Compass’ public meeting on the Progressive Alliance at the 2019 Labour Party Conference in Brighton was dogged by an almost visceral refusal on the part of many of those present to consider the Lib Dems as political partners, mainly because of their record as a coalition partners with the Tories after 2010. How reasonable is that stance and is it for ever?
Do you remember when 29 Labour MPs were elected when the Liberals stood aside in 30 seats so as not to split the anti-Tory vote? Probably not: that was 1906. In 1924 the Liberals enabled Labour to form a government although the Conservatives were the biggest single party but without an overall majority, while in 1929 the Liberals once again supported Labour which by now had emerged as the largest party. More recently in Wales and Scotland, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have formed governing coalitions. As they have done locally in places such as Cumbria, Bournemouth and – together with the Green Party – in Lancaster and Stroud.
A very different picture in the recent general election when the two parties refused to discuss an electoral alliance, and Labour lost 1.3 million votes to the Liberal Democrats and smaller Remain-backing parties, and lost many seats in the so-called Red Wall when the two parties fought it out with the Tories. Of course, the problems faced by the Progressive Alliance that Compass backed so hard were multiple – especially the impact of the first-past-the-post system – but the key issue has been the refusal of the two largest UK-wide centre-left parties to discuss an electoral alliance. Of the 240 constituencies that voted Remain in 2016, Labour gained only 40% in 2019. By contrast, of the 410 leave constituencies, the Conservatives gained 75%.
The Labour Party emerged as a party in its own right before the First World War as part of an inter-class alliance against the Tories led by the Liberals. This stance served both parties well, and the Liberals were able to govern with working class support until 1924 when they lost ground fatally to the Conservatives and Labour, beginning their long decline to minority status. Stripped of their historic links with the manufacturing backbone of the British bourgeoisie, the Liberals opted for a position they described as neither Left nor Right, but which seemed to many Labour supporters as simply opportunist. To confirm the charge, in 1983 they fought a general election as the SDP-Liberal Alliance, bolstered by Labour’s most serious defection since the 1930, splitting the anti-Tory vote – which polled 53% to the Tories’ 42.4% – and giving Margaret Thatcher a landslide majority. Worse still, in 2010, the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives, underpinning a brutal programme of welfare cuts.
So, what chance is there of Labour reconsidering its hostility to forming an electoral alliance with the Liberal Democrats? And vice versa? The experience of the recent general election and the prospects for 2024 and beyond coupled with a leadership change may prompt a change of mind, but that is unlikely as things stand. Rank and file Labour members are in many cases no less hostile than the party leadership to deals with the Liberal Democrats. ‘They’re opportunists, willing to work with either of the major parties if it serves their interest, because they have no class identity or loyalty’: this is the common complaint.
While it is certainly true that some recent stances – on the bedroom tax or the NHS – for example, have brought the Liberal Democrats closer to the Tories, it is important not to lose sight of the historic foundations of their politics. The welfare state was the shared creation of the Liberals and the Labour Party, pioneered by Lloyd George’s 1908 Pension Act and developed by another Liberal, Beveridge, in his 1942 report on social insurance. The Liberals have been partners of Labour in anti-discrimination legislation, on abortion law reform, on voting reform, and share Labour’s internationalist outlook (voting against Blair’s Iraq adventure). Parts of the Labour and Lib Dem 2019 manifestos were interchangeable, for example on free schools meals, free nursery care and on house building. This historical convergence provides the political common ground that is the basis of a Progressive Alliance.
But precisely because of their mobile, centrist, neither left or right stance, the Liberal Democrats need a steadying influence. Labour should identify with the Liberal Democrats a framework of values and a set of policy priorities as the basis of a process of joint manifesto planning that should begin now. This should apply as well to Labour’s other potential electoral partners: the Welsh and Scottish nationalists and the Greens. One way of doing that would be through the open source decision making that Podemos in Spain has used to draw up its manifestos. Or through a form of citizens’ assembly involving supporters of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Green Party and the Welsh and Scottish nationalists and maybe the Northern Ireland progressive parties.
Labour supporters can justifiably criticise the Liberal Democrats’ error in forming a coalition with David Cameron. But they should also consider how best to avoid the vote splitting that handed the Tories victory in 2019. And bear in mind the warning from history: the rivalry between the Communists and the Socialists that opened Hitler’s path to power in 1933. I propose a serious job of joint manifesto planning that will make it easier for the two parties to create a Progressive Alliance for 2024. That will take a lot of give and take and trust on both sides.
 I say ‘so called’ but there is no time here to disentangle fact from fiction. Lewis Baston argues that around 20 of the 52 Red Wall demolitions were in reality marginals that have been Tory in living memory and swung with the winning party (https://thecritic.co.uk/the-myth-of-the-red-wall/). These would return to Labour on a 5% or smaller swing.