Lessons from history on Labour / Lib Dem cooperation: Kier Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald

Sunder Katwala of the Fabians has a thought-provoking post about the role of Kier Hardie in Labour’s current political traditions and attitudes towards working with other parties.

Others with more knowledge of Labour history than me will be far better placed to comment on that debate, but what particularly struck me reading it is how current Liberal Democrat suspicion of Labour’s motives when it comes to cross-party cooperation may have rather deep historic roots.

Many in the Lib Dems perceive Labour as having a rather arrogant or manipulative approach where cross-party cooperation really means “you must agree with Labour”. Hence, for example, John Prescott’s condemnation of John Hutton as a collaborator for working with the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government, despite both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair having invited those of other parties to work with their governments. Cross-party working is ok when it’s a Labour Prime Minister but not when it isn’t, it would seem.

The lazy silliness verging on arrogance with which many in Labour deliberately get the party’s name wrong, using Liberal rather than Liberal Democrat, except when they desperately want something, when Liberal Democrat suddenly comes back in to use, is a trivial but totemic example that many Liberal Democrats cite. Witness Gordon Brown’s vocabulary switching after the 2010 general election polling day.

It also has substantive historic roots because, as Sunder’s post suggests, Kier Hardie in one respect was in the Ramsay MacDonald mould – both were willing to work with the Liberals as they then were when it suited them, but also willing to sharply drop their support too, based on whatever would seem to give Labour the most long-term advantage.

In itself that is not unreasonable behaviour, but it does feed into that sense of ‘you can’t trust them can you?’ which any cross-party cooperation has to find a way to tackle. The current coalition has in its favour both the arithmetic of the Commons and also the desire of David Cameron to move his party more towards the Liberal Democrats and away from his right-wing; both provide currently compelling reasons to overcome those doubts.

Any future Lib Dem / Labour cooperation would need similar strong factors but it will be an early sign of how serious Labour is thinking about such a future if we see attempts to leave behind that historical mistrust or attempts to talk it up.

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