In the early hours of 8 May 2015, a sombre Nick Clegg was waiting for news from his constituency count in Sheffield Hallam while, across the country, his fellow Liberal Democrat MPs were losing their seats in the general election. The mood of Labour activists was not much better as David Cameron’s Conservatives were heading for an unexpected parliamentary majority. But shortly after 4am, a crowd of Labourites gathered around a television erupted in spontaneous applause. An unexpected gain on a night of losses? No. The cause of their celebration was the defeat of Vince Cable in Twickenham.
For Liberal Democrats this moment serves as a parable of Labour’s self-defeating tribalism. Clegg believes that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn was the inevitable result of Ed Miliband’s long campaign against the Liberal Democrats’ participation in the Conservative-led coalition: half a decade spent denigrating the idea of compromise and moderation inevitably meant Labour’s own compromisers were swept aside by the full-fat alternative.
One strange irony of the doomed Miliband era is that, behind the scenes, relations between the two so-called progressive parties remained in fairly good order. Jonny Oates, Clegg’s chief of staff, remained in discreet but frequent contact with Stewart Wood, one of Miliband’s closest aides. It took Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015 to sever communication between the two offices.
During the Liberal Democrat leadership election in 2020, allies of Layla Moran, Ed Davey’s main rival, feared that Davey’s tenure as a high-profile member of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition meant he would be unable to revive relations with Labour. But under Keir Starmer, the two leaders’ offices are once again in regular conversation. Starmer concedes that, while Labour will stand a candidate in every constituency at the next election (excluding those in Northern Ireland), the party will campaign less aggressively in seats where the Lib Dems are the main Tory challenger.
Discreet cooperation between the two parties has already borne fruit: the low-key Liberal Democrat campaign in the Batley and Spen by-election helped Labour hold the seat in July 2021, while Labour was similarly hands-off in the Chesham and Amersham by-election a month earlier. Starmer did not even visit North Shropshire during the recent by-election, when one of the safest Tory seats was won by the Liberal Democrats.
Informal rather than formal ties suit both leaders well. Although Starmer and his party’s ratings are on the rise, Liberal Democrat strategists believe that having too strong an association with Labour makes it harder to win over Conservative voters in the more affluent, largely pro-Remain constituencies they hope to take. For Starmer, a formal accord with the Liberal Democrats would open up awkward questions about whether a similar deal might be reached with the SNP, before or after a general election.
While Starmer’s standing has been transformed since the local elections in May last year, cooperation of any kind with the Liberal Democrats remains a bitterly divisive approach in the Labour Party. Although there is a formal “point person” in the offices of both Starmer and Davey, one of those involved in the cross-party talks told me that being named in print would “ruin their reputation”. And for all that Liberal Democrats like to tell themselves that self-destructive tribalism flows in only one direction, neither side is immune to it. During the height of the Labour-Liberal Democrat love-in between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown in the mid-1990s, Liberal Democrat activists wrote a song in protest, to the tune of “American Pie”. The repeated refrain was “Tony Blair can f*** off and die”. It is still sung at “glee club”, one of the more rambunctious parts of Liberal Democrat conference.
Defenders of Ashdown say that his close working relationship with Blair resulted in a number of Liberal Democrat policies being implemented by New Labour; the two parties also governed together in coalition in Scotland and Wales. But Blair failed to bring in proportional representation at Westminster, a long-standing Liberal Democrat aspiration.
What unites Labour and Liberal Democrat critics of closer cooperation is the memory of betrayal. For Labour, the great betrayal came in 2010 when the Lib Dems entered a coalition with the Conservatives, enabling an era of austerity. For the Liberal Democrats, it was in 1999, when Blair stepped back from his efforts to rewrite the rules of the British constitution and entrench the two parties together in power.
It is the latter betrayal that is perhaps more relevant today. Starmer – who gave a major speech in Birmingham on 4 January promising that Labour would renew a “contract” with the British people – is able to take a back seat to the Liberal Democrats in some constituencies because he is politically strong enough to see off internal critics of the scheme. But if Labour continues to do well in the polls, Starmer may find that he has no need for Liberal Democrat support at the next election.
The paradox for the Lib Dems is that they want a Labour leader weak enough to require their support, but strong enough to force cooperation on the Labour Party. At present, Starmer ticks both boxes. But for how much longer?
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance