Even if Clegg survives, the Lib Dems will want to stay in government after the next election and will do whichever deal works best for them. In other words, the time to be nice to the Lib Dems is after polling day. Before then, the focus is on winning a majority. There is some rationality in that view but it overlooks the importance of culture in politics. Labour needs to wean itself off spite towards the Lib Dems, not simply because there might be a future coalition at stake but because wounded, petty, tribal insularity is generally an unattractive feature of politics that puts off swing voters. Conspicuous displays of pluralism will make people more likely to trust Labour. Paradoxically, it is possible that the nicer Miliband can be to the Lib Dems now, the less likely he is to need them after an election.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.