The case for a Lib-Lab pact

To defeat the Tories, an informal pact along with tactical voting may not be sufficient

August 24, 2022
Photo: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo

Success in politics—in terms of capturing the top jobs—generally goes to strong leaders with a bold imaginations. To take the extreme positive case, Churchill conjured an imaginative Everest in proclaiming that the war against Hitler could be won in May 1940, as the whole of Europe fell like dominoes and the US remained neutral. 

Boris Johnson and Liz Truss spout imaginative baloney. Johnson’s leadership was one continuous imaginative lie—indeed, his entire leadership was founded on one: Brexit. Truss is telling Tory members only things they want to hear and pretending she wasn’t for a decade a member of a Cabinet which did all the things she now derides. It is this bold, unflinching pretence which is winning her the leadership of a Tory Party which Churchill would barely recognise—or maybe he would recognise it only too well from the appeasement party he inherited, which nearly destroyed Britain.

Keir Starmer has shown himself to be a bold leader. He staked his job on not being fined for a possible Covid regulation breach in Durham; and he is now in effect doing the same in his sensible move towards the pragmatic, dare I say Blairite, centre ground on the vexed issue of nationalisation. The question is whether he also has bold imagination. And the thing he most needs to apply it to is an electoral pact with the Lib Dems. Not just a nod-and-wink informal affair, but a full-on pact with only one official opposition candidate per constituency in key winnable seats for Labour and the Lib Dems and a common programme of the big essential reforms a Lab-Lib coalition government would enact.

Nothing less than such a pact is likely to do the business of creating a convincing majority from the current opposition. Labour needs the Lib Dems to do well, but Ed Davey’s party will only win appreciably more than its desultory 14 seats if it gets a straight run against the Tories in their West Country and heartlands where Labour generally polls at 10 per cent or so. Labour needs the same in those marginals where the Lib Dems poll similarly if it is going to climb the Everest of getting from 202 seats in 2019 to the 326 required for a bare majority.

It is a sobering fact that the Tories have twice as many seats as Labour in England. It’s not only the “red wall” in the north but practically the entire country outside London and a few other cities which need to be conquered.

Why a formal pact rather than an informal one with tactical voting, which is the limit of the present ambitions of Starmer and Davey? Three reasons: to dramatically improve the credibility of the opposition as a contender for government; to dramatically increase the efficiency of anti-Tory voting; and to boost the electoral appeal of Labour to the vital centre ground now so comprehensively abandoned by the Tories. A formal electoral pact is what’s needed.

Before my friends in both Labour and the Lib Dems consign this immediately to the “too difficult” box, a word from the past. The Labour Party only became a national party because of just such an electoral pact with the Liberals before the First World War. In the three elections of 1906, and January and December 1910, the Liberals gave Keir Hardie’s nascent Labour Party a clear run in about 50 seats, of which Labour won 29, rising to winning 40 out of 42 in 1910, while Labour generally did not stand against the Liberals elsewhere. This may not have mattered so much in 1906, which was a Liberal landslide, but it was crucial in 1910, when Asquith’s Liberals secured only two seats more than the Tories and there was also a volatile Irish nationalist third party with more than 70 seats. 

It was this re-elected Liberal government, with Labour support, that enacted the revolutionary “People’s Budget” of 1906, which effectively began the march towards the welfare state, and also curbed the power of the Tory-dominated House of Lords and enacted the first national unemployment and health insurance schemes.
If an electoral pact was the successful strategy of Keir Hardie, it is surely good enough for Keir Starmer.

Oh, and the first Labour government came only 14 years after this pact. But by then, thanks largely to Lloyd George going off with the Tories after the First World War, there was no Lab-Lib pact and it was a minority Labour government which promptly lost power in another Tory landslide. History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.