If Labour want to capitalise on Tory sleaze they need a political alliance

As many Conservatives feared, the government’s fiasco over the Owen Paterson affair is giving traction to accusations of “Tory sleaze”. You can argue whether Mr Paterson’s conduct actually merits this description, but a fair appreciation of the facts matters little in this kind of rough and tumble – a rough and tumble that Conservatives are only too happy to indulge in when it is to their advantage. And in any case there have been other examples of dubious behaviour. The Conservative opinion poll lead is evaporating. This must give Labour some badly needed hope. But capitalising on this issue will be tricky.

Labour does come at this with some advantages. They are much less sleazy than the Conservatives, having been out of national power for eleven years. Their MPs tend not to have well-paid consultancies. The government won’t let them award peerages to donors, removing the temptation to do so, and so on. Better still, their leader, Sir Keir Starmer, looks the model of personal integrity, even if he is a bit pompous with it. But for all that, Labour has been slow to see much poll benefit. The Conservative poll share is falling, but Labour’s does not seem to be rising, or not by much. The most conspicuous beneficiary in the most recent poll are the Greens. The Greens have very little prospect under the current electoral system, so in any general election their vote will get squeezed away. A lot of that squeeze is likely to go back to the Conservatives, such is the fear so many people have of voting Labour.

What is the problem? The party’s reputation can be tainted by two lines of attack. The first is that they will be no better in if they win power – “they’re all the same” – capitalising on the public’s general cynicism over politicians. Labour’s record when it was last in power wasn’t particularly clean by British standards. They needed big money donors, some of whom ended up with peerages, or, apparently, other favours; many of their MPs indulged in dubious expense claims. Former leader Tony Blair seemed a bit too relaxed about such things – though his successor Gordon Brown had a stronger reputation. The other line of attack is that the party is being taken over by the far left; their politicians are not beholden to big money, but they might have a tendency to think that the ends justify the means, and play fast and loose with the rules in other ways. And, of course, hard left parties are open to other lines of attack that might drive under decided voters away.

Labour has another problem. They are not articulating clear policies that would make British politics cleaner, beyond vague promises of tightening up the existing regime. They have suggested that MPs should not be allowed to take on paid consultancies. But they won’t suggest that second jobs will not be allowed – as at least one of their number is an emergency doctor, and they like to make the claims to sainthood that such a role allows – and doubtless there are other examples of “real world” jobs that enhance an MP’s job. Besides, all this is just tweaking at the edges, and would hardly make it harder for powerful business interests to get undue influence.

What is needed is something much more eye-catching. An obvious policy is the abolition of the House of Lords, perhaps with its replacement by an elected second chamber. The Lords are already over-large and over-used for patronage; the government is in the process of making things much worse by creating even more peers, of which large party donors will undoubtedly feature heavily; that could give the idea public traction. A second idea is to reform the electoral system for the House of Commons. Nothing is more annoying than Conservative claims that it is up to constituents to judge the behaviour of their MPs, when most voters quite rationally think that party label is more important – and most MPs hold safe seats anyway. Behaviour has to be pretty extreme for an MP to lose his seat, and usually the opposition has to be pretty canny too. Actually electoral reform would not necessarily deliver a better system; proportional systems can produce their own safe seats (though not the Single Transferable Vote, which requires multiple-member constituencies). But it’s a real change that would make established politicians uncomfortable – and it can prove a focus for a public wish to make a real change to politics. The is exactly what happened in New Zealand in 1993.

But Labour has a credibility problem when proposing such policies, which go to the root of why people distrust it. When the party has had the opportunity, they have done little to progress either Lords reform or electoral reform. The New Labour government from 1997 to 2010 made some important reforms to both, but none that changed the system radically, to tackle patronage appointments or safe seats, for example. When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 to 2015 proposed much more significant reforms (in some cases not far from Labour’s 2010 manifesto), Labour undermined them because they did not want the governing parties (and especially the Lib Dems) to get any of the kudos; party advantage came first. Besides, the Leninists on the party’s left probably quite like the opportunities conferred by the current system to create an elective dictatorship. Big constitutional changes are tricky to push through, so the public would be right to question Labour’s determination to make changes when things got a bit rough.

What would give Labour a much better chance of showing that it really wants to change things is to form a cross-party alliance. This would need to include the Liberal Democrats, who have their own credibility issues after the coalition, but who are locally strong in places, and the Greens, who have the momentum. Bringing Scottish and Welsh nationalists into the picture would add even more credibility, but would be much harder. This would have the added benefit of making things easier after the election if neither the Conservatives nor Labour won a majority – which looks more probable than Labour winning a majority on its own.

Alas Sir Keir shows no sign at all that he has either the courage or the imagination to take such a path. The result of that is that the business of British politics will carry on much as normal for many years to come.

7 thoughts on “If Labour want to capitalise on Tory sleaze they need a political alliance”

  1. Have we not learnt that alliances with either Conservatives or Labour do us no good.

    We need to make ourselves heard better and perhaps alliances with smaller parties might work better.

    1. The perpetual dilemma of smaller parties. Alliances of some sort are the main way by which they achieve actual political influence – and yet they usually come off worst. It is why a credible deal on PR must be at he centre of any deal, so that at least there is the prospect of a real change. I’m not sure that PR would do the Lib Dems much good in the end, but the party has been fighting for it for a very long time.

  2. I would not rule out the introduction of PR, probably in a form which preserves the constituency link (or something like it) , being a game changer for the progressive parties including Labour. In August a poll commissioned by a campaigning group – Making Votes Count – found that over 80% of Labour Party members favour PR. If the movement can gather strength as Johnson’s chickens come home to roost, I would favour it being introduced first in a reformed upper chamber to Parliament with the power to block unduly partisan legislation, and subject to some conventions to reduce the power of the whips; I doubt whether our political culture is yet ready to make a success of PR in the lower house, which would continue to be a centre for relatively decisive Government..

  3. A Lib Dem alliance with Labour will be a turn off for many small c conservatives who will at least consider voting Lib Dem at present.

    If dislodging the Tories is the objective then it would make sense for the Lib Dems to move to right, peel off as many previous Tories as possible and so split the right of centre vote.

    1. My feeling is that this could be a shrewd tactic for Labour and help them win middle ground voters. Lib Dems would be very wary for the reason you point out – but the prospect of PR might be the enticement. Of course wooing Tory voters and then propping up a Labour government would be problematic for the Lib Dems too.

  4. Attracting middle ground voters is obviously the Starmer tactic. The question will be whether it will work! Certainly, there will be those who will vote Starmer when they wouldn’t for a more leftish candidate. On the other hand, there will be the more radical, and especially among the young, who will take the view that ‘they are all the same’ and so won’t vote at all.

    The issue of Labour abstentions hasn’t been properly addressed. If we analyse what has happened in constituencies like Hartlepool, the collapse in the Labour vote is largely explicable by the falling turn-out rather than a significant switch of allegiance to the Tories or anyone else.

    If the centre ground is such a fertile area, why haven’t the Lib Dems done better in recent general elections?

    Cat Smith, the MP for Fleetwood and Lancaster, has recently resigned from the shadow cabinet over the issue of Jeremy Corbyn not being re-admitted to the PLP. Angela Raynor is only in her post because Starmer can’t sack her. These divisions won’t heal on their own. Unless Starmer becomes more conciliatory, and looks beyond the potential anti-Tory vote he’ll see in the SE of England, the Labour Party will be seen as even more hopelessly divided as we approach the next election, and won’t look at all to be a winning team.

    1. I take your point – and as somebody with few contacts in red wall seats I have to be very careful about the assumptions I make. I am a bit puzzled by Starmer’s apparently hostile handling of other people in his party, such as Ms Rayner. It looks like a lack of political skill. I don’t think he has to ditch all Corbyn-era policies to take the centre ground as some of them were quite popular after all! I don’t think it was individual policies that put people off, Brexit apart. With Corbyn in charge was the whole package was worth less than the sum of its parts. The art of politics is building coalitions – and a skilful Labour leader should find the left of his party to be an asset, while at the same time as improving the party’s appeal to more conservative voters.
      As to why the Lib Dems have done so badly in these seats, that’s an interesting question. The coalition put a lot of people off, but, curiously, a lot of those same voters (who elected a Lib Dem in Redcar in 2010 for example) seem to have switched directly to the Tories. I don’t think the party was perceived as being of the political centre in 2019 because of its stance on Brexit. It was then seen (rightly in most cases) as weak, and so a wasted vote.The centre ground is not as happy a hunting ground for Lib Dems as many assume, as many of these voters are actually quite conservative.

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