New Statesman & Society leader, 12 May 1995
Last week’s local elections were great for both main opposition parties – and now they should be thinking seriously about cooperation
Last week’s rout of the Tories in the district elec­tions in England and Wales was phenomenal. As Rob Waller writes on page 8, the Conservative result was the worst on record. Although it would be foolish to conclude that the Tories can’t recover before the next general election, with or without John Major their prospects of victory are slim. Even if they make a substantial recovery in the opinion polls, the collapse of their base in local government will severely hamper their ability to run effective campaigns in much of the country. The Tories’ dire performance is not the only notable feature of the local elections: both Labour and the Liberal Democrats did extraordinarily well. Labour’s share of the vote, 47 per cent, was the highest it has received in a national election since 1966. The party made dramatic gains throughout the land, even in those parts of the south-east and East Anglia where it almost disappeared as a political force in the 19703 and 19805. John Prescott had good reason to crack open the champagne at Labour headquarters in the early hours of last Friday morning.
But the Lib Dems have even better reason to celebrate. In the past couple of years, particularly since the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader, most commentators have written off the Lib Dems as a force in national politics. Paddy Ashdown’s party might be capable of pulling off the occasional parliamentary by-election victory, the argument went, and it will remain in control of councils and continue to hold parliamentary seats in its south-­western and Celtic redoubts. But its days of expansion are over: Labour is the only centre-left party worth watching.
Last Thursday knocked that one for six. The Lib Dems gained nearly 500 seats and took control of 14 more coun­cils, taking 23 per cent of the vote nationwide, far better than their current opinion poll standing. They advanced not just in the south-west but in the south-east and East Anglia. Of course, translating local votes into support in a general election is easier said than done, but if the Lib Dems can keep up the momentum, they are well placed to make substantial gains in the House of Commons.
As NSS has said time and again, this is no bad thing for Labour. However well Labour has been doing under Blair in the south-east and East Anglia, it is a credible challenger to sitting Tory MPs only in a few seats in these regions: in most of the south, Lib Dems have the better chance of replacing Tories. Given that Labour cannot be sure of an overall majority in the Commons, it should at least welcome Lib Dem successes because they herald the possibility of a Lib-Lab parliamentary majority if Labour doesn’t make it alone.
But signs of Lib Dem health are not merely good for Labour on grounds of realpolitik. Despite Tony Blair’s declarations of his dislike for the “tribal attitude to left-of-centre politics”, too many in the Labour Party remain party chauvinists who are uneasy with the idea of plural­ism: a Liberal Democrat Party that Labour cannot ignore forces them to rethink Labour’s political culture. More important, there are many key areas of policy where Lib Dem thinking is far more radical than Labour’s: electoral reform, the environment, Europe, civil liberties. Rather than dragging Labour to the right, the introduction of Lib Dems to a Labour government would these days give it much-needed reforming impetus.
For all these reasons, NSS gives a warm welcome to the formation of the Labour Initiative on Cooperation (Linc), launched this week by a group of Labour politicians and intellectuals who would like to foster friendship between Britain’s two parties of the centre-left. Its first step, the publication of a pamphlet outlining the ways that Labour and the Lib Dems have worked together in local govern­ment, is modest enough – but there are grounds for believing that its way of thinking will find plenty of supporters. Blair has made it clear that he is relaxed about Lib-Lab discussion, and the whole process will be given a major boost if Ashdown declares, as expected, that he intends to abandon the stance of “equidistance” between Labour and Tories that his party has held since its incep­tion. Traditionalists in both parties will moan that any reduction of hostilities is a betrayal, but they will have few grounds for complaint in the absence of formal pre­-election pacts, which no one is now advocating. As last week’s results showed, the voters don’t even need prompting by party leaders to know that it makes sense to vote tactically.
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