The Cook-Maclennan talks: lessons in cross-party cooperation

When talking about how the Liberal Democrats should deal, or not deal, with other parties with whom we share some policy aims, I often make reference to the success of the Cook-Maclennan talks. They were a powerful example of where cross-party cooperation brought significant successes for implementing Liberal Democrat policy, and without electoral cost to the party. (If anything, they brought an electoral benefit.)

But the internet is rather sparse with information about them, and I really don’t want to think about what proportion of Liberal Democrat members were not even born when they took place.

So here rescued from a Hansard Society / Study of Parliament Group paper is an account of the Cook-Maclennan talks written in 2010:

There had been some initial contacts between Labour leader Tony Blair and the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown as early as 1993 about the prospects of a coalition. In October 1996, the two parties went a step further, establishing a Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) to consider common elements in their constitutional reform programmes. Its terms of reference were: to consider whether there might be sufficient common ground to enable the parties to reach agreement on a legislative programme for constitutional reform; to consider the means by which such a programme might best be implemented; and to make recommendations.

The Committee was chaired by Robin Cook for Labour and Robert Maclennan for the Liberal Democrats. It published its agreement in March 1997, bringing together key elements of constitutional reform such as modernisation of the practices of the House of Commons, devolution, Freedom of Information (FoI), incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, and reform of the House of Lords.

The JCC also proposed an independent commission to consider a proportional alternative to the first‐past‐the‐post electoral system, with the choice being put to the public in a referendum. The report could have led the way for more intensive joint working on the constitution had Labour needed Liberal Democrat support in the Commons. In the event, the huge majority Labour won at the 1997 general election meant that the Liberal Democrats could be disregarded. The immediate commitments in the Cook‐Maclennan report were achieved: in the first session legislation on devolution and human rights was brought forward, and in the following session FoI and Lords reform. Labour also moved swiftly to modernise parliamentary procedure. Some issues remained outstanding, most importantly for the Liberal Democrats the holding of a referendum on electoral reform. Overall, however, the initiative was useful in establishing common ground before Labour took power. Had there been a need to build a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the similarity of their constitutional programmes would have smoothed a broader agreed programme of government.

The Blair‐Ashdown initiative had been initially intended to feed into some kind of coalition agreement and Tony Blair pressed on with plans to include Liberal Democrats within cabinet committee processes. However, this initiative was much less successful. In July 1997 a Joint Consultative Cabinet Committee was announced. The Committee was served by the Cabinet Office, but the Liberal Democrat members (Paddy Ashdown, Alan Beith, Robert Maclennan, Lord Holme of Cheltenham and Menzies Campbell) were not bound by collective cabinet responsibility.

The Committee met in 1997 but its work appeared to peter out from 1998 onwards, particularly once the Independent Commission on the Voting System was announced in December 1997, to be chaired by Lord Jenkins.  A joint statement by Blair and Ashdown proposing to widen its remit in December 1998 led to tensions within both parties; Charles Kennedy replaced Ashdown in June 1999 and ruled out an electoral pact in January 2001, suspending further involvement in the Cabinet Committee which was wound up formally in January 2002. It had met only twice since Kennedy had become leader. In the meantime, Labour did not follow through with the Cook‐Maclennan commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform in the 1997 Parliament. Inevitably this has left a residue of mistrust that may affect Liberal Democrat perceptions of the commitment by Labour to hold a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) in the next Parliament.

Here is the full paper for you to read.


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