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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad