Chris's comment referred to a recent post on the soft-left Shifting Grounds blog by a variety of authors including Andy Harrop (director of the Fabian Society), Neal Lawson (director of Compass), Olaf Cramme (director of Policy Network), Linda Jack (chair of Liberal Left) and David Clark (the Shifting Grounds blog editor) as "rubbish". The post was called "Paving the way for an alternative coalition" - some excerpts from it are posted below:
We are now closer to the date of the next election than the last and debate about the shape and composition of the next government is well under way. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have just set out their joint priorities for what remains of the current coalition’s term of office. But progressive politics will be the loser if a renewal of that arrangement comes to be seen as the natural outcome in the event of another hung parliament. An alternative coalition joining Labour and the Liberal Democrats also needs to be on the table for a proper debate about Britain’s future to take place. The British people deserve no less.
We know from experience that creating that option will require courage, care and commitment. The failure of both our parties to prepare the ground before the last election became painfully apparent during the coalition negotiations that took place three years ago. The realities of parliamentary arithmetic made a Lib-Lab coalition difficult in any event, but the climate of mutual suspicion showed how estranged the two parties had become since tentative efforts at co-operation were abandoned in the first term of the Blair government. It would be a tragedy for Britain if the centre-left failed to enter the next election better prepared for the aftermath and the negotiations that may follow.
Looking across the main areas of policy, it is easier to find points of agreement than disagreement [between Labour and the Lib Dems]. But laying the ground for an alternative coalition requires more than policy agreement. It calls for a change of attitudes and working methods...
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will continue to compete robustly and fight the next election aiming to win on their own terms. That’s as it should be. But both should also prepare for the possibility that the British people once again decline to give a majority to any single party. In that eventuality there will be a number of options to consider and nothing we propose can prejudge what either party may decide. But if we want a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition to be one of those options, the ground will have to be prepared in advance and that process should start soon. The decision about the next government of Britain is too important to be taken by default.
Was this post "rubbish?" I don't believe so. Some background: I know Chris is one of those people who left Compass because they ceased to be a purely Labour-based pressure group and began to open up their membership to other parties such as Greens and Liberal Democrats (he was not the only one to leave when that happened: the entire Compass youth wing resigned, for example). I think this is a real shame, frankly, as it seems to me that it's ridiculous to claim that the Labour Party has a monopoly on good progressive ideas in this country. Moreoever, given that it's far from certain that Labour will win a majority at the next election, it seems sensible to plan for the possible outcome of Labour as the largest single party but short of a majority. But for Chris (and many others), apparently not. I find this stance hard to understand.
I should be clear, by the way, that I don't agree with all of the Shifting Grounds article. It's not really true that "looking across the main areas of policy, it is easier to find points of agreement than disagreement between Labour and the Lib Dems." After the last 3 years in which the Lib Dems have shamelessly propped up a reactionary Tory govt, it should be fairly clear that the Lib Dem leadership is a long way right of centre - particularly on the economy - and the backbench MPs remarkably willing to comply with that right-of-centre agenda (having campaigned pretending to be a left-of-centre party in most respects). It's not for nothing that I call the Lib Dems the "Fib Dems" loudly and often on this blog. I detest what they've done to this country and I think it would probably be a good thing, all things considered if the Lib Dem party collapsed after the next election after losing all its MPs. They are dissemblers, traitors and collaborationists. And to the extent that there is agreeement between Labour and the Lib Dems on economic policy issues in particular, that is a failing in the Labour Party - it reflects the (diminishing but still far too high) influence of centre-right Blairism, which Ed Miliband has weakened but not completely dispelled.
However, I think we need to think realistically about what's likely to happen at the next election under current boundaries. I doubt there will be a complete wipeout - it's more likely that there will be at least 20 Lib Dem MPs still around after the next election, largely because some of their candidates will probably succeed in fighting a guerilla war against their own party's policies and will pull in anti-Tory votes from the left, particularly in areas where Labour doesn't have a good ground operation. (There is precedent for this in the Labour Party by the way - Bob Marshall-Andrews managed to win in Medway in 2005, when most other Labour MPs in the south-east lost, by running a guerilla campaign against Tony Blair). Given that maybe 20 Lib Dem MPs will manage to hang on, the idea that Labour should just ignore this possibility and act as if the Lib Dems are going to be wiped out after the next election - however much they might want that to be the case - seems stupid to me.
How likely is it that the Lib Dems are likely to be holding the balance of power at the next election? I don't think it's the most likely option - I think that's a majority Labour govt, albeit with a small majority. But I'd say Labour as the largest party but short of a majority is the second most likely option. And in that case, it would be very useful if some bridges were built with the Lib Dems - or at least the more progressive MPs among them - before the election. Otherwise, there is a huge risk that Labour could be kept out of office by another Tory-Lib Dem coalition - even if Labour were the largest single party.
I'd actually go even further than that (again disagreeing with the Shifting Grounds article) and say that where there is a progressive Lib Dem MP with a good record of voting against the current govt, Labour should consider not putting up a candidate in that constituency and advising Labour voters to vote for the Lib Dem instead. And similarly, in Brighton Pavilion where Caroline Lucas is pursuing a policy platform that's vastly better than pretty much anything the Labour Party has to offer, the Labour party should advise its voters to vote Green. Now, this kind of open-mindedness and willingness to focus on the policies of the sitting MP, rather than the particular colour of his or her rosette, will of course be anathema to many Labour activists but unfortunately, that simply reflects their own bone-headedness and tribalism. I would much prefer it if we had a PR system of elections and everyone could vote their first choice. I think that will happen - eventually - but it's still a long way off at the moment and so we have to do the best to keep right-wingers out of Parliament however we can with the system we have. (This doesn't, of course, do anything about some of the extreme right-wingers in the Labour party - for example I don't know how any progressive could vote for Liam Byrne - but that's probably best handled by Labour constituency associations voting to deselect far-right Blairite candidates - something that, sadly, never seems to happen).
Basically I think the kind of simplistic tribal Labour politics that says "I'll vote for Mickey Mouse (or indeed, Tony Blair) as long as he's wearing a red rosette but give me a left-wing candidate wearing another rosette and I'll try to annihilate them" is boneheaded and infantile. (By the way, Chris is on record as saying he doesn't subscribe to this naive tribalist view either: but in that case I'm a bit puzzled as to why he thinks the Shifting Grounds article is so bad). Of course, it's possible to go too far the other way, and give too much of the benefit of the doubt to nominally 'progressive' parties that are anything but. For example, many people - including myself to an extent - got taken in my Nick Clegg's fresh-faced "New Politics" shtick in the last election campaign and believed there was no possible way he could go into a coalition with the Tories. That was a stupid mistake and I hold my hands up about that. But equally, I don't believe that every single Lib Dem is a dyed-in-the-wool right-wing neoliberal anti-progressive. And to categorically rule out any collaboration with the Lib Dems in advance of the election (which is what Chris seems to be indicating is the best thing to do), that's what I'd have to believe. I can certainly believe that more than half of Lib Dem MPs are like that, but that still leaves many who aren't. Possibly enough to make the difference between a Labour minority govt which achieves nothing at all in the next parliamentary term, and a Lab/Lib majority govt which achieves a hell of a lot.
So let's have a bit less of the cardboard cut-out terrace chant tribalism that characterises so much party political discourse, and a bit more willingness to judge politicians by their ideas and not the colour of their rosette.
UPDATE: there is a good debate on the Labour Uncut blog - the best thing I've ever seen on Labour Uncut, actually - between the aforementioned David Clark and a Labour councillor called Pete Bowyer in which Mr Bowyer demonstrates many of the tendencies I have criticised above. Well worth reading.