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18 February 2022updated 03 Mar 2022 11:05am

The Tories are right to fear a Labour-Lib Dem alliance

Could a deal between Keir Starmer and Ed Davey over electoral reform lock the Conservatives out of power?

By Andrew Marr

Must the centre left always lose? Tony Blair apart, the general answer is – yes, of course, this is Britain we’re talking about. And yet in recent days there has been renewed talk of a Labour/Liberal Democrat alliance to target the Tories at the next general election. 

Well, it would be a game changer. But on the other hand, it’s a story that’s been exciting self-described progressives for around a century without anyone ever reaching a final chapter. 

In terms of today’s politics, the attraction of such an agreement is a statement of the bleeding obvious, but there is more to this than meets the eye. It could be a glimpse into an entirely different kind of British politics.

The bleeding obvious first. There are very few winnable seats which are Labour/Liberal Democrat marginals. But there are 81 Tory seats where the Lib Dems are second and of the top 30 Labour targets all but one (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in Fife) are Tory-held. 

Given that both opposition parties suffer a sad and regrettable absence of Russian oligarchs and hedge fund managers wanting parking-spots by the House of Lords, it would be close to clinically insane for them not to focus the relatively modest amounts of dosh they do have on where they can win.

But there will be no alliance. There will not be a two-knights press conference where Keir Starmer leans over to shake Ed Davey by the hand. The two men get on and they speak pretty regularly, but both sides insist that so far there have been no private policy deals, even over electoral reform.

They would say that. Tactically-minded Tories are seriously worried. The possibility of a minority Labour government, kept in power by the Liberal Democrats, passing a change to the voting system that could scupper Tory England forever is already spooking people at Conservative HQ. 

Expect many dark warnings about the opposition, therefore, playing stitch-up party politics in “smoke-filled rooms”. Normal voters, worried about their pensions, jobs and incomes, would certainly flinch from the idea of self-interested party hacks trying to carve up the country in their own interests. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tory posters are already being mocked up — though by the way, and in these health-conscious times, we badly need a modern replacement for “smoke-filled rooms”. Starbucks saloons? Travelodge corridors? Zoom cocoons? Better suggestions much welcome…

Anyway, Starmer and Davey are aware of the danger and are doing their best not to fall into that trap. But here’s where the politics becomes interesting. The Lib Dems are as committed to changing the voting system as ever; Labour is more intrigued by the idea that it has been for generations. For Labour reformers it goes along with the abolition of the Lords and its replacement by a new body, call it the Senate, with a fairer party balance and/or a strong regional and national tilt. 

These are big changes that would radically reshape the politics of Britain for good. Putting them openly into a manifesto, though, would be risky. England, at least, remains a conservative country which rather enjoys the invigorating smack of single-party parliamentary rule. So this may be the policy agenda that dare not speak its name, triple-locked in some steel safe in the Westminster basement until one day in the future it leaps out to scandalise the plain people of Hampshire.

Before that interesting day, we seem to be moving towards what you might call the politics of the parallel. As the Lib Dems seek to slough off the memory of the Clegg-Cameron alliance, they are moving closer to moderate Labour positions on taxation, energy policy, pensions and much else. The thinking of the party under Davey will soon become clearer with the imminent publication of a book of policy essays, overseen by the Lib Dem leader.

Labour under Corbyn would have been an impossible dance partner for the Lib Dems — indeed, at the last election, fear of radical socialism drove some potential Lib Dem voters back to the Tories. Under Starmer, there’s a relentless jettisoning of the last shreds of Marxism, while Labour, like the Liberal Democrats, has virtually given up on returning to the EU. Mass nationalisation is off the agenda. So the basics are there.

One final point. An unacknowledged, tacit arrangement between Labour and the Lib Dems — an affair of shared glances and half-smiles, not words or platforms — would spare Starmer from the potentially bigger but also much more dangerous issue of a deal with the SNP. Such a deal is doable in theory, but both sides have looked at it and concluded that, in practice, for the time being it is not. 

So by the next general election it seems likely that we will have two opposition parties that may disagree about many specifics (on social care, energy policy etc) but sound surprisingly similar and are addressing the same swing voters in similar language… Two individual dancers, as it were, not touching and yet in step. 

As Strictly fans know, that won’t be easy to pull off. Both parties will have plenty of internal dissidents trying to crash the band and disrupt the rhythm. But for the time being, a slight quiver of nervousness running through Tory England is absolutely justified. 

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