Friday 13th : Unlucky for Whom?
Can the history of centrist politics in the UK tell us anything about the nature of government after the December 12th election?
In the second half of the 1970s the Liberal Party brought stability to UK governance following a period in which there had been two elections within a single year. The “Lib-Lab Pact” was a confidence and supply agreement that enabled James Callaghan’s Labour government to continue for almost 5 years, from late 1974 until May 1979 and Margaret Thatcher’s landslide for the Conservatives.
The Liberals were blamed from both sides. Ardent left wingers asserting they had thwarted the implementation of full blooded Socialist policies whilst those on the right blamed them for the damage they believed the Labour government had wreaked.
The Left now took control of the Labour Party. By early 1981 the members of the moderate wing of the Party were so disillusioned they left and formed a new Centre Left party — the SDP. The two centre parties then formed an electoral pact — “The Alliance” — in which neither stood against the other in subsequent elections.
Differences between the policy stances of the two parties, and more especially between the leaders, David Steel and David Owen, limited support from the electorate, particularly in the 1987 general election. They did, however, garner sufficient support from former Labour voters to ensure the Conservatives won both the 1983 and 1987 elections comfortably.
Within both centre parties there was now a groundswell of opinion in favour of a merger and this took place in 1989 to create the Liberal Democrats, originally named the “Social and Liberal Democrats”. This new party took a long time to become established in the minds of voters. Labour, however, remained unable to garner sufficient support to oust the Conservatives who remained in power for a further decade.
Under the leadership of Tony Blair in the 1990s, the Labour Party ditched most of the controversial policies that had fuelled the departure of the founders of the SDP: a commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposition to the deepening of the political ambitions of the EU and “Clause Four”, the part of the Party’s constitution that committed it to the state ownership of “the means of production and distribution”.
This made the party, now designated “New Labour”, electable and it went on to win the general election of 1997 with a substantial majority. It now seemed to some that this new centrist stance made the Labour Party so like the Liberal Democrats that some form of alliance between the two might be desirable.
That was certainly the case for the leadership. The late Lord Ashdown records, in his published diaries of the period immediately following the 1997 election, numerous conversations, formal and informal, between himself and Tony Blair during which the possibility was discussed at length.
In an entry dated Monday 26th. January 1998, for example, he records having told Blair that: “I think we have been presented with the best opportunity ever for a ‘grand rassemblement’ of progressive and liberal forces which could form the dominant governing power in this country.” Asked if he remained committed to the idea, Blair replies: “It is . . . the biggest thing I have to do. We are in the business of changing a culture in Britain . . . [that is]wider than just the Labour Party.”¹
The two leaders and a few close associates worked together to develop policies for the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, Proportional Representation and reform of the House of Lords. Following devolution the first elections to the Scottish Assembly, conducted using PR, produced a situation in which a coalition government was possible in Scotland. Negotiations ran into difficulties on the issue of university tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats had promised to abolish them, Labour, at Westminster, believed it was unaffordable. Ashdown insisted, in conversations with both Blair and Gordon Brown, that Westminster should keep its nose out of the newly devolved Scottish government.
Following Ashdown’s resignation, friendly relations continued until 2003 and the invasion of Iraq based on the “dodgy dossier” claiming the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
And so we come to 2010 and the election of 57 Liberal Democrat members in a hung Parliament. Labour had lost the election, losing 97 seats as the Tories gained 96. They were, in any case, reluctant to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, whereas the Tories were. And once again it was tuition fees that presented a problem which would destroy Liberal Democrat credibility for almost a decade. They had promised to abolish them, the Tories wanted to increase them.
A compromise was agreed wherein students would be given loans to pay the hugely increased fees with repayment terms that mean, in effect, that the majority will never be called upon to repay those loans.
So far as the electorate are concerned, especially former Labour voters who had chosen to vote Liberal Democrat, the Liberal Democrats had broken a solemn promise. And, although they introduced measures that mitigated the worst effects of the austerity policies that followed the banking crisis, the mere fact of their being part of a government pursuing such policies was toxic.
Meanwhile “New Labour” has gone, replaced by a Left leaning leadership and full-blooded Socialist policies. Tony Blair is now reviled by all sides as a compromiser in the pocket of a Republican President of the USA.
What can all this tell us, if anything, about the relationship between the Liberal Democrats and the other two old parties following the December 12th election? Given their support for continuing membership of the EU, which is embodied in their DNA, it is inconceivable that they would support the Tories who are fully committed to Brexit.
Is Labour’s promise to hold a new referendum, offering a choice between a “soft” Brexit and remaining in the EU, a sufficient compromise to secure Liberal Democrat support? Probably not, unless Labour also drops most of its commitments to taking large parts of the economy into state ownership.
Are there other options? That depends on how many moderate, “Remain” supporting, candidates from other parties are elected to the new parliament. The days following Friday 13th December in the UK will be very interesting.
¹The Ashdown Diaries Vol.II 1997–1999, Allen Lane, 2001