Britain goes to the polls on 8 June. Between now and then, each Tuesday, I’ll be reviewing books that give some non-current perspective on some of the wider issues from the campaign. Today there’s been some coverage of Tony Blair’s proposal for a Remain alliance, and three Tories have resigned from the Open Britain group after it encouraged campaigning against Conservative (Leave) candidates.
Attempts to put together a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ are not new. From the 1970s Lib-Lab pact, through the pre-1997 talks between Blair and Ashdown, they have promised much and delivered next to nothing. The most recent serious proposals came after the 2010 election when the Liberal Democrats had the choice of partnering with David Cameron’s Conservatives and Gordon Brown’s Labour. We all know how that ended up, but in case we’ve forgotten there are a number of first hand accounts. Five Days in May is regarded as one of the best of these.
Andrew Adonis’ book – part memoir, part analysis – lays out in detail the Labour view of the ultimately failed negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. Adonis is no tribalist and we can assume that he truly did want the talks to succeed. In addition, he avoids an ugly tendency in both Labour and Conservative circles to patronise the smaller party. On the other hand he, like David Owen and others before him, is very aware of the contradictions between liberalism and social democracy, the tensions between which, he believes, sunk the progressive alliance before the negotiators could really sink their teeth into solving the problems that divided them.
The book is full of detailed anecdote – you’re with the team as they climb aboard so-and-so’s ministerial Jag for the five minute walk between Downing Street and Portcullis House (in fairness, they did have to dodge journalists), but some of the detail is incredibly revealing. For example, Gordon Brown, the most tribal of politicians, tells Nick Clegg that he is not tribal and the evidence Brown offers is that he offered a pre-election pact. But that of course is in itself tribal – just a slightly redefined tribe!
What is particularly useful is the detailing of attempts (particularly by Brown) to sketch out what a ‘progressive alliance’ might actually aim to achieve. We’re offered ‘social justice, liberty and a fair economic plan’ (clearly this is too woolly to mean anything without being fleshed out) but despite tinkering with proposals for constitutional change (hotly debated, but in the end squashed by the Liberal Democrats’ eventual partners) there is no real argument about how power might be better distributed – a debate, by the way, that is still missing as the country fails to have a grown-up discussion about what Brexit could mean in this regard.
In theory, the two parties were starting from the premise of their relevant manifestoes – though a close reading of Adonis suggests that Nick Clegg and David Laws were happier with the Conservatives’ economic manifesto than with their own. Clegg and Laws’ framing of ‘Labour’s deficit’ and their embrace of austerity was something they sincerely believed, not a synthetic construct. Perhaps some more imaginative thinking on a fairer democracy might have helped overcome arguments on the deficit. But probably not.
Adonis concludes that the Liberal Democrat leadership were not especially interested in a deal with Labour, and that a significant faction in Labour were also opposed to the idea, putting party loyalties first following a bruising election campaign. He argues (he’s writing in 2013, around the time that Ed Miliband was using the phrase) for a ‘One Nation Labour’ that develops, in one single party, the kind of progressive alliance that might have come out of a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal. That in itself is a useful proposition as it makes the point that parties are in themselves coalitions. And perhaps given that non-Tory Brexiters are supposedly abandoning party lines and voting Conservative this year to secure their referendum victory, you would perhaps think that the Remain coalition would also be able to trump party loyalties, but so far the Remain sites on Facebook continue to be littered with accusations of bad faith between Labour and Lib Dem supporters, dislike of each other dominating dislike of the Tories and of Brexit. That’s understandable: Brexiters have one clear option while the right choice for Remainers isn’t obvious.
It’s hard to escape the belief that just as an alliance could not be put together under the circumstances of 2010, when Liberal Democrats faced a binary choice about whom to support, it cannot be now when there is no ‘progressive’ consensus.
There is another, sadder point. Adonis describes Gordon Brown issuing a statement saying that Labour’s lack of success in 2010 is a judgement on himself and that he must resign. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong, but it appears to me that the two current leaders of the main parties would be very happy to deflect any personal blame on the ‘remoaners’ on one side or the ‘Blairites’ on the other. Such is the way in which our politics has deterioriated in only seven years.
Five Days in May: the coalition and beyond is available here.