Thursday, 30 September 2010


I was obviously pleased, but also relieved, to hear Ed Miliband say he personally would be voting ‘Yes’ in the fairer votes referendum in May.

You could say he could ill have afforded not to, after the way he was elected. If you’d been rescued off a mountain top by a helicopter, it wouldn’t look good if you then railed against helicopters in your first statement after being rescued, would it! Or if you railed against your country’s diplomats after they’d got you out of jail in a tin-pot dictatorship.

Ed Miliband came second in most rounds of the Labour leadership election, but when all the second preferences were counted, he won, because he had the greater all-round support of the three constituencies that make up the Labour party: members, MPs and trade unions.

What would now be appropriate is for the new Labour leader to go beyond what he would do ‘personally’ and recommend a ‘Yes’ vote to his party. He has clearly made certain noises that distance himself from the New Labour years – including recognising what we have said all along about the Iraq war – but how modern is he really?

Is he willing to take the plunge and say a modern Labour prime minister either has to be elected by an absolute majority of the voters, or has to govern in coalition with another party? Because that’s what a truly modern party leader must surely now recognise.

This is why it doesn’t worry me whether Miliband takes Labour to the left or not (whatever ‘left’ means in this politically post-modern era). In fact I’d be quite happy if he did, and not for any reasons to do with electoral arithmetic.

To me – and I’m speaking more as a democrat than a Liberal Democrat here – a modern electoral system needs to have three main parties: a party fundamentally representing the haves, a party fighting for the have-nots, and a free-thinking party not beholden to any group of people which can bring ideas to the political table that the other two parties can’t. If there are a number of fringe parties contributing ideas (like the Greens and Ukip), fair enough, but the basic system revolves around those three entities.

It means the political system would always be open to Lab-Lib, Con-Lib and even Lab-Con coalitions (the latter a fairly unlikely scenario but the ultimate guard against the Lib Dems becoming too arrogant). It’s worked that way in numerous other developed nations, including some with economies much more successful than ours has been.

Will Ed Miliband be up to this modern role? His initial party conference speech suggests he might. His non-Labour political idols were all Liberals, and while he attacked the Lib Dems in the campaign, he declined to go for the cheap cheer of attacking us in his leader’s speech. It will be interesting to see how Labour develops under him.

On that subject, an afterthought. As the elder of two siblings, my heart genuinely feels for David Miliband, and I think he’s done the right thing by taking a break from front-line politics. But I don’t think he should go too far.

While I believe Labour has got the leader it really wanted (thanks to a voting system that allows for second preferences), I can’t help wondering whether, in 18 months, Ed will have run out of steam and become his party’s Iain Duncan Smith – a fundamentally decent and well motivated guy who just doesn’t connect with voters. It’s just a hunch, and I may be wrong, but we may not have seen the last of the elder Miliband in the Labour leadership.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


Labour supporters have a lot to think about at the moment, what with electing a new leader and trying to work out what their party stands for. Well, I’d like to give them something else to think about – what type of Labour supporter are they really?

To me there are two types of Labour supporters in the current British political landscape.

One is the ‘win at all costs’ person who wants to see Labour re-elected with a massive majority and doesn’t really care who gets trampled underfoot in the process. The other is a truly progressive person who is in it because they care about those members of society and the wider world who can least look after themselves.

Of course, those in the first category will lay claim to the motivation of the second category, but the distinction is important because it indicates how they view the Liberal Democrats and our role in the coalition government.

To the ‘win at all costs’ Labour supporter, our presence in government is a massive irritant. Without us, a pure Tory government would be much worse than the current government is, so the chances of its being so unpopular in 2015 that Labour gets back with a thumping majority are great.

To the genuinely progressive Labour supporter, having the Lib Dems in government is a good thing, because it means that Labour’s years in opposition – at least the first five of them – are spent without the extremes of Thatcherism that happened in the 1980s, which did so much to limit Labour’s room for manoeuvre when it finally got back in 1997.

A lot of people have made the point that the Lib Dems are much closer to Labour than the Conservatives, so a red-yellow coalition would have made more sense than the blue-yellow one we have now. Assuming we are indeed closer to Labour (and it is only an assumption, though probably largely correct), does it really mean a red-yellow coalition would be better?

Surely it is a lot more use to the progressive cause for the Lib Dems to act as a brake on a Conservative government than for us to coalesce with Labour? If we were in coalition with Labour, there would be a risk that we’d be seen as just another sub-section of the Labour party, a bit like the Fabians, or the Christian Socialists. I’m not saying we shouldn’t one day work with Labour, but there would be bigger issues of protecting our distinctive identity.

This is something that all people from the progressive wing of British politics should recognise. It’s why the truly progressive Labour supporter, who would rather we were in coalition with Labour than the Tories, needs to feel quietly grateful that there are Lib Dems in government. And why Labour-leaning Lib Dems should recognise that we are probably doing a more effective job pulling the Tories back from the right than if we were in coalition with ideologically more like-minded people.

For make no mistake, we are restraining the Conservatives from their natural instincts. There are plenty of Tories who loathe David Cameron because they see his deal with the Lib Dems as holding back pure Conservatism.

True, we’re having difficulty getting that message across, and in that respect it is an uncomfortable time to be a Lib Dem. But it doesn’t mean what we’re doing is wrong, or that we should allow our restraining influence to be belittled just because we’re the junior partners and therefore have to accept things we didn’t campaign for (many people forget that the Tories polled 37% while we polled 23%, so the Tory agenda will dominate).

No-one likes the cuts we’re seeing now, and it’s worrying to see certain aspects of them, especially those that hit poor people very hard. But the true progressives will recognise that having Lib Dems in government is of benefit to the country, and that doing the right thing is justified, even if there is an electoral price to pay. And it could be that doing the right thing means the electoral price won’t be as high as many fear at present.