Commentary by Derek Bateman
It was 1988 I reckon when I headed into North Lanarkshire with a BBC film crew to speak to the new MP for Motherwell North, the ebullient John Reid. At that time he was a Labour likely lad – the working class Catholic from Bellshill who put himself through the Open University before taking a PhD at Stirling, transforming himself from son of a factory worker and a postman into a career-ready politician.
He enjoyed the craic over a fag – Thatcher, Celtic, David Murray – and had a lively drive and openness in contrast to the cautious and often gloomy luminaries like Dewar and Millan. The Tories had just secured a third successive win and a majority of 102, pouring contempt on top of despair for Labour who had a generation of MPs who’d only known Conservative government in their Commons career.
‘We’ll never win again without PR’, he told me (on camera), going on to suggest a formal tie-in with the Liberal-SDP Alliance – as they still were at the time. A progressive alliance pulling together the strands of left-of-centre thinking would be needed if the Tories were ever to be ousted. Good story, I thought.
Of course, the success of New Labour changed all that stuff about working with others and, as for PR, Labour dallied with it when Blair asked Roy Jenkins to report on it before promptly dropping the subject for good. Reid even campaigned against AV. This may be a good time to revive it.
I was reminded of John Reid – who has now pulled up his political roots by languishing in the Lords – when I read Alastair Campbell report the views of Charlie Kennedy. Campbell said Kennedy had texted him to say they should discuss forming a new progressive, centre-left unionist party in Scotland after the SNP won 56 seats.
‘He basically thought that that the Labour party and Lib Dems up there are knackered.’
This is an understandable response to crushing defeat but has in the past proved to be wrong although it did lead to the radical rethinking that Labour went through to become electable again. Like much in politics, it has superficial attraction – it is, in other words, fine in theory. But the biggest obstacle to coalition and alliance isn’t policy but personality – individual and collective.
When Labour last considered working closely with a partner it was immediately after the 2010 election while the Lib Dems were pinballing between them and the Tories. This is how Polly Toynbee put it then: ‘Their attitude (Labour’s), say my informants, is far from welcoming. The suspicion is they would prefer to sit on the opposition bench and watch the Lib Dems be slaughtered by tying themselves to the Conservatives.
In this febrile moment everyone is jumpy as political life and death negotiations such as these throw up dark suspicions and intense anxiety on all sides. The Lib Dems may be badly misreading Labour’s true intent in which case Labour’s negotiating team had better hug them tight and reassure them. But if the Labour team really is trying to make a deal impossible, they are making a historic mistake.
Worse, they are betraying the people they stand for – every pensioner and poor family who always stand better protected by a left of centre government – however difficult that may be to construct. Is Labour’s fatal fascination for a quiet life of internal debate (or strife) on the opposition benches getting the better of them?’
Then finally, she adds: ‘They should remember there is no guarantee they wouldn’t be out of power for a long time, but the call of the wild is never far from their tribal instincts.’
Labour had no heart for a coalition and I’m not sure the country did either but look how it’s turned out – not just for the Lib Dems but for Labour too – facing the prospect of mountainous electoral calculus in Scotland, struggling in ‘the North’ and failure in southern England. Would a Labour-Lib Dem Coalition have saved them? Quite possibly. If the Lib Dems has demanded PR and had Labour finally relented, they might both be in a healthy position today.
Under PR there would have been no Tory majority and while the chance of a poisonous deal with UKIP might have put Cameron into Number 10, Labour could have produced a progressive coalition of its own with Lib Dems, SNP and Greens.
And yet, what was the truth when something of the kind was offered by Sturgeon? She received flat No from a Labour Party that seems to believe it stands alone or it falls. This smacks of an attitudinal problem, a centralist arrogance that the setback of 2015 (not to mention 2011 in Scotland) should eradicate. If there is a possible progressive grouping to be constructed then it is surely the duty of all those who care for the people who will otherwise suffer to make it work.
The early signs, according to an SNP MP, are not good for Labour cooperation in the Commons. A new politics could start if Labour abandoned its isolationist approach and put people before party like a young John Reid and the late Charles Kennedy.