Labour MP Jamie Reed, pictured earlier today. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

A merger between Labour and the Liberal Democrats could never work, and here's why

Jamie Reed's proposal that Labour merge with the Liberal Democrats is simply a ruse so Labour can finish what they tried to do at the election: wipe out the Liberal Democrats.

There have been a few articles recently mooting the merger of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, including this one published by the Labour MP Jamie Reed. It is written as an act of kindness to both parties, somehow uniting of the mythical forces of progressivism for the greater good. Lib Dems should not be taken in by this, Reed is a wolf in sheep’s clothing asking us into the flock. The differences between our two parties are irreconcilable, and it would signal the end of liberalism.

Lib Dems should not be fooled by progressive overtures; we should make no mistake after watching the last five years that Labour sees us as a pesky annoyance. They tried their best at the general election to make sure we were no longer a party, they didn’t quite succeed. For years they treated us like a spurned ex with a victim complex; they bombarded us with messages calling us traitors, liars, backstabbers and every so often they threw in a “come home” message, but it was never sincere, if it had been they would have made a real effort to change on areas that mattered to liberals. 

The truth is Labour simply don’t get us and have never made an effort to do so, they’re too consumed in small c conservatism to understand our reforming zeal. When we wanted to change the voting system, to reform the House of Lords, they stood squarely against us and hurled abuse. We wanted to protect people from arbitrary government and make civil liberties red lines in coalition; they appointed Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary, not exactly known for her liberal credentials. When our ideal was take the poorest people out of tax while aiming for a living wage, Labour wanted introduce a 10p tax rate for the poorest.

Even in practical terms, we are a party that has a strong internal democracy; we make our own policy at conference, something that is now alien to Labour. There’d also be a huge problem with campaigning. In the safe seat of South Shields, David Miliband had a contact rate of less than 100 people in his constituency, whilst Lib Dems are out campaigning all year around in held seats. Reed talks about learning the lessons in Scotland, but in many Lib Dems-held seats we increased our raw vote only to be taken out by the tsunami of Labour voters who’d crossed the floor to the SNP. We have lessons to learn, but they are not the same as Labour’s.

If Labour wants to learn those lessons they should do it without us. We are incompatible, and we could never co-exist on a permanent basis. From their treatment of us, to basic philosophical differences, to the practicalities – it just wouldn’t work. However, I don’t suppose it is meant to, it is meant to gobble us up, finish us off and allow Labour a much clearer path to victory

Andrew Emmerson is a Liberal Democrat activist and Liberal Youth Non-Portfolio Officer

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad