Lib-Labbery, remarks at Labour History Event on the Blair/Ashdown Co-operation
- 05:33 pm, Wed 23rd Jan 2013
On 22 January I spoke at a meeting jointly organised by the Labour History Group and the Lib Dem History group on the Blair Ashdown co-operation between 1995 and 1999.
Below are the points I set out at the beginning on my reflections on this experience. During the period I was working in Tony Blair’s policy unit, first in Opposition, then in No 10.
1) Why did this happen? This was not just convenient tactics but borne out of a historical analysis. TB believed that a principal reason for so much Conservative dominance of Government in the 20th century was a split in the progressive vote, first between Labour and the Liberal Party and later between Labour and the Lib Dems. TB sought to heal the breach on the centre left that had taken place through the formation of the SDP and go further by deliberately creating big tent politics involving a broad progressive alliance against the Conservative Party. Also reaching out to one nation Tories and several Tory MPs crossed the floor around this time (Alan Howarth in 1995, Peter Temple Morris 1998). His stance was two against one, the one being the Conservative Party.
2) Leadership matters. This is a different point from saying personalities matter or that personal chemistry is important. The latter is true in life and in politics but TB and Paddy had more than personal chemistry. They were both trying something potentially transformational that had big implications for their parties. The phrase “new politics” has become a bit of a cliché but this really was something new. This was not something that would have been attempted by safety first or conventional political leaders.
3) Arithmetic matters. Labour was elected in 1997 with a landslide majority of 179. It was a stunning reverse after 18 years out of power, beyond our wildest expectations. Parties with this kind of majority don’t tend to enter unnecessary coalitions. Such success also reinforces the idea, always strong within the LP, that we have all the answers and made looking outside for insight less important. That would not have been TB’s view but it was prevalent in the LP. My view is that this result meant nothing would happen beyond cross party –co-operation on some issues but the process between Paddy and TB carried on even after this result. TB was conscious this huge majority could disappear. In 2010 the arithmetic obviously mattered too and made a Coalition between the Conservatives and LD politically more stable than the kind of traffic light coalition that was briefly explored. There was of course internal Opposition in the LP and in the Cabinet to doing any kind of deal with the LD. Some people were very opposed to what TB was doing. Others didn’t understand why given the majority.
4) There was a problem with co-operation grounded too narrowly on constitutional reform. In the run up to the 1997 election there was a process of Lib Lab co-operation jointly chaired by Robin Cook and Bob McLennan but it concentrated exclusively on constitutional reform. I was the joint secretary with Chris Rennard. This concentration on constitutional reform became a source of frustration to TB. From inside No 10 after the election it looked like the LD wanted to be part of the Govt or at least support the Govt on constitutional reform but remain in opposition on everything else. LD remained oppositionalist on public service reform and the classic case was tuition fees where with some electoral success they campaigned furiously against the policy in seats with lots of students only to have to do a u-turn in Government. From the LD pt of view they wanted to preserve their freedom of manoeuvre. From TB’s it looked like they were not serious.
5) Related to this, LD drove too hard a bargain on the Jenkins Commission. Out of power for 18 years and Lab had big agenda of const reform like devolution, incorporating ECHR, FoI, Lords reform. Robin Cook important in this too because he was a senior Labour figure who supported PR so it wasn’t all coming from the LD but when it came to the ToR for Jenkins there was a tortuous negotiation about whether it had to come up with something proportional or just electoral reform (eg perhaps AV). LD got what they wanted (“broad proportionality”) but it meant Jenkins proposed a system which would have little chance of getting support in the LP. Instructive that 13 years later, from a position of much greater strength, the LD demanded much less of the Conservatives. The important point is that for the LD the price for co-operation was overwhelmingly constitutional, and PR in particular. Does the experience of the AV referendum means that in the event of the arithmetic dictating talks between Labour and LD in the future, the price would be on different grounds? Would it be more social and economic and less constitutional, given that AV and Lords reform and boundary changes are the issues which have caused the greatest internal difficulties for the Coalition?
6) So what does any of this tell us about the future? There is a danger in hypothetical discussions about future hung Parliaments, not for tribal reasons but because it can elevate the tactical above the essential hard work of sorting out policy and winning support. Cross Party considerations are not a substitute for any party asking itself the hard questions that it must in order to be elected. Incumbent on all of us to remember that the exam question is how to have a credible answer on how to get growth and rising living standards in very tough economic times.