Most of Lamb’s speech to the packed fringe meeting consisted of a defence of the Coalition choice which the Liberal Democrats had made, and for the Coalition Agreement as effective in pursuing liberal change. He argued that “a convergence of views and analysis” about some issues - the “bossy state, the unacceptable erosion of civil liberties and dispersing power” – meant “there is a coherence about this Coalition” but stressed too that a LibDem-Tory Coalition did not herald a pact, merger or long-term political realignment, arguing against the LibDems making any pre-election commitment to other parties so that any choice for future cooperation should again depend primarily on the electorate’s view as expressed in the election result.
“The Coalition was the right choice but we should be clear about what the Coalition is. It is a Coalition of independent parties. It is not a pact. There is no possibility of an electoral pact. It is certainly not a step towards a merger”, he said.
He added later:
“Of course there is every prospect of being able to work cooperatively with Labour again if that was the best way to pursue our central objective of achieving liberal change in this country. That is part of our pluralism, that we are committed as an independent party to working with other parties to pursue our central objective of achieving liberal change in this country”.
Lamb hoped that the experience of Coalition would increase pluralism as parties worked together but said too that he believed the ‘new politics’ to involve a more constructive engagement between government and opposition, as well as the LibDems working together with the Conservatives in government.
Academic Richard Grayson, vice-chair of the LibDem Federal Policy Committee, had earlier been considerably warmer than Lamb about the importance of future LibDem-Labour links than Lamb in opening the fringe meeting, though he noted that there were important barriers of party tribalism, such as the public interventions of John Reid and David Blunkett during May’s coalition negotiations.
David Lammy accepted the critique of Labour’s internal political culture: “I would certainly put myself in the pluralist quarter of the Labour party, though it may perhaps be shrinking”, he said, arguing that a politics where mature disagreement was possible within government and parties was an important test of pluralism. He also advised the Liberal Democrats, inside government, not to repeat Labour’s mistake in closing down internal political debate.
“I don’t think one party has all the ideas”, said Lammy, paying tribute to how Simon Hughes had consistently made important policy interventions on social housing, youth crime and urban deprivation. But Lammy argued that the liberal gains of the Coalition agreement could not compensate for regressive choices of the Coalition, and arguing that cuts to social housing would have particularly pernicious consequences in creating social segregation.
“Cutting housing benefit for anybody who has been on out-of-work benefits for a year could lead to an exodus of people from inner to outer London on a scale which we have not yet seen anywhere, except in Paris”, he said.
Lammy said that he had grown up with the experience of urban riots in Tottenham the early 1980s and feared that the scale of service cuts could again lead to unrest.
“I do predict social unrest again unless we can halt the pace on this”, he said.
Grayson also argued that Liberal Democrats outside government needed to create sustained pressure against a simplistic anti-statist rhetoric from the Coalition, and the scale and speed of deficit reduction. There were criticisms from the floor of “piggybank economics” with LibDem Treasury Minister Danny Alexander making the anti-Keynesian argument that the national finances should be run like those of a household.
Lamb, though he said he did not think that the household, but that the scale of the deficit and debt repayments meant the Coalition’s choice about deficit reduction appropriate.
Fabian General Secretary Sunder Katwala said that the election result had left the LibDems with no easy options: “The choice was yours to make – that the Coalition was a legitimate democratic choice should be respected by its opponents”, said Katwala. But he argued that Nick Clegg’s ‘doctrine of the mandate’ was not the only basis for Coalition choices, being “a rather first-past-the-post way of looking at the world” and said that Liberals with a sense of history would be glad that Labour had not followed Clegg’s doctrine a century ago – when the Conservatives won more votes than the Liberals in both of the 1910 elections – which would have meant putting the Conservatives in, scrapping Lloyd George’s People’s Budget and failing to end the Lords veto.
“Nick Clegg might want to pay more attention to history at a time when Nick Boles is offering him another ‘coupon election’, which will not end well for Liberals”, said Katwala.
“Perhaps Nick Clegg’s argument about a mandate does reflect first-past-the-post thinking but we do still live, unfortunately, in a first-past-the-post world and that is bound to be reflected what the public think”, said Lamb in response. A Labour-LibDem Coalition would have been unpopular from day one. “It would have been the first government in British history to have no electoral honeymoon at all”. Lammy warned against the ‘rewriting of history’ as the Coalition negotiations had clearly shown that the LibDem leadership and party did have different choices. He acknowledged the difficulties of a centre-left coalition “which may have not quite been possible”, though argued that a Tory minority government in a hung Parliament would still have left the LibDems in an influential position.
Lamb said that he would set four ‘liberal challenges’ for Labour’s new leadership, which he felt were important tests of whether the parties could cooperate in future:
Will they accept the progressive case for reducing the deficit?
Will Labour rethink their rather cavalier attitude in government to civil liberties?
Will Labour drop its right-wing posturing over incarceration, and
Would Labour accept the limits of securing change through top-down central direction of reform in public services?
Richard Grayson, LibDem vice-chair, disagreed with Lamb’s characterisation of the deficit argument, on the grounds that the Liberal Democrats had made a similar argument at the election about the scale and pace of deficit reduction. “There is no democratic mandate for the deficit reduction approach which the government is taking”, he said, noting that
Richard Grayson said many Labour voices – around Compass, the Fabians, ippr and others – were actively seeking to engage in debate which could liberalise Labour’s own political agenda but that the lesson of the 1990s was that there needed to be engagement and links at grassroots level, rather than a leadership-led process only involving party elites. Grayson cited issues of environmental sustainability, the democratisation and accountability of public services and the role for progressive taxation in deficit reduction and paying for services as areas where activists in the two parties could make common cause.
Katwala endorsed Grayson on the deficit, but said that much of the substance of Lamb’s other liberal challenges to Labour were ones which the party should accept.
This was also in Labour’s own electoral interest, as it would be important to win back many liberal voters who were now up for grabs ahead of the next election, he said.