Sunday, September 19, 2010

The LibDems: keeping lines of communication open

Over on Freemania, Tom has what appears to be a good 1st draft for any Labour spokesperson in addressing the deficit.

As their conference kicks off today, I'm a bit concerned, however, that Tom isn't going far enough in terms of ensuring that we communicate how far we understand the LibDems predicament, and how far we're prepared to go in working with them if (and when?) the time comes when both sides think that it's the right thing to do.

If you're providing v1.0 briefings to any Labour politician, it also has to address how the Liberal Democrats have to be spoken of with a view to ensuring that a constructive relationship can be had with them - one where they always know that there is the option to abandon the coalition if it can be shown to be in the national interest, and one where bridges aren't burnt.

So I'd add the following:
  • In May, the LibDems felt that they had no option but to enter a coalition with the Conservatives in the national interest. They were right to do so, however galling it is for Labour to admit. Given the scale of the economic crisis, the instability of a confidence and supply arrangement would have been hard to justify. The figures made it very difficult to pull a majority together that included Labour and, as a party, an influential minority of our MPs were already ruling out the possibility of a deal anyway
  • We understand that they are the junior partners in a coalition that demands a degree of corporate responsibility, and Labour isn't here to take cheap shots at people who have tough choices to make
  • We think that the LibDems could have negotiated a better deal on social issues than they did - there seem to be a number of areas (not least, electoral reform) where they appear to have been sold a Pup. We understand the frustration of LibDem activists and back-benchers here.
We are approaching a point at which it is going to become clear that there are two responses to the current crisis. One is to act pragmatically in the national interest. The other is to adopt a vicious and opportunistic assault on the very idea of collective action and the enabling state. At that point, the LibDems are going to have to reconsider their relationship with the Conservatives, and if they need to act in the national interest, Labour will be there to help them.

Labour recognises the need to reassess many the assumptions that guided our day-to-day decisions in government. There are many aspects of public management that we could have handled better, but all of the evidence shows that Labour's policy approach was working very well - (and better than anyone knew in May) and that the ill thought-out ideological battering that the Conservatives are proposing is very likely to undo the progress that the economy has been making.


Personally, I'd add a bit of waffle around the need for the LibDems to at least be structurally progressive with tough demands around media regulation, I'd attack the bizarrely imperfect understanding within the coalition of what makes for good decentralised democracy (isn't it odd that a party whose defining demand has been electoral reform has such a shallow understanding of what makes for good democratic change?), and I'd acknowledge the opportunity that Big Society thinking has to reassess Labour's negligence in seeking innovation around collective action during our 13 years of government. But that would probably take the oul' eye of the ball, wouldn't it?


Brian Barder said...

I cordially agree with all of this, and have written similarly on Labour List. Self-indulgent vilifying of the LibDems by Labour, e.g. at the impending Labour party conference or by the new leader when he (or she?) is elected, risks cementing the current centre-right coalition in virtual perpetuity. Is that what we really want?

It's a brave (aka reckless) Labour supporter who's prepared to gamble on Labour winning an overall majority at the next election and therefore not needing to negotiate some kind of alliance with the LibDems in order to return to office. Cultivate them, don't insult and alienate them!


Andrew Brown said...

Yeah, but no, but yeah.

I agree that there is a strong tribal (and perhaps unattractive) instinct to bash the Lib Dems, particularly for those of us who campaign against them at a local level. Their flexibility, ad hominem nastiness, and adoption of a faux moral high ground is maddening.

But we do need to recognise that from their perspective the deal with the Tories was all that was on offer, and makes a kind of perfect sense. It seems to me that there's a lot of

They're also unlucky to have come in at a time when deficit reduction is the only game in town, and as the junior partner probably had to sign up to the Tory vision on how to manage it. Some Lib Dem Ministers are doing so with more gusto than others, again that's fair enough - they want and need the coalition to reach its full term.

But, don't we have a duty to point out the compromises that they're making? And I don't recall Clegg pulling his punches before the election in case he had to do a deal with us. Indeed they've not stopped - witness the Huhne/Warsi press conference earlier in the summer.