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Progressive pacts will defeat Tories

Sir Vince Cable
July 19, 2023

A Labour government after the next election looks increasingly likely though, not yet, certain. Is it shaping up to be a radical, fresh, optimistic break with the past, like 1997, ushering in an era of reform? Or will it be a case of Buggin’s Turn to take on responsibility for British stagflation and long-term decline, hopeless in both senses of the word? Such questions are largely going unasked and unanswered while the Conservative government’s poly-crisis dominates the political conversation.

The past, at least, gives some clues about a future Labour administration.

I was a Labour supporter during the governments of Wilson and Callaghan and a SPAD during the ‘winter of discontent'; then a foot-soldier in the civil war that followed; spent 13 years on the opposition backbenches observing the Blair/Brown government in action; then saw at close quarters, most of the Starmer team when they were under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and preoccupied by Brexit. The first period has, unfortunately, been largely forgotten.

It is often assumed that the next election will resemble 1997 or, if the Conservatives somehow recover their poise and hunger for power, 1992. A more plausible parallel in my view is the Wilson ‘victory’ in 1974: a ‘hung’ parliament leading to another, inconclusive, second election and, only then, against a background of seemingly endless economic crisis, to a Lab-Lib pact based on short-term survival rather than long-term reform.

The idea that we may not get a decisive outcome in the next general election, probably next year, stems from two factors. First, the scandals affecting the SNP may damage rather than destroy it leaving, say, half its Westminster base intact. Nationalism remains a powerful force north of the border. Second, however divided and demoralised the Conservatives may be at present, the next election will be presidential: an unpredictable head-to-head between two uncharismatic ‘problem solvers’, Sunak and Starmer – one failing; the other largely untested; neither inspiring much enthusiasm.

The potential fragility of its current polling lead explains Labour’s extreme nervousness. That currently expresses itself in the form of stern party and message discipline. Starmer’s biggest achievement so far is to have largely banished the Corbynite ‘hard’ left from the party. In truth the ‘hard’ left was not very ‘hard’. Unlike the ex-Communists and Trots of the 1970’s and 80’s, who were well schooled in the dark arts of infiltration and sectarian warfare, the legions of idealistic Momentum supporters have just melted away. But Starmer’s enforcers are now doubling down on discipline and conformity across the board.

One sign of the times is the expulsion of Neal Lawson, a former speechwriter for Gordon Brown and founder of the Compass group which campaigns for cross-party cooperation to defeat the Conservatives and for political reform including PR. His crime was a seemingly innocuous tweet endorsing tactical voting for a Green candidate. The Greens worry Labour because they harbour Corbynite refugees and snipe from the Left. But their 5% popular vote is a factor in some marginal seats and can’t simply be taken for granted.

The Lawson expulsion is not merely an extreme reaction but may signal a more tribal approach by Labour. Such tribal behaviour is common in Labour municipal one-party states. But, nationally, pragmatic cross-party cooperation over tactical voting is unavoidable. Large-scale tactical voting is uncomfortable for party managers but tacit endorsement of it will be needed in a general election.

Pragmatic cross-party cooperation over tactical voting is unavoidable Quote

And if Labour rules out PR, post-election cooperation with the Lib Dems will also be very difficult in circumstances where, say, 25 to 30 Lib Dems hold the balance. The hardening of Labour hostility to PR, despite strong support amongst party members and the wider opportunity to change the political landscape permanently, appears to originate in the short-term self-interest of some MPs who owe their parliamentary seats to the current system. Neal Lawson’s offence may have been to press this very sensitive nerve.

It remains to be seen if there is indeed a wider significance in the Lawson expulsion. Evidence can be found in the way Labour and the Lib Dems are approaching by-elections. So far in this parliament we have seen a sensible willingness to step back from campaigning hard in a seat where the other party is more likely to beat the Conservative. In the current crop of by-elections, Labour is concentrating on Uxbridge and Selby, the Lib Dems on Somerton and Frome (where I was last weekend). This can be seen as a dress-rehearsal for a general election where all but two of the Lib Dems most winnable seats are Conservative facing (the exceptions being Sheffield Hallam and Cambridge). The latest Redfield and Wilton survey in Blue Wall seats suggest that 68% of Lib Dem voters are willing to vote tactically and 55% of Labour voters (for each other). But the party leadership must play along.

Starmer by election

There is a risk that the tacit understanding may be breaking down in the pending mid-Beds by-election when Nadine Dorries finally formalises her promise to quit. The Lib Dems probably have the best chance of overturning the vast 24,000 majority have a stronger base in the constituency, were quicker off the mark campaigning and are the bookies’ favourite. But Labour was second in 2019 and is laying claim aggressively to the seat. A split campaign can only help the Conservatives hold it. It is possible however that Labour could back off in Mid-Beds if it is able to focus on a more promising, parallel by-election in Tamworth, the seat of the disgraced MP, Chris Pincher, whose unwanted bottom pinching was the scandal too far for Boris Johnson’s government.

Labour’s disciplinary tightness also owes a lot to difficult policy choices, in particular refusing to commit to more unfunded public spending. A key element in the purge of Corbynism was getting rid of the magic money syndrome. Rachel Reeves has successfully, so far insisted that 2+2=4. Nonetheless a widespread belief that Labour still inhabits an economic fantasy world has severely dented Labour’s credibility even in competition with the Conservatives who dabbled in the sorcery of Trussonomics. Starmer is also painfully aware that the first few years, at least, of a Labour government could be utterly horrible with prolonged ‘austerity’ caused by the dismal state of public finances and battles with angry public sector unions demanding more pay. Expectations must be managed – down – with brutal realism. Lib Dems have been there before and should understand.

A few months ago there was excited chatter about cooperation between ‘progressive’ opposition parties committed to the end of Conservative government and a bright era of reform to follow. The light has dimmed`: the Labour leadership retreating from a commitment to PR; excessive deference to the declining pool of Brexit voters; messy squabbling over by-elections; policy divergence as Labour embraces hard realism and smaller parties indulge populist gestures.

It is to be hoped that sensible, private conversations will stop the nonsense and put country before tribe. It would be unforgivable if tribal squabbling undermines tactical voting and gifts the Tories another period in office. And if, as in the 1970s, there is weak Labour government with a bare majority and a grim economic outlook there has to be an agreed cross-party agenda for political reform; not just a marking time until the next lurch to the right.

Vince Cable profile

Sir Vince Cable is a former Secretary of State for Business, and led the Liberal Democrats from 2017-19.

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