I Want You to Understand My Party: I am not a Yellow Tory!

In this first post in a series in which Compass members explain their parties to outsiders, a Liberal Democrat calls on Labour to understand where he’s coming from.

If I walk into a room and there are some Labour-supporting people there, I will instantly gravitate towards them, even if I don’t know they’re Labour. There’s something about the fundamental values and ethics – we might disagree on one or two policies, but we share a deep-rooted concern for all people.

If I walk into a room with some Conservatives, the chances are they’ll be polite and well mannered (the Tories generally have the politest supporters), and I’ll probably be made to feel welcome, but there won’t be the same underlying shared value system, and I might be expected to agree with statements with which I just don’t align.

You could say I’m simply one of those liberals who’s closer to Labour than the Tories and that there are plenty for whom the opposite is true. But I don’t think so. I think anyone who’s a liberal because of a belief in liberalism is by definition closer to Labour. In fact, I’d say they share the same motivation – they just come at things from different angles.

And yet, when I attended a meeting on centre-left cooperation at the Labour Party conference fringe in September 2019, I felt like a pariah. Countless speakers referred to Lib Dems using the deliberately pejorative term ‘Yellow Tories’, frequently with great venom. When Caroline Lucas namechecked me for my work promoting cooperation among Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens (she, Lisa Nandy and I co-edited a book on the subject), I feared I’d get lynched.

I didn’t, of course. Labour people are far too decent to lynch even someone they view as a Yellow Tory, but that gulf in vision needs to be tackled – because Labour won’t topple the Tories at the next general election without some help from the Lib Dems, and it would assist the cause of achieving a compassionate government if Labour people can understand the liberal mindset.

Liberalism began several hundred years ago as a protest against constraints on individual freedom. At first it was freedom to worship, then it developed into freedom to live one’s life and run one’s business free from unreasonable intervention from figures of authority, be they religious, royal, presidential or parliamentary.

For those offshoots of early liberalism the neoliberals and libertarians, that’s where liberalism remains, but British liberalism underwent a significant mutation in the mid-19th century. The burgeoning industrial revolution made the true liberal fear the power of big business and unfettered capitalism as much as the power of the state. Thanks to John Stuart Mill and other writers, liberalism took on a new hue, one that gave it its centrist position – the individual must come first, and anything that threatens the freedom of the individual, whether from the state or big business, is malign.

Obviously freedom is conditional on it not impinging on the freedom of others, so you’re not free to abuse people. Take that to its logical conclusion and it means entrepreneurs should not be allowed to become stinking rich by underpaying their employees or failing to give them reasonable shares of profits.

This is where liberals, social democrats and socialists belong together, in opposition to conservatives. Some start from the collective while others start from the individual, so they’re different creeds, but in policy terms they frequently end up in the same place.

Liberals’ fixation on the welfare of the individual doesn’t mean society is unimportant. A compassionate society is crucial, but liberalism sees the justification of any society as being that it allows all individuals to flourish. Any society that constrains individuals – other than for legitimate reasons like maintaining order and levying taxes for the common good – is failing in its purpose.

The big Lib/Lab policy battlegrounds have therefore been on limits-to-authority issues like civil liberties and human rights, core liberal principles – for example when the Lib Dems were outraged at the Labour government’s proposal to detain terror suspects for 90 days without charge. Labour’s tendency towards authoritarianism frightens liberals, but the areas of fundamental disagreement between liberals and British Labour governments have been relatively few in number, and on issues like welfare, education, internationalism, the environment and (the principles of) democracy there’s broad agreement.

The Lib Dems’ problem is that we have not gone big enough on what we stand for – this is our guilty secret. We have taken comfort in the centrist position of ‘more head than Labour, more heart than the Conservatives’ that has allowed us to sweep up disillusioned Labour and Tory voters. But it has meant we haven’t promoted what we believe in, and our pragmatic decision to form the 2010–15 coalition defines us in many people’s eyes as closer to the Tories than Labour, a view that pays no heed to policies and values. (And yes, we got some things right in coalition and some things wrong – the NHS reforms more than tuition fees – but that’s for another day.)

Labour’s guilty secret is its tolerance of first past the post (FPTP). It knows FPTP is an affront to the equalities agenda, but it has turned a blind eye for reasons of self-interest – only under FPTP could Labour ever win a majority. But FPTP is not just wrong, it is now working against Labour’s interests, both in parliamentary representation and in what Labour wants to achieve. Workers’ rights, funding for social services and countless other state-based provisions would never be threatened under a proportional voting system the way they are under the corrupt FPTP.

If a non-Conservative government is to result from the next election, it will be Labour-led but with the support (in some form) of other parties. For that to happen, Labour needs the help of the Lib Dems and/or the SNP. The cost of working with the Lib Dems will be proportional representation, but that’s not a pact with the Devil. It’s something Labour should be embracing for its own reasons, and if Labour can work with the Lib Dems to see off the Tories in seats which it realistically can’t win, it could ensure the Tories never rule with an overall majority again.

I therefore urge Labour to look at the philosophy behind the Lib Dems. Yes, it’s different to the philosophy that drove the rise of Labour, but the policies end up looking remarkably similar. It’s not just that we aren’t ‘Yellow Tories’ – in the words of one late Labour MP, we have far more in common than that which divide us.

Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats. In 2016 he published The Alternative, a collection of essays on progressive cross-party cooperation, co-edited with Caroline Lucas and Lisa Nandy. He is a member of the new Compass Liberal Democrat Network.

14 thoughts on “I Want You to Understand My Party: I am not a Yellow Tory!

  1. I suppose the big problem a lot of Labour people have with Lib Dems is your willingness to work with the Tories, if which the 2010 coalition was only the latest example. Lib Dems work with the Tories in local councils in a way that Labour doesn’t. Pragmatism is often cited for this, but it’s a pragmatism alien to Labour supporters. This ties in to Labour’s support of FPTP – it’s difficult enough to accept the idea of a Lib-Lab coalition, but the idea of enabling a series of Con-Dem coalitions… I’ve heard that you’ve dropped your policy of equivocation and have declared that you wouldn’t enter another coalition with the Tories, which is good, but trust needs to be rebuilt. After all, during the last election campaign the LibDems attacked Labour far more often and far more harshly than they attacked the Tories. Where were these shared values then?

  2. Very good start to this debate from Chris. I look forward to future contributions on “I Want You to Understand My Party” especially from an SNP contributor. Many English people don’t really understand the SNP and the wider independence movement i Scotland and all progressives must move on from outdated knee-jerk Unionism.

  3. I started supporting the Liberals as a schoolboy in 1964, because I was impressed by their policy of industrial democracy. The sort of thing that was introduced in Germany after the war. Compare our industry with their’s now.

    The great majority of the current Lib Dem targets are Tory facing. If the Lib Dems do well then the Tory majority is removed or reduced. Given that the Tories will change the boundaries soon to give themselves an extra 20 seats the Labour Party needs the Lib Dem’s to do well.

    I now live in a Tory-Labour marginal. I have voted Labour for the whole of the 21stC. I remain a member of the Lib Dem’s and I am very active in Social Media. However I am very disturbed by the Yellow Tory label used by the Corbynista wing of the Labour Party. Would you like me to continue voting Labour?

  4. Seems a commonsense approach. Am a Labour supporter but feel that, until Labour sort out their internal differences, the possibilities for cross party alliances are a long way ahead. Perhaps Labour should be more proactive and hold a ballot among ALL members to establish what percentage support a cross party approach and, just as importantly, a major revision of our present electoral system.

  5. Lib Dems are also a bit of a broad church though? Some are more focused on economic liberalism than social liberalism, and those ones are closer to the Tories in instinct and substance. If we get PR, I’d assume there’d be a lot of party hopping and the party boundaries would start to make more sense.

  6. I’m a Labour member and agree that First Past the Post needs to go. Virtually every Labour member I know agrees with me. The trick is persuading the Labour leadership! To the previous poster – Labour doesn’t ballot it’s members on policy. Policy is formed officially by the National Policy Forum (an elected body) and Conference. My experience tells me it’s also formed on an adhoc basis by committees led by shadow cabinet members. While we, as members, can take motions to Conference to pressure for it to be adopted as party policy in the next manifesto, the truth is, until the Labour leadership supports it, it’s not going to happen. So the question is, how to persuade them?

  7. Tactically, Labour are no longer able to win a General Election on their own and require alliances with other parties. Blair managed a majority in England, but I don’t believe anyone else ever did since 1945 and without Scotland sending Labour around 40 MP’s, forget it. Now, Labour’s vote is increasingly piling up high and uselessly in metropolitan areas it already wins. As if that was not enough, Labour also just lost much of northern England, midlands and N.Wales in 2019.

    The Guardian has been very negative towards the LibDems since the coalition started, but even it and Toynbee recognise that the LibDems and other smaller parties are now the route for Labour to lead a government.

    The LibDems might presently be on 6-9%, but the potential is in the 20’s again, as they were in polls late in 2019. It is not either /or against the Labour vote, as when Blair won his 1st landslide in ’97, Ashdown also increased MP’s. It was then Labour that ratted on their own manifesto and the agreement with Ashdown on enacting AV+ PR voting and here we are. The Tories will have been in power for 15 years and are the favourites to win again in 2024.

    There is now an urgency to get to power and change the electoral system, because if it is not done before Scotland likely leaves the UK, we might be looking at non-Tory governments coming once every 1-2 generations or never. Let’s remember that the Tories are attempting to fundamentally alter every aspect of the rules and environment to tip power towards themselves and fairness is not on the agenda. The boundary changes planned will add roughly another 10 seats to the Tory’s already unfair advantage.

    Under FPTP, any measures that Labour might one day enact; such as nationalisation or building more council homes; would then offer the Tories a huge honey pot to offer to sell off and finance tax cuts on the back of this. Therefore without a new general continuity supported by PR voting, progressive change in the UK is only ever going to be fleeting and most change will be set by Tories. Yet in modern times, combined total centre and left votes are always in a majority. The exception was in 2015 with a big UKIP vote and the collapse of LibDem support; so a new progressive normal is possible.

    There are a large number of basically centrist voters identified by Yougov as the largest group compared to left or right, which have to go either right or left and in most seats, the LibDem is not a realistic winning option, although in 93 seats they are in 2nd place. In addition, the combined right voters are greater than the combined left, so to win the Left have to win more centrist voters than the right to win the election. Can there be any surprise that Blair’s centrist offer won the largest since the post war election?

    After Johnson’s catastrophic management of the pandemic with around world record deaths, as well as a disastrous hard brexit, today the Tories are about 6% ahead of Labour mid term, so how on earth are they going to be thrown out of power without using every possible lever afforded by a Progressive Alliance?

    As a LibDem since the early Alliance, I have sometimes voted Labour or Green and I lean centre left. But 3 of the worst policies I can recall came from Labour, unfortunately. The £30bn iD Database, 90 days detention without charge ( 3 days in USA) and the Iraq War which somewhat dwarf any mistakes made by the coalition and there were also some as well as achievements. So lets get that in perspective.

    The Tory view of the LibDems in coalition was that of a small left wing party. Conversely, I would not be surprised that some people in Labour call LibDems right wing, since they aim this at half or more of their own party. It is disingenuous and unhelpful.

    LibDem achievements in power:
    “Green Bank” to finance community & renewable energy projects, now sold off
    The “Green Deal”, easy financing of home insulation that almost pays for itself, but underfunded & cancelled
    Tripling renewables
    Onshore wind power costs reduced below coal
    South Wales Bay tidal energy scheme (later cancelled), which once built would have provided almost free power for a large area for 100 years
    State Pensions increased by around 50% by scrapping means tested benefits
    Also, Pupil Premium, Equal Marriage, freedom to re-invest pension pots, equalities in the workplace & free school meals.
    Cable enacted the UK’s first active Industrial Strategy, starting the British Business Bank to get investment into large firms, after the banks had retreated into Property and consumer finance. They also started channeling national & local government finance into crowd funding schemes such as Funding Circle to support SME’s
    Cable also separated the banking and speculative arms of the banks to improve financial stability
    He also challenged a planned move by Vauxhall Ellesmere to Germany by putting in a case to challenge the firms business case. He won & the move was reversed but it’s under threat again.
    Even on the infamous student finance, it was Labour who introduced loans with a repayment threshold of £15k, while the LibDems increased that to over £22k and now 45% will be written off. It’s not ideal but nor were public finances.

    So the only serious question is whether a progressive alliance should be on the quiet as up to ’97 or in the open?

  8. Labour got a majority of seats in England in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005.

    In other words, most times that they got a UK majority.

  9. It is not just Labour that has a hostililty to another party of the progressive left, LibDem’s are also guilty of this at grassroots level. Maybe the same applies to the greens. Tribalism is baked into our political system because FPTP encourages factionalism and adversarial politics, which to his credit Sir Keir Starmer does not go in for this yaboo sucks level of debate. All parties at grassoots level will have to learn a new mindset of co-operation urgently if we are to bounce the Tories out of power at the next election.

    One thing we could all do is to help Labour on its journey to electoral reform for a proportional voting system. Other parties should remember that Labour is still trying to embrace reform, and rather than keep obsessing our own politcal party’s preferred voting system, we should in fact be holding their hand. The conversation about voting systems will come later, now’s not the time. If the progressive left are to win the arguement on PR it will have to demonstrate to the electorate that it is willing and capable of working together as an alliance. It really needs to start now.

    Let’s not forget the age old mantra which the Tories abide by at the oppositions’ expense which is “United we stand, divided we fall”.

  10. Labour has a view of “The Labour Movement” and “the working class” every bit as deluded and nostalgic as the Conservative view of “British Greatness”. This is reflected in the inability of some, not all, in Labour to approach other broadly liberal parties and voters open mindedly.

    Until this changes and Labour cooperate to remove FPTP and encourage the growth of voting for a more diverse set of parties not only will Labour remain out of power- but they condemn the country to Conservative rule. And, importantly, drive into voting Conservative people who are more liberal than Labour die-hards imagine.

    It is actually in the interests of Labour’s wider agenda to reach a point where Lib Dems and Greens (and independents come to that) poll a greater and decent proportion of votes and get a commensurate proportion of seats. Because that would advance many things Labour wishes to achieve whilst inhibiting what even some Labour supporters would agree are the “extreme wing” – the Labour equivalent of the ERG.

    It is, to be blunt, hypocritical of Labour to espouse “fairness” and “inclusiveness” whilst supporting an electoral system that is neither. This is not an “attack” it is a legitimate criticism.

    It will take courage from the leadership to do this. But if they believe what they say about making the country a better, more inclusive place FPTP has to go. Commit to it now in time to make it happen in 2024.

  11. In response to Stephen Flaherty’s comment about the LDs willingness to work with the Tories at council level, I have to inform him that Labour do not have clean hands when it comes to “jumping into bed with the Tories” at council level. Labour have been guilty of “sleeping with the enemy” on occasions, Stockport council being the most recent occasion. Red Tories Labour can be at times 😁

  12. It is true that some Liberal Democrats see themselves as slightly right of centre. But that often expresses itself more than anything as a reaction against what they perceive as Labour authoritarianism.

    If Labour were to do some work on shedding its authoritarian image (for instance continuing to improve internal party democracy), then I believe many LDs would begin to change their tune regarding Labour.

  13. Labour cannot win a general election in the foreseeable future.

    This has probably been true ever since 2015 when they lost around 45 seats in Scotland, which they have never regained. Never mind about the ‘red wall’: if Labour won back every seat there, they would still have the near-impossible task of winning another 70 seats elsewhere. And even this would give them a majority of just 7.

    Labour (and the LibDems) must realise that, under the First Past The Post electoral system, the Tories will now always win and can remain in power indefinitely. Their only hope is to work together to win a majority and a Labour-led government, whose first Act would be to bring in Proportional Representation.

    In many of the 78 Conservative seats where the Lib-Dems are in 2nd place, Labour votes have no chance of winning, but prevent the Lib- Dems from doing so. Similarly, the Lib-Dem vote can prevent Labour winning in a close fight between the two large parties.

    This mutual destruction is a godsend to the Conservatives. Yet co-operation, in just one election, could introduce a modern electoral system, where Greens and Independents could also find a place, and make Britain a true democracy at last.

    This is no time for tribal politics. This is an existential battle for the future of our country.

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