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Don’t expect a Lib-Lab pact at the next election

The ill-fated Independent Group failed to achieve a successful centrist movement. - Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

How did it come to this? We are a moderate nation; most of us stand somewhere around the centre politically. Get on with your life without too much interference from the state, work hard, pay your taxes, be tolerant, do what you can to help those worse off than yourself, create safety nets for the disadvantaged, eliminate poverty. Live and let live really. How hard is that?

Yet our country seems more divided than it has been in centuries. Divided by Brexit, divided by Covid. Our politics is so polarised that last December we had a general election in which we had to choose between a sitting prime minister in hock to the far right of his party and an opposition leader demonised as a Marxist. Where was our voice?

How did we get a buffoon as prime minister on the say-so of only 100,000 people? Why did reasonable Tories allow fear of Farage to drive the party so far to the right? Why couldn’t Labour see that Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable? What was the matter with the opposition/Remain parties? Why did they ever give Boris Johnson that December election? And once it was called, why couldn’t they work together – like Farage and the Tories did? Why were they giving the Brexiteers/Tories a free pass? What was Jo Swinson thinking of, talking fairyland politics about stopping Brexit on the day she moved into Number 10? For heaven’s sake, they needed their heads banging together.

It was same with Brexit: a Remain-heavy parliament stuffed with MPs too lily-livered to do what they knew was right for the country rather than blindly follow the verdict of a flawed referendum. And the People’s Vote campaign: why did it have to implode rather than work together for a simple common objective?

Now we’re in deep recession, heading for a Brexit precipice with a cabinet stuffed with people chosen entirely on the basis of ideological purity rather than ability, under the leadership of a man whose politics are inimical to his own brother and sister. And there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop this incompetent autocratic government in its tracks. It’s just so wrong. It’s not fair… Stamps feet in frustration.

Yes, this is how loads of us feel. We are the ‘disenfranchised’ majority, peeved because we weren’t offered the choices to suit us. We know most of the country agrees with us: look at the opinion polls. It was obvious that Labour should have ditched Corbyn. It’s clear that the country has changed its mind about Brexit.

Is it? After a year of Johnson mayhem and with a ‘sensible’ opposition leader, Labour is only now drawing level with the Tories. Even with the prospect of thousands of lorries parked on motorways, nearly half the country say they’d still vote to leave the EU.

And that’s without all the vagaries of constituency boundary changes that will almost certainly benefit the Conservatives and a tub-thumpingly pro-Brexit, pro-Bojo national press. If we had had a second referendum last year, we would probably have lost again; if we had a general election next month, Johnson might very well win again. Because once campaigning begins, the odds are stacked against the centre and the left.

Or perhaps because the right-wing controversialists and ardent Brexiters are right and it is we who are out of touch.

History offers little comfort for those of us crying out for ‘decent’ politicians from all parties to work together (by which, of course, we mean politicians who agree with us).

Trans-party deals rarely achieve anything positive – by their nature they are usually there to stop something bad, rather than create something good – and are invariably short-lived. We saw that only recently with the supply-and-confidence arrangement between Theresa May and the DUP after the ill-advised 2017 general election.

For a few months the country was effectively under the control of Arlene Foster, who isn’t – and wasn’t – even an MP. And in the end her party voted against the Brexit legislation that it had been bribed to support.

The DUP did at least get something out of the deal: May’s non-existent magic money tree produced £1bn to be spent on Northern Ireland. Generally, the smaller partner is offered only crumbs from the big man’s table and ends up suffering from indigestion at the next election.

Look at what happened to the Liberal Democrats after the coalition – they were the ones to pay the heavy price for their taste of power, and they are paying it still.

Indeed, the whole country is paying it. The referendum, Brexit, Johnson: all might have been avoided had Nick Clegg and 26 fellow Lib Dems not voted to increase tuition fees, barely seven months after signing a pre-election pledge promising not to.

And so the voters ‘punished’ them because they couldn’t be trusted, kicking out all but eight of their MPs, while ‘rewarding’ the Tories for five years of austerity with their first overall majority for nearly a quarter of a century. That ‘rewarding’ has quote marks because it wasn’t exactly a prize for David Cameron. It meant there was no one to save him from having to fulfil his promise to hold that referendum – the promise he had made to try to neutralise Farage and get the right off his back – and it ultimately cost him the premiership.

At least the DUP got its £1bn; the Lib Dems came away with nothing but approbation. Electoral reform? Yes, there was a referendum on a sort of PR, but most people couldn’t be bothered to vote and those who did backed the status quo by two to one. Protecting the environment? There would be no third runway at Heathrow. Well, for the time being. Europe? Britain would be a “positive participant” in the EU… You get where we’re going with this. All these promises are just made to be broken once the junior partner isn’t needed any more.

Go further back to the Lib-Lab pact in the late 1970s when David Steel agreed to prop up James Callaghan’s minority Labour government in return for “a joint consultative committee” to examine government policy. In other words, nothing. It bought Callaghan time to stabilise the economy and bring down rampant inflation – but it didn’t prevent the winter of discontent or the inevitable Conservative election victory that took Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979. And, again, the Liberals were losers at the ballot box.

Nor, as both Cameron and May learnt, do these deals make life particularly comfortable for the senior partner. On the contrary, it can help the opposition, as the Young Fabian blogger Nathaneal Amos-Sansam noted: “A small party keeps the government in power whilst extracting concessions, the government’s own backbenchers now hold far greater sway as just a handful of objectors can scupper legislation, and the opposition parties are emboldened and willing to pursue every avenue open to them to weaken the government’s authority further.”

Yes, that’s the ticket. We’re not talking about keeping governments in power; we want the opposition to work together. If only they’d done that, we wouldn’t have this Johnson-Cummings regime.

Well, Paddy Ashdown tried it after John Major’s surprise election win in 1992. In a constituency speech a month after polling day, he called for a cross-party effort to create a “non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives”.

Now you’re talking, I hear you say. That’s what we need. But that would require Labour to change, to stop being so beholden to the unions; that “non-socialist” bit would never appeal to the left. Many Lib Dems weren’t that keen either. Why go to the aid of a party that had just lost an election it was supposed to win by a mile? Now was the time for the Lib Dems to capitalise, not capitulate.

Two years later, however, the idea grew legs. Tony Blair was moulding New Labour leadership after the death of John Smith and thought it made sense to work with others to get rid of the Tories.

But how?

In opposition, it was relatively simple to co-ordinate attacks at PMQs and to identify issues where there was broad agreement. But that wouldn’t work at election time. Standing down candidates to give a free run to those with a better chance of beating the Conservatives – as the Brexit Party did to help Johnson last year – was a non-starter.

Ashdown feared it would look like a “grubby plan” that would not go down well with the electorate. Even the idea of holding joint rallies was seen as unpalatable to voters: the polling evidence was that while open to the idea of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in the event of a hung parliament, many drew the line at actually voting for such a thing. In the event, Blair won a 179-seat majority and for the next decade had no need of pacts with anyone – even after the Iraq War.

These days, he is a pariah to many in his party; a war criminal, they say, a wishy-washy centrist, a red (or pink-tinged) Tory. Charges – well, not the war criminal bit – that are already being levelled against Keir Starmer.

Corbynistas who attacked moderate (or, in their eyes, right wing) Labour MPs for failing to support their leader now dismiss Starmer’s “ineffectual” opposition and openly accuse him of having “ruined the party in six months”. If Labour members cannot work with each other, what possible hope is – or was – there of them collaborating with the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP? And where do moderate Conservatives look if they think the ERG has hijacked their party? Oh, how we yearn for those tranquil days of Mr Major, Mr Blair (even if he was a bit sanctimonious) and Mr Cameron.

Well if that’s the case, we need a new party of the centre; one that embraces the Ken Clarkes and the Dominic Grieves, the Keir Starmers and the Jess Phillipses as well as the Lib Dems. But that’s been tried, too. The trouble is the Clarkes and the Starmers won’t leave their historic political homes.

Consider this sequence of events: the Conservatives win a general election with a small, but working majority. The defeated Labour party elects a new leader from the left while the government shifts further to the right. Things don’t go smoothly, the country becomes more divided, the prime minister more unpopular. Yet Labour can’t get its act together; it is too busy squabbling with itself. In the end, a ‘moderate’ group decides to break away to form a new centre party.

It’s happened twice in the past 40 years – and on neither occasion did it end happily.

In 1981, it was disenchanted Labour members who split from their party. The Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – were big beasts and they persuaded 26 Labour MPs – and one Conservative – to join their Social Democratic Party. Jenkins, who had been serving as president of the European Commission (the only Briton to do so) and Williams, who had lost her Commons seat in 1979, would both return to Westminster in by-elections. The new party quickly formed a parliamentary alliance with David Steel’s Liberals and were soon riding high in the polls – at one stage half of voters said they intended to back them. Steel was so confident that he famously told his party conference: “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”

But by the time Britain went back to the polling stations, the Falklands conflict had turned the tide for Thatcher and she was re-elected by a landslide, with a 144-seat majority and more than 42% of the vote – a popular share bettered since only by Blair in 1997 and Johnson last year. Labour came second with 28%, which gave them 209 seats, and the Alliance third with 25% of the vote. That secured them only 23 MPs – 3.5% of the total – and saw many SDP members, including Williams, lose their seats.

The 1987 election eroded the SDP’s position further and it ended up merging with the Liberals to become today’s Liberal Democrats, who reached a high point of 63 MPs in 2006. The party that was going to break the mould of British politics had been broken by British politics.

Three decades on, the Conservatives were again in power, the country was again divided and Labour was again tearing itself apart under a left-of the-party leader. On the political right, UKIP had morphed into the Brexit Party, surely it was only a matter of time before ‘sensible’ MPs woke up and formed a Remain Party.

Well, they sort of tried. A dozen from all sides got together to form The Independent Group. But the only thing they really had in common was an aversion to Brexit. Unlike the Gang of Four, these were not big beasts, but B-listers – they didn’t even get Rory Stewart. The simple task of agreeing and sticking to a name proved beyond them, half of them left the party after they failed to get anywhere in the European elections, and every single one lost their seat last December. Hopeless.

And so we are where we are. Facing the prospect of another four years of unfettered Dominism – with or without Johnson to do Cummings’ bidding. No opposition alliance will stop the right-wing agenda rolling through parliament. Only backbench Tories can do that.

We may hope that Starmer stabilises his party to make it electable and win back the Red Wall. We may hope that the Lib Dems will become more relevant and realistic in their ambitions. But we would be foolish to hope that the two will work as one. We have seen that that is not the way politics in this country works.

Electoral reform is the only way to escape the duopoly – and at the moment neither of the main parties is inclined to help with that. If we don’t like where we are now, we should realise that we had our chance to change things in that other referendum, back in 2011. How many of us took it?

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