Ed Davey’s first speech to his party conference contained perhaps the most Liberal Democrat line ever: “Friends, we need to listen to everyone.” But after a reminder that the Siemens factory in Hull now produces blades for offshore wind turbines – a legacy of Liberal Democrats in government – and a litany of values shared by Labour, Davey went on, pointedly, to ignore the overwhelming question. “We can’t just talk to ourselves,” he said. Yet he made no mention of the Labour Party, the conversation with which will define his leadership.
With 11 MPs and the allegiance of 5 per cent of the nation, it is easy to ignore the Liberal Democrats. Yet, if the SNP cannot be turned back, they will count. Labour has just taken the lead in the polls, raising the impossible prospect of a Keir Starmer deal with Nicola Sturgeon. That is a conversation that cannot go anywhere. The SNP would demand an independence referendum, which, if the Scottish people voted to go, would collapse the Westminster coalition that upheld a Labour government. No, the necessary alliance has to take place in England; the political prospects of Labour and the Lib Dems are entwined whether either party likes it or not.
Animosity between Labour and the Lib Dems simmers in local politics. Labour people regard Liberals as not quite progressive, and Liberals return the insult. The rivalry, though, rarely does either party any favours, and it worked to the detriment of both in the election just gone. In December 2019, Labour trailed the Tories by fewer than 1,000 votes in ten constituencies and the Lib Dems fell fewer than 1,000 votes behind the Tories in a further four. Then there were three marginal seats in which a needless three-way fight gave the seat to the Conservatives with a small winning ballot. Even a minimal level of cooperation would have all but halved the Conservatives’ 80-seat majority.
As it is, Labour is coming from a long way back. To win outright, the party has to emulate Harold Wilson in 1966 and Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005 by winning in England. To do that, it must turn a 13-point Tory lead from 2019 into a double-digit victory. To give the task a place and a face, Labour must win in North East Somerset and turf out Jacob Rees-Mogg. Most Lib Dems would agree it has to be done. Some help is, therefore, going to be required, which the Lib Dems are in a position to provide.
The Lib Dems stand second in 91 seats, in 80 of which the sitting MP is a Tory. In the 30 seats that the Lib Dems have the best chance of winning, 23 are held by Conservatives and Labour is a distant third at best. Direct competition between Labour and the Lib Dems has disappeared. In 2010, more than a quarter of the 57 Lib Dem MPs squared off against Labour. Today, Davey does not have a single MP whose main electoral threat comes from Labour.
The Lib Dems are now, by dint of sheer electoral arithmetic, a party fighting the Tories. This is a congenial reality to most party members who have already made the same choice, even if it is yet to be explicitly expressed. The aftermath of coalition and a bruising Brexit has cured the Lib Dems of any temptation to work with the Conservative Party. Even if there were any goodwill left, it would not survive this particularly unpleasant Tory government.
So, if the Lib Dems can no longer play with the Tories, they have only one option – which is to play with Labour. The two parties have differing intellectual traditions, dispositions and priorities but, tactically, the decision has been made. The Lib Dems are the smaller wing of the anti-Conservative alliance.
The overwhelming question then, which went unasked, yet alone unanswered, in Davey’s speech, is how to make something tangible out of this covert fact. The template is the gentle tread of Paddy Ashdown. The day after the 1992 election, Ashdown confided to his diary that, rather than attack Labour, the Lib Dems should talk to them.
So they should, beginning with conversations about the extent to which the two parties agree on policy. On social care and climate change, to take the obvious examples, both parties would benefit from showing the electorate that they can work in concert. They should develop a common critical language, which, to judge from the two virtual leaders’ speeches, might be happening organically. There is no need for any loose talk of coalitions or pacts, which annoy activists and confuse voters. But every effort must be made to maximise tactical voting – and cooperation on policy, in an atmosphere of pleasant agreement between grown-ups, is the best way to encourage that.
Overcoming tribal affiliations is hard in two parties proud of their heritage. Indeed, the very existence of the Labour Party owes a debt to Liberal intransigence. It was his rejection by the Liberals to be their candidate for the 1888 Mid-Lanarkshire by-election that prompted Keir Hardie to become the first chairman of the new Independent Labour Party. The Labour Party electoral apparatus was largely built by Arthur Henderson as a direct response to the “doormat incident”, when David Lloyd George made him wait outside the War Cabinet, of which Henderson was a member, while his conduct was discussed.
Yet more often the enterprise has worked. Labour’s first great electoral leap – its 29 MPs at the 1906 election – owed a lot to a deal cut by Ramsay Macdonald with Gladstone’s son Herbert. Labour’s first two minority spells in office, in 1924 and 1929, were enabled by Liberal support. By hook or by crook, the Liberals helped Labour get off the ground. Now, they can help it get off the floor.
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union