Charles Kennedy, who was believed to be contemplating a new political grouping in his last days. Photo: Getty Images
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It's time for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to talk about a merger

The reconfiguration of Scottish politics means a rethink is needed in England and Wales.

The Scottish independence referendum established many of the conditions that led to Labour’s catastrophic 2015 general election defeat. In the process it also illustrated three fundamental truths now shaping politics in Britain.

The first truth is that there is still a huge market for big political ideas; these ideas don’t come much bigger than breaking up the United Kingdom. The second is that it has never been harder to communicate a simple, popular, progressive political platform. The third, of particular relevance to the Labour Party, is the need to expect and prepare for the unexpected.

In the run-up to the referendum ballot, Gordon Brown regularly explained to anyone prepared to listen that the ‘No’ campaign would win the poll, but that a sizeable ‘Yes’ vote would extract revenge for its defeat on the Labour Party at the next general election.

Labour should have been prepared for the beating it took in Scotland, but a combination of ignorance, arrogance and a misplaced intellectual snobbery that lent itself to some truly appalling political judgments, meant that the party walked headlong into an avoidable disaster.

For the sake of the Labour Party – and every person and community for which it exists to serve – these lessons must now be learned.

It is no longer unthinkable for anyone to imagine the disintegration of the United Kingdom – this may even be likely – so Labour must now prepare for life in a country without Scottish Labour voters.

Welcome onto the stage yet again, the issue of the realignment of the English Left. This may be a tired canard, but in terms of principle and practicality, this looks increasingly necessary. This realignment could take a number of forms; the adoption of a federal party structure for the Labour Party, including the creation of English Labour to sit alongside Welsh Labour is something that the party should now consider in any event. But a more profound, all encompassing re-alignment would pursue a comprehensive merger between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

No longer the effete fancy of Jenkins, Blair and Ashdown, a United Kingdom without Scotland would demand such a realignment in order for England to secure the kind of progressive government needed all over England and Wales. These decisions are upon us and they cannot be wished away. It would be a tragedy for progressive politics in England particularly if the need for such change was now foolishly ignored out of hand. The next leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats must recognise that the unthinkable is now normal and that business as usual will likely result in permanent irrelevance. Change or die; this is the brutal truth.

Writing in this publication before the general election, Professor Richard Grayson wrote of the creation of a possible Labour-Liberal coalition in the event of a hung parliament. The choice facing Labour in these circumstances, he wrote, was “how it can best represent the people whom only it represents…”

By definition, an identical choice would have faced the Liberal Democrats and this logic must now be applied to a future disunited Kingdom without a progressive Scottish bloc. Partisan tribalism – naturally – could kill such notions. For many, the purity of irrelevance and opposition will always remain preferable to the compromises and pragmatism necessary to securing power. For Labour and the Liberal Democrats, read the Montagues and Capulets- the ancient blood feud may yet deprive each of the objects of their love. That object? A progressive England.

George Eaton, again in the pages of this publication, reported on the joint report commissioned by the Fabian Society and the liberal think-tank Centre Forum entitled ‘Common Ground’. The report highlighted those many areas where Labour and Lib Dem policies were almost identical, but the conclusion of the report noted, “It will be politics, rather than the policies of the two parties, that will decide whether a partnership is possible.”

True enough and the politics are now clear. The Conservatives won the last election in large part because it successfully pitted England against Scotland and sold the lie that only the Tories would represent England. No matter what offence this caused to Progressives of all parties in England, this lie suits the SNP just fine.

It may or may not be too late to save the Union. In any event, England is home to a strong progressive tradition that its two major progressive parties should work to unite, not divide. Labour must learn the lessons of Scotland: it’s time to think the unthinkable.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.

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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.