If Labour splits what do the Lib Dems do?

Is history about to repeat itself with a similar split in Labour to that which formed first the SDP and then the Liberal SDP Alliance?

So, some Labour MPs are rumoured to be preparing to leave their Party post Brexit debate. There are talks of 6 heavily involved and perhaps 20 in total. From my own observations I think that is highly credible but not necessarily guaranteed. There can be no doubt that nationally there are huge fissures in the Labour Party. What precisely those splits are is difficult to discern.

That is replicated in Liverpool. Its only partly a joke when I say that if my 7 colleagues and I were in the Labour Party here I would probably be the leader of the largest faction! We have north versus south; working class against callow youths straight out of university; people who like the Mayor against people who loathe him; and all this before we can work out the growing threat of the Militant Tendency of the 2019 era – Momentum.

It is no exaggeration to say that I regard few of the existing Labour Councillors as potential fellow travellers for the Lib Dems. Class War warriors who have let Joe Anderson do what he wants. A group of people who have little to offer Liverpool in terms of long-term vision and can only measure themselves against what they oppose rather than what they propose.

As I look at our 100,000+ membership, I have been trying to work out how many in our Party were members in the last Labour split which formed the SDP in the early 80s. Not many I suspect! So perhaps it is important that those of us who were there then should think through what happened and how we approached to see what lessons can be learnt.

As last time we have a Liverpool name in the frame – Luciana Berger. Last time there were three Labour MPs. There are crucial differences. I regarded those Labour MPs as a blast from the past. Right wing Labour MPs who had no respect for their constituents and did little in their constituencies. I remember that Colonel Crawshaw, the MP for Toxteth whose claim to fame was some walking event at Aintree race course was one of them. When the request came from Liberal HQ to make relationships with them, I tried. I had one meeting with Crawshaw but it led absolutely nowhere. We were too far apart in both policy and organisational terms.

At Liverpool level we let them fight 2 constituencies; we fought 5 and in Broadgreen (one of only a handful) we fought each other.

In this case I  and the majority of my fellow Lib Dems respect Luciana Berger. I can probably agree with her on 90% of the policies that she would wish to introduce.

However, I also remember from my past and note in here that she comes from a different tradition; from different roots than me. Her style of campaigning; her relationship with her constituents is different than mine and I know different from our Parliamentary Party. But if you ask, “could I work with her?” the answer is definitely “yes”.

What went wrong in the 80s was that we concentrated too much on our political differences and too much time in trying to carve up the cake in terms of who fought what, where and when. The result was that jointly we blew the best opportunity in the late 20th Century to create a break through for a strong centre grouping. We see that so clearly today with centrists in Labour and Conservatives marginalised by extremists.

I believe that there is a better model and that is the way the Labour Party has traditionally been operated. In theory there are two Parties that work together. There is a Labour Party and a Cooperative Party. There are subtle differences between them but they have one Leader and one manifesto. The Cooperative Party have their own Conference but then are full participants in the Labour Conference.

Negotiating seats at both parliamentary and council level would be far easier as wings of one Party than 2 Parties which inevitably put their own interest first.

Locally we have already had one councillor Kay Davies join us in County. She has said publicly on a number of occasions how much happier she is with us and we are very pleased to have her. It’s no secret that I have a ring side seat, as does the Echo’s Liam Thorp, at Labour Group meetings and in other CLP meetings where I seem to know who has been deselected or what the splits are before the Party’s own local Leader.

There will be no moves at a serious level before the May elections. I will, however, continue to correspond and talk to those Labour members who are considering taking the plunge and joining us.

The Lib Dems have already almost completed a national manifesto in case of a snap General Election. I believe that this could be quickly shared and an agreement made on the key issues. It would also be honest to say where there were differences between us. The same could readily be done in Liverpool if and when the time comes.

Tellingly within 5 or 6 years the right wingers of the Labour establishment and who we did not feel comfortable with who joined the SDP fell away. All those we were happy to work with stayed the course and were with us for a long time. We naturally formed a seamless Liberal Democrats out of the two former Parties. That is what will happen again in a few years’ time if a split did happen. That is why above all we must work on the similarities and not the differences.

We must not blow this opportunity for a second time if it is, indeed, presented to us. We must be more mature and more liberal than we were then and if so, it’s just possible that the dream that I have had for all my 51 years in the Party can be achieved – the creation of a radical centre Party that can help us recover as a nation from the terrible mess that we are in. Anyone who sets up another Party must be less arrogant than those who set up the SDP.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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2 Responses to If Labour splits what do the Lib Dems do?

  1. Allan Brame says:

    I enjoyed this, Richard, but I did smile at “callow youths straight out of university”.
    Sounds a bit like Liverpool Liberals in the 1970s (not the “callow” bit, of course!)

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