How might Labour talk about the coalition without winding up the Liberal Democrats?

How might Labour and the Liberal Democrats reach common ground over the recent past? A Liberal Democrat explains how Labour might approach it.

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In May 2010, after a few days of frenzied talks, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a government. For many on the left, the coming together of these two parties was unthinkable. Whatever reservations many Labour people may have had about the Lib Dems, we at least presumed they were on the left of British politics. Putting the Tories into government appeared to many of us who had always maintained a warm spot for the third party of British politics as the ultimate betrayal; for those who had never liked the Lib Dems at all in the first place, the new government appeared to them to be the ultimate confirmation of the party’s two faced nature.

The feeling in 2010 amongst Labour ranks of this betrayal was very strong. There had previously been a feeling that both the Lib Dems and Labour were part of a progressive, anti-Tory tradition, so when the Lib Dems went into government with the Conservative Party an unspoken contract seemed to be broken. Like I said, not even those who had never cared much for the Liberal Democrats thought they would ever support a Tory prime minister.

Looking back on it, we can see how some of the feeling of hostility might have been reciprocal and why. There was a patronising element in our anger; the idea laid bare that the Lib Dems had always been thought of by Labourites as “Labour’s little cousin” (Gordon Brown’s refusal to get the name of your party right bring a prime example of this), and now that the smaller party had refused to play that role under pressure, the anger of the larger party could come across as to Liberal Democrats as almost patriarchal in nature.

Within that unconscious patronising was also a refusal on our parts to see that liberalism, even left-leaning liberalism, is very much a different tradition than democratic socialism and deserves to be respected as such. We feel that liberal individualism neglects the structural constraints and the need for collective action sometimes, while you – I know – feel we too readily wish to impose our preferred answer. As a result of this, Labour and Lib Dem cultures have often clashed, most catastrophically – from a Labour Party viewpoint anyhow – during the May 2010 Lib-Lab coalition talks that fell apart.

Having said all of that, most of the anger from our side was purer than any of this: you sided with the Tories, who are our natural enemies. We cannot fathom siding with the Tories in government and find it difficult to understand those who would; our understanding of who you are and what you stand for as a party was suddenly thrown up in the air in the worst way imaginable.

Through very gritted teeth, I suppose one could see how David Cameron, with his “hug a hoody” rhetoric, convinced you he had liberal instincts during those five days in May. We hate to say we told you so; you have been able to see for yourselves over the past five years that the Tories may talk a good game sometimes in this department, but they remain forever Tories. You’ve seen for yourselves that the talk of civil liberties that were flung around by Cameron and his team as if they were the heirs to Gladstone during the Con-Lib coalition talks became the polar opposite of such a thing during the Home Office reign of Theresa May. The talk of “vote blue, get green” in the run-up to the 2010 general election evolving into the “green crap” point of view from the Tory front bench. Again, we hate to say we told you so, but...

But we are where we are. A great deal of bad blood has flowed between the Labour and Lib Dem camps over the previous five years. However, the opportunity that was blown five years ago may just present itself again in May: the chance to realign British politics in a progressive direction. We’ve learned as well that if we want to include others in our vision of this progressive future, it cannot be a parochial one: a progressive vision should take in liberalism. When you remove the rhetoric, Labour and Lib Dem policy contains many overlaps - many more than the Lib Dem and Tory manifestos contain.

It may just be that Lib Dem actions over the past five years mean your party will be held to pay a high electoral price, high enough to preclude your being in a position to be part of any government post-May. But how about this: if the electorate are prepared to think about you in a renewed light, so too will the Labour Party. If the chance comes again to realign British politics in a progressive direction, we won’t let it go so easily. We hope you won’t either.  

This article is one of a series. Its counterpart can be read here.

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.