Who do you push off a mountain first, Cameron or Clegg? Cameron, of course, business before pleasure.
A new variant of a very old gag, but one doing the rounds in Manchester at the Labour Party conference yesterday. Dislike for the Liberal Democrats is real in Labour’s ranks, but it shields a wider truth. It isn’t just the Lib Dems that many Labour people from activists to the frontbench despise, it’s the prospect of coalition government per se.
Labour has a mental block in accepting the age of majoritarian politics may be behind us. Rather than a quirk, the 2010 result may be the beginning of a new trend as innate tribalism among voters gives way to an age of electoral mercurialism. If so, the party is in trouble.
In the days that followed our inconclusive general election result in May 2010, it was David Cameron who was able to sweep in with his “big comprehensive offer” in order to get the Lib Dems into government. Labour’s negotiators, messrs Miliband and Balls among them, came up empty-handed. “I don’t think the Labour team saw it as a discussion between equals” as Lib Dem negotiator (and now junior minister) Andrew Stunell put it. Rather than see the talks as a defeat, Labour grandees like John Reid and David Blunkett (and many other Labour MPs) opposed the very idea of a Lab-Lib coalition in the first place. Not a lot has changed since. Yesterday on The Staggers, my good friend Simon Danczuk , the Labour MP for Rochdale, described talk of a “progressive alliance” between the parties as a “fanciful notion” which is “completely at odds with the reality of Clegg’s party”.
Of course, Labour has long been its own coalition. The New Labour years were characterised by warring clans of Blairites and Brownites fighting a 13-year turf war at the top of government. But the thought of formal, inter, rather than intra-party coalitions, leaves Labour cold and many within the party refuse to countenance the day when it shares power, locked in a binary assumption: it’s either government or opposition.
And yet Ed Miliband used the start of the Labour conference to rattle his sabre at the banks, threatening to split their retail and investment arms – a Vince Cable hardy perennial for the past two years (and evidence of the political cross-dressing that a demob-happy Tony Blair predicted). Yet the Labour leader still accused the Lib Dems yesterday of being “accomplices” the kind of language we can expect a lot more of this week.
As speakers from grassroots delegates, through to trade union leaders and frontbench politicians take to the podium this week there will be an informal competition for the best barbs at the Lib Dems’ expense – and Nick Clegg’s in particular. I will eat my conference pass if a single speaker suggests closer co-operation.
But on the margins of the conference, common sense is stirring. A new grouping, Labour4Democracy, has been launched campaigning for greater pluralism in politics. Led by John Denham and Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield, (one of the most urbane and reflective of Labour’s new intake), the grouping will work to improve relations with the Lib Dems – and others where there is common ground.
It would be silly for Labour to find itself unable to seal the deal with the Lib Dems in 2015 if there is another inconclusive result; especially as the gap between all the parties these days is never as great as it is often portrayed. After all, Labour’s conference slogan shows the way. “Rebuilding Britain” was the theme of the government’s Queen’s Speech too.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.