Why the Lib Dems won't be choosing their coalition partner anytime soon

If the election results in another hung parliament, the party will side with whichever partner gives it the most liberal government.

So Nick Clegg suggests George Osborne is on the verge of making a monumental mistake, next thing you know Ed Balls is describing Nick as a man of integrity, suddenly there’s a Twitter love-in going on, and everyone acts like we may as well not bother with the 2015 general election, as a Lib-Lab coalition is a done deal. Coaliscious

Or is it?

Well, as Labour figures get increasingly nervous about whether it will be able to achieve a majority in 2015, you can see why they are suddenly making rather kinder noises about Nick than ever before. They’ve been positioning themselves as more Lib Dem friendly for a while now, with their adoption of policies like the Mansion Tax and low carbon energy targets, partly to secure the 2010 Lib Dem voters that have moved to them already, but also just in case the next election result leads to coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems. As it seems increasingly likely that Nick will be leading the party into that election, a softening of attitudes towards him was also inevitable.

But is the feeling really mutual?

I suspect the true feelings of the Westminster Lib Dems are better expressed when you look at the press release put out on Tuesday by the red-hot favourite to be next deputy leader of the party, Lorely Burt, where she said:

“I would also stand up for the Liberal Democrat Party’s core values of fairness and economic responsibility, which the Conservatives and Labour are incapable of delivering on their own.

“As we draw the battle lines for the next General Election against both the other major parties, I want to see the Liberal Democrats continuing to deliver more jobs, lower taxes for ordinary workers, and a fairer start in life through free school meals and help with childcare.”

In other words, a plague on both your houses.

The Lib Dems have consistently refused to say which side they would jump to if a repeat of the 2010 result happened. Rather, we’ll be talking to the largest party first – but not necessarily uniquely. And let’s not even get into the scenario where the Tories have the most votes but Labour have more seats.

Sure it's lovely when Ed Balls starts making cow eyes in your direction. But if the votes fall for a coalition, we’ll be looking for whichever partner gives us the most liberal government. We’re a way off deciding whose Prom invite we’ll be accepting just yet.

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.