Serious business. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

There is much for Labour to agree with in the Liberal Democrat manifesto

Although a formal Labour/Lib Dem coalition may not be on the cards, Labour must take the Lib Dem manifesto seriously.

As the Liberal Democrats publish their manifesto today, the Labour Party’s first instinct will be to pick holes. Fair enough. There’s an election on, and Labour will only become the largest party by winning ex-Lib Dem voters.

But today it is also important to remember how much common ground there is between the two parties’ policy agendas. After all, on 8th May Ed Miliband’s route to Downing Street may well depend on Lib Dem MPs: like it or not, the Lib Dems could well be the ‘swing vote’ in any post-election negotiations.

The media have started to present the hung parliament scenarios in terms of two opposing blocs - Labour/SNP versus Conservative/Lib Dem. This helps the Conservatives, by giving the impression they will have a right to govern, if ‘their’ bloc is the larger. But as things stand the Lib Dems are in no one’s camp and Labour must resist any narrative that appears to push the smaller party into the arms of the Tories.

Instead Ed Miliband must be ready to reach out to the Lib Dems. That’s partly because the electoral arithmetic may not mean Labour can govern with SNP support alone. But even if it can, Lib Dem backing might be important to demonstrate a new government’s legitimacy and stability, particularly when it comes to English and Welsh legislation.

The Lib Dem campaign is framed around their traditional strategy of equidistance, but the reality is that the party is far closer to Labour than the Tories in policy terms. In February the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society and the liberal think tank CentreForum published Common Ground?, a report which identified 100 areas where the parties were in broad agreement and precious few where a deal looked hard. The analysis was based on the parties’ ‘pre-manifestos’ but almost all of it will stand when the final manifestos are compared.

Although a formal Labour/Lib Dem coalition may not be on the cards, Labour must take the Lib Dem manifesto seriously. It will contain many ideas that the party can support and it could pave the way for Labour’s return to power.


Highlights from the Fabian Society and Centre Forum analysis


Key areas of agreement


1. Fiscal rules which permit the government to borrow for investment

2. A mansion tax for properties over £2m

3. Decarbonising the power sector by 2030

4. Major devolution of power and money within England

5. More free childcare for children under 5

6. Greater control over free schools and academies

7. At least 200,000 new homes a year

8. Restrictions on access to some benefits for EU migrants but support for student migrants

9. A higher Minimum Wage with the Living Wage paid by government departments

10. Withdrawal of the Winter Fuel Payment from the richest pensioners

11. An elected House of Lords, based on PR

12. Votes at 16


Significant policy divergence


1. Trident

2. Social care funding*

3. Electoral reform for the House of Commons

4. Airport expansion

5. Royal Mail

6. 50p top rate of tax

7. An energy price freeze

8. Repeal of the Health and Social Care Act


* The Labour Party manifesto quietly dropped the party’s previous opposition to the coalition’s social care funding reforms


Common ground? An analysis of the Liberal Democrat and Labour Programmes by Andrew Harrop and Stephen Lee was published in February

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.