Excited modernisers and terrified traditionalists in the Conservative party have been arguing over the question of whether Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should fight the next election together. Supporters of this theory were given further inspiration with the Oldham and Saddlesworth by-election when Conservative voters lent support to the Liberal Democrats and the Prime Minister even wished the Lib Dem candidate good luck. The idea seems to be dead in the water because the Liberal Democrat executive passed legislation making clear the party would stand independently of either the Conservatives or Labour. The thought of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats working together in a future election is indeed nightmarish. The present coalition is best seen as being borne out of the necessities of a peculiar election result. It is not a natural alliance. It is not a good alliance. There is an alliance that makes sense, however, and that is between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
For all Cameron’s talk of cosy poor people-loving Conservatism, this coalition, has proved that even with a Lib Dem muzzle (however, at times, incompetent) the Tory Party is still anathema to centre-left voters. It is said that Nick Clegg is providing helpful shelter for the Prime Minister and his unpopular policies, but remember why the torpedoes are battering against the Deputy Prime Minister. Well-liked Liberal Democrat election promises have not been fulfilled for two reasons: misjudgement over needing to cut the national deficit under one parliament and because Conservatives aren’t amenable to Lib Dem policies. Capital gains tax was never going to be raised as high as the Lib Dems want because Tory voters own the several houses the tax would hit. Is Dr Liam Fox ending the Trident nuclear missile system even logically possible? And can you truly imagine Osborne and Cameron standing outside their mansions announcing the introduction of a mansion tax?
Quite clearly Liberal Democrat policy does not chime with Conservative policy. Whatever people say, the Lib Dems are a lot closer to the Labour party. Overarching themes, beloved of both parties, are enough to show the importance of an electoral pact if the parties are true to themselves at the next election. The division on the left has, for most of the last century, allowed Conservative governments to win huge power with a minority of the vote, and denied Great Britain the welfare state and economic system it needs. Redistribution, fairer taxes, investment in public services, an emphasis on education – these have all been hallmarks of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It was areas like Iraq and civil liberties that both parties fundamentally disagreed. Indeed without Iraq and our subservience to the White House I would argue that Tony Blair was one of the greatest Prime Ministers of all time. Similarly when it comes to economic policy Labour made great mistakes in continuing with an economy largely bereft of manufacturing and exports, but centred on a risky world of fantasy numbers and dodgy loans. Labour are gradually admitting these mistakes, and realise that kowtowing to the City is not only bad for the country but poison to Labour’s roots. Of course Labour need not be socialist but it does not have to stray so far from it’s foundations, it need not travel a course that makes them seem so similar to their enemies. At times Labour and Conservative were indistinguishable.
But there we are, at the nub of the issue again. For voters on the centre-left it was when Labour became Conservatives that things went wrong, and today, it is when Liberal Democrats are tied to the mast of a Conservative ship that their voters panic and leave behind old friends Nick and Vince, caught on the ship that floats towards a grim horizon.
The Conservative party is the enemy. This much is clear. A Labour party that is true to itself and a Liberal Democrat party that is true to itself are bonded by traditions and ambitions that overlap. Of course differences remain, because the parties are distinct, but do these differences overwhelm the similarities? Ed Miliband’s support for a living wage is in line with Nick Clegg’s low-income friendly tax reforms. Outrage at the closure of libraries and sure start centres are understandable. Labour will capitalise on the discontent created by public services cuts. The Lib Dems should be there too, but they can’t be, because they are stuck in a Conservative-led executive. The words ‘Conservative led government’ are remarkably dull for a political catchphrase, but they have a resonance and durability because it is simply true that this government is led by the Conservatives.
Ed Miliband has said that he will look at making their policy of deficit reduction one which is more balanced between cuts and tax rises. The coalition is making 80% cuts as opposed to 20% tax rises. This is utterly unfair. There are many taxes that could be brought in or raised without any damage done to the long term prospects of the economy, in fact many new taxes would provide long-term benefits. A Labour and Liberal Democrat electoral pact could look at these. New land taxes, inheritance taxes or property taxes target unearned wealth. Capital gains tax and taxes on junk food would hit things people do not need. The money gained from these taxes could then be used to recover the frontline losses in public services. Even if both parties don’t accept these taxes, their ideas are along similar lines to the ones sketched above. If they are so similar then both parties may as well stand on the same electoral platform.
In the book ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett the authors outline the strong connection between more equal societies and many societal goods such as lower infant mortality rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, less crime and better education standards. Equality is woven into the fabric or both parties. At the last election Nick Clegg spoke so convincingly and passionately about the terrible inequalities that exist in Britain and his proposed tax reforms (lowering tax for the poor, raising it for the rich) was one way to address this. The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats can work together for a more equal Britain.
The electoral reasons for this are clear from the Liberal Democrat point of view. Polls have put the party as low as 8%, and even if AV was to brought in, this result could only ever be described as an utter disaster. Even if the LD vote likely picks up, it could still end up at humiliatingly low levels. If Labour voters were to vote for a Liberal Democrat in Tory vs Lib Dem seats and Labour candidates in these areas were to step down, then the Lib Dem vote would be boosted around the country. Most Lib Dem seats are between them and the Tories so this would be hugely beneficial to the Lib Dem candidates who need to squeeze the Labour vote as much as they can. It is not a perfect cure because many Labour voters would refuse to vote Lib Dem for what they see as Lib Dem treachery. It is no cure, but it is better than facing what will happen if there is no pact.
The Labour party will need convincing of this. If they are ahead in the polls then they will see no short-term gains in propping up Lib Dems. It is their long-term interests that there is a united left that should be appealed too. A degree of stability would occur as a Labour-Lib Dem government could be expected to remain in power for a long period of time. That would be the time to reform Britain.
Much of what I have written will not happen, but what I have said about Labour and the Liberal Democrats following policies which are in line with their traditions and ideals must happen. Furthermore if the Coalition we have at the moment has taught us anything, it is of the dangers of the Tories in any form, and the importance of a strong possibly united left.