Tuesday 22 September 2009

The new Lib-Lab dialogues

David Cameron's declaration that there was not a 'cigarette paper' between the two parties was an "airwaves" intervention, designed to distract media attention and disrupt the third party's conference while bolstering Cameron's brand decontamination exercise.

It is not a view of Tory-LibDem relations you are likely to hear repeated on Conservative blogs or their party fringe. Were it more sincere, the Bournemouth LibDem fringe would also see a large number of progressive Conservative MPs and activists engaged in serious, and sometimes difficult, discussions with Liberal Democrats of the opportunities and tensions in trying to work together - as were commonplace between Labour and LibDem voices before 1997.

But there has again this year been a notable stepping up and broadening of attempts at serious, and often long-term, dialogue across party boundaries on the centre-left.

Ming Campbell today told an ippr fringe meeting that "If armageddon happened and we were faced with a Tory government, then the argument for increased cooperation with the centre-left might not be a matter of choice but a matter of compulsion."

(Which raises the question of why cooperation to seek to prevent armageddon has proved beyond our grasp, but the time is probably past now).

The Fabians and CentreForum have once again worked together at both conferences - with Steve Webb and myself teaming up to defend universalism, while Vince Cable will discuss prospects for cooperation with Charles Clarke, David Lammy and Steve Richards next week in Brighton.

There is a particularly interesting new initative between the Social Liberal Forum and Compass - set out in James Graham and Neal Lawson's Guardian commentary, suggesting a different approach to progressive coalition of ideas "from below", rather than the Blair-Ashdown 'top down' approach of a decade ago.

A parallel CentreForum/Progress fringe leads John Harris to suggest that a quicker route to 'realignment' might be on offer.

If you think about that, the campsite metaphors turn ludicrous: why, we may soon wonder, are Labour and Lib Dem lefties sharing their sleeping bags with their parties' respective rightists, when they could unzip, climb out, and get together with people they get on with so much better?

That is no doubt part of the motivation for some of these dialogues. But it may also miss the point. A more pluralist future will depend on constructing broad coalitions which can be politically effective, which can begin with identifying kindred spirits across party boundaries but may need to dig deeper too. (In any event, Harris's Panini sticker album style "swaps" approach to realignment might well founder on the issue of whether market mechanisms are an inappropriate way to determine how many LibDem MPs I might get where we willing to trade Neal Lawson and Compass).

One strong point underpinning the Social Liberal/Compass dialogue is the sense that the debate is about much more about when or whether the parties might jump into a coalition together - and that sustaining a debate about ideas matters perhaps particularly when a political "deal" in terms of party relationships is not on offer.

So perhaps we should think of the dialogue being needed on at least three different levels.

On the question of party relationships, the LibDemVoice website has an interesting series of membership polls. This suggests that almost two-thirds of LibDem members are prepared to discuss cooperation with either the Conservatives or Labour, depending on which party might prove to be serious about electoral reform, and a similar proportion are sceptical that either will come off. But they also suggest that LibDem members think that Labour is 34 times more likely to be an effective partner for such reform than the Conservatives, which demonstrates the wisdom of crowds, though note too that two-thirds don't believe either major party will get there.

In terms of political ideas, something of a renaissance of political thinking has been a central theme of discussion at Next Left over the last year. The foundational philosophical question for most across the liberal-left is how to reconcile equality and liberty - or, to put it another way, how to achieve the fairest distribution of substantive freedom.

My argument at the Fabian/CentreForum fringe was that the two parties are both themselves coalitions of social democratic, liberal, ethical socialist, non-conformist and other progressive traditions. Moreover, while there are certainly differences of history, ethos and politics (though not, in my view, a fundamental difference of philosophy), a dialogue at the level of ideas could well prove mutually beneficial, as the likely outcome would be to bolster the liberal strand in the Labour party and strengthen the LibDem focus on structural disadvantage. (This was my conclusion in reviewing David Marquand's history of British politics last year).

This may depend on understanding the republican and collectivist traditions not as opposing armies but as potential, if uneasy, allies. It is their on-going, mutual interrogation which could fuse social democratic and liberal thought. There would be several tensions: a thin, majoritarian idea of democracy would be one barrier; a left-libertarian allergy to the necessary role of government in dismantling class disadvantage could prove another.

Still, this offers the best hope of creating a politics which could speak in the causes of equality and democracy to the spirit of Lloyd George, Tawney, Orwell and Amartya Sen, and seek to link mobilisation from below with progressive state action.
It would not be easy, but the history of British democracy suggests it could also do much to determine which type of Conservativism we face.

But we should be talking about public-facing campaigning too, and realising that this affects the long-term political environment within which the competitive scramble for votes in election campaigns takes place.

So competing parties do also have a shared interest in turning that ethereal ideas debate into the stuff of public politics.

Another issue which came up at Sunday's fringe in Bournemouth was how the right has often been better than the left at campaigning together to frame public debates, despite disagreements between, say, the Eurosceptics on the Tory right and in Ukip, or the officially "non-partisan" campaigning of migration watch or the taxpayers' alliance on behalf of a self-consciously "conservative movement". There are lessons here for the left too in how we shape long-term debates about fairness and equality, taxation, spending and the role of government, climate change and political reform.

So when the Labour government finally breaks a taboo on taxation at the top, or Vince Cable does so on wealth taxes, it is not only the policy detail which matters, but also the broad framing of these public debates about what fairness means.


I respect the view of those in the Liberal Democrats who feel that attention from the Labour side is equally instrumental and equally unwelcome as that from the right - and who are particularly suspicious at their value in the year ahead of an election. (That case was cogently argued by Richard Huzzey in January). The only way to address that concern is to engage in a sustained way which addresses that scepticism about motivations.

It is also clear that there are an increasing number of voices, across the parties, who now think that this form of long-term engagement will turn out to be in the interests not just of the different parties but, as or more importantly, also vital to the causes we each seek to promote.

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