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Is Now the Time for Labour and the Lib Dems to Work Together? 

Former Liberal Democrat senior parliamentary researcher Gareth Roberts sees lessons to be learned from how the two parties coalesced ahead of the 1997 General Election

Then party leaders John Major, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in 1995. Photo: Neil Munns/PA/Alamy

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A Conservative Government that seems to have been in power for an eternity and limps from one self-inflicted crisis to the next. An opposition Labour Party, desperately trying to control the narrative in the face of the constant assertion that it is untried and not nearly as popular as it thinks. And a Liberal Democrat Party, buoyed by a couple of spectacular by-election victories, but still spending its time fending-off the accusation that it isn’t really relevant.

Sound familiar? 

Well, this was the political landscape back in 1995, when I became senior parliamentary researcher to the Lib Dems. 

I was 24 and had been nine years old when the Conservatives came to power. My life had been dominated by Margaret Thatcher.

I was given a tiny windowless room in the whips office off Member’s Lobby, and an ancient looking computer and told to get on with it. I didn’t need anyone to elaborate on what ‘getting on with it’ meant because, in 1995, the aim of everyone active in politics who was not still wedded to the decaying carcass that was the Conservative Party, was to bring about a change of government. 

We saw it as a moral crusade to start the process of change, of re-establishing fairness and social justice, and reinvigorating democracy. 

At that time, the Lib Dems had 22 MPs – a number that would swell to 26 by the time Parliament was dissolved in March 1997. No one, save for the most myopic and partisan supporter, was under any illusions that the party would form the next government. But the Lib Dems realised that they had an important role to play – they had to hold their own seats, take seats from the Conservatives wherever they were able to and, if possible, put forward as many of the policies that were sacred to the party as they could onto the agenda. 

In Westminster at least, under the very steady leadership of Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dems did not see the Labour Party as an enemy or adversary – but as a potential partner. The parliamentary party recognised the prospect of a Tony Blair Government and regarded that as a positive alternative to the dying embers of John Major’s administration.

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After all, back in the 1990s, there was little to distinguish between Labour and the Lib Dems. Both believed in redistributive economic policy, with Labour promising a minimum wage and the Lib Dems a 1p increase on income tax to fund education; both believed in devolving powers to Scotland and Wales; both wanted to introduce the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law; both had come through the trauma of Maastricht and were wholly invested in the concept of the European Union.

Ashdown’s Lib Dems were modelled far more on European social democrats than the neo-liberal version into which it would morph under his successor, Nick Clegg. 

It didn’t take much for the Lib Dems and Tony Blair’s New Labour to edge closer together – in Parliament (and I can’t comment on whether this is still the case today),  Archy Kirkwood, the straightest of straight talking Scots and Lib Dem chief whip, would meet his equally frank and wonderfully engaging Labour counterpart, Donald Dewar for a dram and a chat about parliamentary business – the result of that chat would be an informal, but extremely effective, combining of forces to bring about as much trouble as possible for the Government.

This was parliamentary warfare at its most effective as questions and votes were coordinated to keep the pressure on a Government that was clearly tired and struggling to keep an increasingly fractious (though nowhere near as fractious as today’s version) Conservative parliamentary party in toe. 

Elsewhere, a constructive dialogue had opened up between Ashdown and Blair in which, among other things, the possibility of a coalition was discussed. Though this never ended in a formal arrangement, it was clear that Ashdown and Blair were in absolute agreement on most matters of principle and not far away on matters of policy. Ashdown’s belief was that, in the event of a hung parliament, he would swing the balance of power towards New Labour. 

Ultimately, of course, as we all know, Blair had no need to rely on the Lib Dems following his landslide victory in 1997 but the discussions had a distinct bearing on the way in which both parties approached the election. 

Neither party targeted the other’s seats (save perhaps for the unique seat of Southwark and Bermondsey) and were happy to sit back in the seats where the other was the clear and obvious opposition to the Conservative incumbent. Both leaders avoided attacking the other; while – and this may have been an unexpected consequence of the informal truce –the policy agenda pursued by both Labour and Lib Dems at the 1997 General Election was so closely aligned that that they bolstered each other in terms of resonance and credibility. 

The end result was that the Conservatives were trounced in 1997, with Labour forming the Government and the Lib Dems significantly increasing their MPs (with it doubling the size of the parliamentary party).

Of course, since 1997, much has changed – not least of all the complexion of the Liberal Democrats. But, just as in 1997, we find ourselves in a situation where a tired and dysfunctional Conservative Party is in Government. 

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This time around, unlike in the mid-1990s, there does not appear to be any dialogue or understanding of mutual interest between Labour and the Lib Dems.

Indeed, Labour’s stunning victory in the Mid-Bedfordshire by-election demonstrated not just how unpopular this Government is, but the level of distrust that exists between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

In a seat where Labour finished second in 2019, the Lib Dems fought a campaign in which they presented themselves as the only alternative to the Conservatives. That they misjudged the electorate and the appeal of Keir Starmer’s party is something that I’m sure those who hold the positions I once held will seek to address.

But the Labour Party should not conclude from this result that the next election is in the bag. The Conservative spokesmen who bravely faced the media and claimed that there was no love for Starmer or Labour, and that their voters simply stayed at home, may have a point when one considers that in Mid-Beds, and indeed Tamworth (which held a by-election on the same day), the actual Labour vote did not significantly increase.   

No doubt Labour strategists will also be considering this – and one of the conclusions that both the Labour and Lib Dem apparatchiks might reach is that, in the next 12 months, both parties might be better building a more harmonious relationship than engaging in internecine warfare. After all, if they consider things objectively they will conclude that, in terms of policy and in particular democratic renewal and social justice, they are not actually that far apart.

While psephologically, if they are to succeed in their ambitions at the next election – which for Labour must be to form the next government and for the Lib-Dems to end up as a relevant voice for centrist politics – then perhaps now is the moment when the 21st Century equivalents of Archy Kirkwood and Donald Dewar have a wee dram and consider, in the most convivial way possible, how they can most effectively bring about an end to this government by acting together. 

Gareth Roberts is a criminal barrister

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