Charles Kennedy, who was believed to be contemplating a new political grouping in his last days. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage