Labour activists photobomb the Liberal Democrat's poster unveiling. Photo: Getty
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How a Liberal Democrat might talk about the coalition without winding up Labour?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been at odds - but what if things were different? A Labourite explains how the Liberals should talk about the past five years in order to build friendships with Labour.

It was clear from the results of the 2010 election that the British people wanted a change of government. The parliamentary arithmetic for keeping Labour in office was unworkable. The economic situation was becoming ever more worrying, with the risk that the European banking crisis was turning into a sovereign debt crisis. Britain needed a stable government that would see out a full term of office, and the only way it was going to get one was if we made some painful compromises and came to an agreement with the Conservatives. The choice at that point was not between the Conservatives' economic strategy and our own, or Labour's - the choice was between the Conservatives' strategy and no strategy at all. We make no apology for putting the national interest first. Even in such difficult times, we insisted on doing some important groundwork for a fairer and more sustainable society, such as the upil Premium, railway investment and planting forests rather than selling them off.

New Labour had been able to fund improving public services by taxing a lightly regulated financial sector, but the crash of 2008 revealed how flawed this strategy was in the long term. Immediately after the crash it was necessary to stop recession becoming a Great Depression by boosting spending and running a deficit but everyone in the real world, including Alistair Darling, knew that some difficult choices were going to be needed to cope with the permanent fall in tax revenues. This government has delivered what Alistair Darling set out to do before the election - halved the deficit. Labour's choices would have been different - and indeed if the Liberal Democrats had won the election ours would have been different. But the fact remains that the economy is in a better state than it was in 2010 and we stand by the broad choices we made. We did not get everything right – no government ever does – and we have learned a lot from our experience of government.

The key question is what to do next.

We welcome what Ed Balls has said about Labour's commitment to sound finance. If the electorate give us a position of responsibility in the next parliament we will make sure that Labour sticks to that commitment and do not shirk the tough decisions that will come.  We also want to keep the pressure on Labour to deliver a really fair society and not pursue headline-chasing policies that would be counter-productive for equality of opportunity. To Labour we say: opposition is easy. Governing in tough times, as we have learned the hard way, is the test of your mettle.

We are very worried about what the Conservatives are proposing. There is nothing economically prudent about promising unfunded tax cuts and ring-fencing areas of spending at the drop of a hat while proposing drastic cuts to many of the public services that give people the platform to bring up their families and get on in life. In the next parliament, we will ensure that the next government does not hack away at the public services that are the foundation of a strong economy that delivers a better life for everyone. To the Conservatives we say: we can agree on reducing the deficit, but we will not join an ideological crusade.

We do not regard Labour as the infallible authority on how to create a fairer society, and we certainly do not trust the Conservatives to sustain a stronger economy during the next parliament. We talk about a stronger economy and a fairer society not as a piece of positioning between two other parties, but because these are our fundamental values.

The choice is up to the British people. In 2010 they chose the Conservatives, but wisely did not trust them with an overall majority. It fell to us Liberal Democrats to provide stability rather than years of crisis. We achieved many things that we wanted, but we also had to respect the majority party's view in important areas - that is simply how coalition works. Politicians and the media should know better than to whip up scares about the SNP holding the whip hand – a hung parliament obviously did not produce chaos or the dictatorship of the smaller coalition partner in 2010! We believe in being mature when it is necessary to work with people we don't always agree with.

This article is one of a two-part series. Its counterpart can be read here.

Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit, and former director of research at the Electoral Reform Society.

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Five of Scotland’s most exciting general election battles

Will unionists hook the big Salmond in Gordon? And can the Tories overrun the Scottish Borders? Everything's up for grabs. 

In 2015, the Scottish National Party won Scotland in a landslide. With the next election expected in 2020, politics for the next five years looked homogenous, managerial and predictable. 

But then came Brexit, talk of a second independence referendum, and an early election. Now everything's at play. Depending on your perspective, this is a proxy indyref2, or a chance to condemn the Brexit government, or the opporunity to turn Scotland blue. One thing is sure - local contests will not just be about collecting the bins on time, but about the great constitutional questions of the day. With a giant splash of egotism. 

Here is my pick of the constituency battles to watch:

1. Who’s the biggest unionist of them all?

Constituency: East Renfrewshire
Battle to watch: Blair McDougall (Labour) vs Paul Masterton (Tory)

If anything symbolised the #Indyreffightback, it was the toppling of Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire in 2015. Murphy had slogged away for the No campaign during the 2014 referendum, braving egg throwers and cybernat centurions to make the case for the UK in 100 towns across Scotland. Being ousted by the Scottish National Party’s Kirsten Oswald was the biggest metaphorical egg of them all. 

Still, Murphy only lost by 3,718 votes. The self-styled defenders of the union, the Scottish Tories, have spied an opportunity, and made East Renfrewshire a target seat. Paul Masterton, a local activist, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jackson Carlaw, who snapped up the same area for the Tories in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. 

But who’s that appearing on the horizon? Blair McDougall, the former Better Together chief, is waving Labour’s banner. And no one can accuse him of flip flopping on the independence question. 

Since quashing a second independence referendum is the priority for pro-union voters of East Renfrewshire choose, they are likely to vote tactically. So which candidate can persuade them  he’s the winner?

2. The best shade of yellow

Constituency: East Dunbartonshire
Battle: Jo Swinson (Lib Dem) vs John Nicolson (Labour)

When Jo Swinson first won her home constituency in 2005, she was just 25, and by her early thirties, she was pacing the inner sanctums of the Coalition government. But in 2015, East Dunbartonshire voters decided to give her an early retirement and opted for the former broadcaster, the SNP’s John Nicolson, instead by 2,167 votes. 

In England, the Lib Dem surge has been fuelled by an emotional Europeanism. Swinson, though, can sing “Ode to Joy” as many times as she wants – it won’t change the fact that Nicolson is also against Brexit.
So instead, the contest is likely to come down to two factors. One is the characters involved. Nicolson has used his media clout to raise his profile – but has also been accused of “bullying” STV into dropping its political editor Stephen Daisley (Nicolson denies the claims)

The other is the independence referendum. East Dunbartonshire voted 61.2 per cent to stay in the UK in 2014. If voters feel the same way, and vote tactically this time, Nicolson may wish to resurrect his TV career. 

3. Revenge of the Tories

Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Battle: John Lamont (Tory) vs Calum Kerr (SNP)

And the winner is… anyone who can reel off this constituency name without twisting their tongue. Let’s call it BRK, or Project Blue. 

BRK, a rural constituency in the Scottish borders, was once a comfortable home for the Liberal Democrat Michael Moore. He was driven out in 2015 by the SNP’s Calum Kerr. Indeed, such was the political turmoil that Moore slumped to third place. Kerr’s biggest rival was the conservative John Lamont. 

Two years later, the electoral horns are sounding, and Lamont is so confident of his victory that he is standing down as an MSP. There were just 328 votes between him and Kerr last time round. So who will be the new ruler of BRK?

4. Labour’s last stand

Constituency: Edinburgh South
Battle: Ian Murray (Labour) vs everyone else

When Ian Murray first won Edinburgh South for Labour in 2010, he might have been in his early thirties, but he was surrounded by Labour heavyweights like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. Five years later, after a catastrophic election night, he was the only Labour MP left in Scotland. 

Murray’s survival is down partly to his seat – a leafy, academic constituency that epitomises Edinburgh’s pro-union, pro-Remain vote – and his no-nonsense opinion on both these issues (he’s no fan of Jeremy Corbyn either). A similarly-minded Labour candidate, Daniel Johnson, won the overlapping Scottish parliamentary constituency in 2016.

Now, though, Murray is fighting a defensive battle on two fronts. The SNP came second in 2015, and will likely field a candidate again. But those with longer memories know that Edinburgh South was once a Tory realm. Stephanie Smith, who is also standing for local elections, will be trying to take a bite out of Murray’s pro-union vote. 

Still, Murray has a good chance of outlasting the siege. As one Labour activist put it: “I think I’ll be spending the next six weeks camping out in Edinburgh South.” 

5. The big fish in the pond

Constituency: Gordon
Battle: Alex Salmond (SNP) vs Colin Clark (Tory)

Freed from the chains of high office, Alex Salmond is increasingly in touch with his inner charismatic bully. When not trying to wind up Anna Soubry, he is talking up a second independence referendum at inconvenient moments and baiting the Brexiteers. This is the big fish the pro-union movement would love to catch. 

But can they do it? Salmond won the seat in 2015 from the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 8,687 votes. Taking on this whopper is Colin Clark, a humble Tory councillor, and he knows what he’s up against.  He called for every unionist to back him, adding: “I have been in training since 2015 and I am fit and ready to win this seat in June.”

To get a sense of how much the Scottish referendum has changed politics, consider the fact that Labour activists are ludicrously excited by this prospect. But however slippery he may be, the SNP goliath in person can win over even devout unionists.  I’m not betting on a hooked Salmond any time soon. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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