A modest proposal.Could it be time to complete the New Labour project- by merging the centre left?
This could be the most controversial thing I've ever written. I have always had a cordial hatred for the Liberal Democrats. I dislike their policies and most of their MPs. I loathe their hypocrisy, self righteousness and political cowardice. I don’t want PR. I supported (and still support) our mission in Iraq. I'll be enthusiastically campaigning against the Lib dems every chance i get between now and the next election.
I’ve been involved in anti-Lib Dem campaigns and been proud to use with every means at my disposal: fair, and not so fair. I've always disliked the metropolitian, elitist wing of New labour who liked to discuss coalition at dinner parties and think tank cocktail reception. I'm far more Tom Watson and Fraser Kemp New Labour than Patrick Diamond and Andrew Adonis New Labour.
My anti Lib Dem credentials are impeccable. So I'm not entirely comfortable with what I'm about to say myself. However, political reality is more important than my hatred of the Liberal Democrats, and reality says it might soon be time to reach a deal with them.
The idea of reaching a deal with the Lib Dems isn’t new. One of the most controversial ideas of New Labour was the suggestion that it’s founding fathers would be willing to work with Paddy Ashdown.
Indeed, there’s every sign that if Labour had won a small majority in 1997 Tony Blair would have reached out to the Lib Dems. In the event, an enormous majority and the strong institutional hatred for the Liberals at the very top levels of the party killed the idea at the birth of the new Government. Later still, the personal and political antipathy between Blair and Kennedy and the bigger divide of the Iraq war stopped all thoughts of co-operation.
Today, relations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats are about as bad as they’ve ever been. Labour’s attacks on the Lib Dems as soft on crime, woolly, muesli eating liberals with no courage on issues like crime, public service reform and taxation have hurt, while the Lib Dems critique of Labour as centralising, anti-civil liberties and reckless on foreign policy have been more pointed and more coherent than that of the official opposition.
So it seems a bad time to say that leading figures in both parties need to be considering changing the terms of British politics by planning a rapprochement.
But let’s look at the future.
At the next election Labour’s majority will likely fall or there will be a hung parliament. If the majority is less than 40, a small group of disaffected ex-ministers and the hard left will be able to hold the Government to ransom. The prospect of this is pretty unnerving. There's been no sign that this group have moderated their stance with a majority of 60, so why should we believe they'd do so with a majority of 20? In that situation, if the hard left didn't moderate their positions they could destroy the Government.
For the Liberals, the possibility of a hung parliament means that they need to decide who they side with- and for many, many Liberal democrats that will be a painful, unhappy choice. At the same time, many Liberals worry that their party’s domestic policy is unpopular where it is thoughtful and right, and popular where it is unreformed and wrong.
So why shouldn’t Labour offer left of centre Lib Dems a deal ahead of the next general election? We could offer either a coalition, or a deal with 30 or so Liberal Democrats interested in forming a Social Democrat caucus after the next General election.
The Heads of Agreement could be along the following lines:-
1. Agreement to joint Government throughout the Parliament.
2. A Liberal/Social Democrat Foreign Secretary given authority to lead a new approach to Europe and re-enforce multi-lateralism, in a context of British withdrawal from Iraq.
3. Commitment to continue public service reform, low taxation and tough on crime policies.
4. Commitment to increase environmental taxes.
5. A referendum on Electoral reform, which would not be whipped (a la EEC entry).
6. A written constitution and/or Bill of Rights.
7. Agreement on Identity cards but combined with new civil liberties laws.
Labour would win by being able to co-opt the Liberal Democrats to economic redistribution and public service reform policy and on crime issues, and by no longer having to rely on the campaign group.
If the offer were made from a position of strength, it would mean an unprecedented openness- shooting for good the idea that Gordon Brown would lead a Gormenghast administration.
The Liberal Democrats would win by ensuring a secure place in Government, by securing a more European foreign policy and wining major policy debates on multilateralism, the environment, civil liberties and yes, Electoral Reform.
There are negatives too. For Labour, this would mean accommodation with a hated enemy. It would mean effectively accepting that some cherished policies are unpopular and in need of revising- and it would mean accepting that we would prefer an accommodation with centre left Liberal Democrats than a reliance on the far left- whomay not have been loyal in parliament, but have been loyal activists in parties up and down the country.
For people like me, it would mean swallowing our dislike of PR and Bill of Rights style liberalism. It would mean accepting a diminution of power. It would mean being nice to the bastards at the next council meeting.
For the Liberals it would mean an end to easy opposition. It would mean Liberal MPs having to take responsibility for Government policy and having to accept the discipline of Government- something they’ve not been good at in Scotland.
It also might mean accepting that the Liberal Democrats are an incoherent party as currently constituted. Half of the party are left of centre social and civil democrats, believing in redistribution, environmentalism and the social market. Another faction - less numerous at the activist level but more powerful in the parliamentary party – is more economically liberal and more friendly to approaches from the Conservatives. Could an offer like this destroy the Liberals?
On the other hand, If we ever had PR, we would probably see a re-alignment of political parties, with a “Socialist party”, Labour, a Social Democrat party, “Free democrats”, Conservatives and “Britain Firsters”. Why not start that process ahead of time, and at the same time, show that coalition government doesn’t always mean weak Government?
After all, the prize is very big- A much stronger overall social democrat grouping- and a decent shot at a political system that would give social democrats a good chance of being the natural coalition government. That’s a spoonful of sugar that might make this most unpleasant medicine go down pretty well.