Why we need a Lib Dem-Tory alliance

It’s time to strengthen the liberal-right in British politics.

Nearly two years into the coalition, both of the governing parties are promoting their distinct identities to garner supporters. This is because the Conservatives want an outright majority. The Liberal Democrats just want survival.

But as David Laws commented in a keynote speech to Bright Blue this week, now is not the time to stress differentiation and split the coalition. A better strategy - for both parties and, most importantly, for the country, especially in this period of economic turbulence - is to stress the shared agenda of the two partners and the longevity of the current government.

In actual fact, it's time to seriously consider a long-term relationship, even a merger, between the two parties which lasts beyond 2015. The liberal-right needs a strengthened political identity in this country, to dilute the influence of ideologues and reactionaries, and to maintain progressive policy-making.

The Conservatives face a weak opposition and Cameron is popular with the electorate. But it is not enough. Polling by Michael Ashcroft of voters in key marginal seats shows that those who failed to give the party the votes they needed for a majority, are still sceptics today. Low-income women and ethnic minorities are particularly doubtful. Teaming up with the Lib Dems would help reassure such voters that the party really is decontaminated, modern and liberal-minded.

The Lib Dems can never govern alone. They rely on coalitions. The problem is, transferring from one party to the other looks like flip-flopping, and they will be punished by voters. Their best hope of long-term influence lies in a merger with one of the major political parties. A liberal-right alliance would be consistent with their Gladstonian traditions and allow greater distinctiveness and influence than a Lab-Lib pact.

Finally, and most importantly, the country would benefit from a new liberal-right alliance. The truth is, since the 1990s, most senior minsters and civil servants have subscribed to economic and social liberalism: a belief in a competitive, market-based economy with protection and enhanced opportunities for the most vulnerable.

So all recent governments have sought low taxes, light-tough regulation and private sector engagement in public services. But, at the same time, there has been commitments to tax credits, enhanced investment in hospitals and schools, better workers' rights and a determination to protect personal freedom. This consensus on policy-making has - apart from notable anomalies - been followed by Cameron, who followed Blair, who followed Major.

Yes, there are problems with our economy and our society. More still needs to be done. But these liberal, pro-market reforms - based on close inspection of evidence - have made this country, slowly but surely, better. Satisfaction with our health service is at an all-time high. Educational standards are up. Crime and levels of poverty are down.

But the liberal-right - on the modernising wings of the three main parties - who are open to evidence and passionate about progress are under constant pressure from ideologues, who are nervous and uncomfortable about the direction of modern Britain. To keep these voices happy, archaic and ridiculous narratives, as well as ill-considered policies, are often trumpeted.

So, for example, we have Cameron proposing a transferable tax allowance for married couples, a throw-back to the 1950s which will do nothing to boost marriage rates. Clegg, meanwhile, went into the last election calling for the scrapping of tuition fees, despite the fact that the new funding arrangements have not harmed university access for the most deprived. In the Labour party, there is stubborn opposition to private sector involvement in the health service, despite a wealth of evidence illustrating that increased competition enhances the performance and efficiency of hospitals.

Such thoughtless policy positions are championed simply to gratify unthinking, prejudiced viewpoints, which spread and are slavishly adhered to in political parties. Ideologues that enjoy the belligerency and tribalism of politics rise up the ranks and wield too much power, distorting steps to social and economic progress.

A new liberal-right alliance could change that. There would, of course, be room for those on the modernising wing of the Labour Party. Those who are passionate about good policies and open to new ideas, not dogmatists and tribalists, would be more influential. And the silent majority in this country - who simply long for a better life for their families, whichever party is in power - would benefit from a new sort of politics: discursive, progressive and evidence-based.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.