Lib Dems to the rescue?

Tom Griffin
30 January 2009

Tom Griffin (London, OK): It seems that Tom Nairn, Peter Oborne and our own Anthony Barnett were on to something with their suspicions that Gordon Brown would seek to shore up his authority with some kind of cross-party pact.

The Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala offers just such a proposal in this week's New Statesman:

A Lab-Lib deal is possible - but only if a pre-emptive progressive coalition is formed soon. By the time Barack Obama leaves these shores in April, Gordon Brown should invite Nick Clegg to be deputy prime minister with Vince Cable as chancellor. The coalition would govern for a year - announcing the date of the next election, and legislating for fixed-election dates, too. This year it would focus on the response to the recession, while agreeing on core progressive priorities for the next four-year parliament in both party manifestos.

The idea has met with a frosty reception from Lib Dem bloggers. Richard Huzzey of Lib Dem Voice notes that we've been here before:

In reviving the idea of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Katwala is of course resuscitating “the project” between Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair — a process that ended with Blair’s betrayal of Paddy, and was followed by ten years of Labour government highlighting precisely why liberalism would never have made an easy bed fellow with that party.

Politicalbetting.com's Mike Smithson dismisses the idea as a non-starter.

Like many on the left Katwala simply fails to understand what the Lib Dems are about. If this happened, which I don’t think is likely, I, for one, would leave the party that I have been a member of since its foundation and throw everything at campaigning against what I would see as a betrayal. There are others like me. 

Where Katwala may be on firmer ground is in identifying the equally significant obstacles to an alliance between the Lib Dems and the Tories.

A Tory-Lib Dem deal is a non-starter: negotiations would dig deeper than David Cameron's belief that "progressive ends" are nice things. His party would much rather form a minority government than offer electoral reform. But many Lib Dem MPs think a bigger blue-yellow deal-breaker is Europe. What policy could a cabinet containing William Hague, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne ever agree on? 

Thoughtful Labour politicians like Katwala and Ken Livingstone are right to see a need to reach out beyond their own party in order to rebuild a progressive political coalition. Katwala is on the right track with ideas such as scrapping ID cards, reassessing Labour's stance on civil liberties and holding an Iraq inquiry. However, if Labour is to start winning over the doubters, it needs to take the initiative on these things, rather than indulge in wishful thinking about a front-loaded political deal. This is not 1997 and Labour is not negotiating from a position of strength. The task now is to ensure that this is not a re-run of 1979 in which progressive politics is eclipsed for a generation.

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