Miliband and the Liberal Democrats

James Graham
6 August 2008

James Graham (Quaequam Blog): I'm probably one of the most pro-Labour Lib Dems you are ever likely to meet. A Georgist and an electoral reformer, I'm very conscious of the fact that I am likely to meet more fellow travellers within Labour than the Conservatives (although not as many as I'd like). Despite spending the day knocking up voters in a hopeless (for us) Lib Dem-Labour marginal, in the evening on 1 May 1997 I cheered as loudly as anyone when it became apparent that the Tories were finally on their way out.

What, then, should I make of the prospect of a Miliband Premiership, given his stated aim of uniting the traditions of social democracy and radical liberalism "into a single narrative"? - an approach that like other matters appears in a transparently clear but nonetheless coded form in his Guardian article.

Leaving aside the kneejerk recoil at the prospect of being love bombed by yet another David, the truth is that Miliband seem to have a lot to offer the Lib Dems. He has certainly talked a lot of the right talk. He was the one who coined the term "double devolution" and I have often wondered how the local government agenda would have differed if he had stayed on as Communities Secretary. Similarly, he said a lot of all the right things when he was in charge of Environment. That in itself highlights one problem with the man – he has never had a frontbench job long enough to make a significant difference – but combined with his commitment to democratic reform I can't deny finding some commonality of purpose with him.

His isn't a particularly new idea either.  "Realignment," as it was known back in the day that narrative was something that mainly concerned Winnie the Pooh aficionados and Booker prize judges, is something which every generation discovers for itself.  Of course, Blair and Ashdown had their "project," but they were both informed by Roy Jenkins.  Going further back, we find it was a major concern of Jo Grimond's.

There is, however, a major problem from a Lib Dem perspective with talking about this now. Not to put too fine a point on it, Labour are a busted flush and it currently looks doubtful that even a change of leader will save them.  Last week, Nick Clegg very publicly announced that he has taken a strategic decision to redouble our resources and efforts into Labour-held constituencies for the next general election. Frankly, this is less an act of repositioning as it is an act of survival. 

The Henley by-election suggests that the Conservatives are currently untouchable in a similar way that Labour were pre-1997. I remain confident that the Lib Dems will retain most of their Lib Dem-Tory marginals, but beyond that is hard to tell. If Clegg is to be sure of not presiding over a net loss of seats at the next election, he needs to get a whole tranche of Labour ones in the bag, and quick. This really isn't a good time for Labour politicians to start talking about alliances – where were they 10 years ago when it all fell apart?

Too much is made of the apparent convergence between Cameron's Conservatives and Clegg's Lib Dems. After 11 years with a common foe, it is inevitable that both parties will have similar criticisms, but I sincerely doubt that Clegg would take the Lib Dems into coalition in the event of no party having overall control of the Commons after the election. Frankly, as I've written so many times before, it isn't Cameron he would have to deal with, but a largely unreconstructed swivel-eyed backbench. Rather, I confidently expect him to adopt the same policy that Kennedy had in 2005 – that of supply and confidence to whichever party gets the plurality.

To do anything else, let alone propping up Labour to form a majority even if the Tories win more seats than them, would be utter madness. Without electoral reform the Prime Minister of the day would always be tempted to call a by-election and slough off its junior partner.

And that gets us to the heart of the matter. Without electoral reform, all talk of a realignment is meaningless. Realignment can never happen on one-sided terms, which is what Blair ended up insisting on in the late-1990s. Only with proportional representation would we be able to talk about coalition in Westminster in any meaningful sense without getting dragged down into the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Longer term of course, that could lead to a true realignment, with Labour dividing between the authoritarians and the liberals while the Lib Dems would divide between the social and economic liberals. Unlike some of the more romantic notions of some realignnent evangelists it would also mean accepting that we would still see Conservative, or at least conservative, governments winning every so often.  The Scottish experience is also enlightening: both Labour and the Lib Dems are still struggling to form a response to the SNP's ascendancy after being in power for eight years. Realignment is already happening, in real time, in Scotland. Gerry Hassan suggests that Scotland and Wales already have a new "progressive imagination" but from my perspective at the other end of the British Isles I am still seeing a lot of growing pains.  I also worry that it is being hindered by inertia within Westminster politics and that is ultimately a threat to the Union.

If a future Labour leader was serious about redrawing the political map in this way, he or she would have to take on Labour's authoritarian streak and commit Labour to PR (not the blind alley of AV or SV - Sunder please note, but proportional representation).  Freedom and power for the many, not the few?  Thus far Miliband has shown little enthusiasm for taking either step.  If he is serious about seizing the crown, he may feel he can't afford to at this stage, but if he wants the Lib Dems to take him at his word, that's what he'll have to do. Blair-style nudges and winks after the election of the kind we saw in the 1990s however will simply not be good enough. Just as Blair could only take on the long simmering issue of Clause Four directly, so a future Labour leader will need to lead her or his party with them down this route and not attempt to do it by stealth.

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