I am a left-winger. I went to an anti-poll tax protest, by myself, when I was (I think) eight (I had to go home early because it went past my bedtime). I think that the two greatest governments of the last seventy years were the Atlee government and the first Wilson government. I’ve been a Guardian reader since before primary school (albeit with occasional dalliances with the Independent). I’ve been hugged by Billy Bragg at anti-fascist rallies and devoured Tony Benn’s Arguments For Socialism when I was in school. I wanted to join Young Labour when I was in primary school. I’m a member of Amnesty and Greenpeace, I’ve played anti-fascist benefit gigs, delivered leaflets for Hope Not Hate. I’ve been on the dole, and I’ve worked in the NHS. I love Mark Thomas, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy. A few years ago a few online friends and I had a detailed discussion about Margaret Thatcher – specifically trying to draw up a rota so that those who wished to dance on her grave would not be inconvenienced by those who wished to piss or shit on it. I’m a lefty.
I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, but the first two times I voted for them – in 1997 and 2001 – I did so with a sense of residual guilt because of having been raised all my life to believe that the reason Thatcher won in 83 and 87 was because the SDP split the left vote. It’s only over the last six or seven years that I’ve defined myself as a Liberal Democrat (and more recently as a liberal) rather than as a disaffected Labour supporter.
In short, working with the Tories is about as appealing to me as testicular cancer, and while I see the need for the coalition, I am very, very dubious about it. I am precisely the sort of person, in fact, that Labour should be trying to win over.
Now I’ll be frank – no matter what, I’m not going to vote Labour in the next election, because the last government was so outright evil. I simply won’t support mass-murdering torturers who, among other things, removed the right to a duty lawyer when arrested, brought in 28-day detention without trial, made it politically acceptable to blame immigrants for eveything, and destroyed huge swathes of the NHS ( in the first ten years of the Labour government, on average more than two psychiatric beds a day were lost – at one point when I was working at a hospital, we had ten more psychiatric patients on our ward than we had beds for).
But I might be persuaded to vote Labour in the election after that, if I happened to live in a Labour/Tory marginal. And if the next election is fought under a preferential system, as I sincerely hope, then you might well want me to give you my second preference. And even if neither of those is the case, it’s entirely possible we will have another hung parliament again relatively soon, in which you might want to work with the Liberal Democrats (and would need the support of the membership).
But rather than try to persuade me to look more favourably upon your party, most of what I’ve seen from both your Parliamentarians and your membership (with a few honourable exceptions among the members – if you’re a Labour member who I’m in any kind of regular contact with, I’m not talking about you here) has been designed to make me, and those like me, ever more determined to stick with the Lib Dems and stay as far away from Labour as possible.
Now, I’m not talking here about the normal politics – even though Labour would have made cuts were they in power, *of course* they’re going to attack the government for them now. That’s what opposition parties do. And I’m not talking about the normal dirty tricks, going back on manifesto commitments to get at the other side, accusations of gerrymandering and so on. That’s all par for the course, and while it’s not nice it’s something all parties are guilty of (I can’t actually think of any examples where the Lib Dems have done so, but I’m sure Labour can). I’m talking about a few main things. If you do these, you won’t have my support, but you’ll at least have my *respect*:
1) Admit you were wrong on civil liberties and the ‘war on terror’. These two things are areas where Labour got things so utterly, horribly, catastrophically wrong, both pragmatically and – what is worse – morally, that there can be no excuse. I *should not* be listening to Kenneth Clarke – a man whose last period in charge of justice and civil liberties I viewed at the time with horror – and thinking “It’s nice to have a moderate in this job after those horrific authoritarian Labour ministers”. No amount of apologies and meae culpae can make up for the horrors inflicted by the last government, but if delivered sincerely enough they might at least persuade us that you won’t do it again.
2) Stop dismissing the gains the Lib Dems got out of the coalition agreement. The *LAST* thing you want is for people to start thinking the Tories aren’t really so bad. All that will achieve is all those who avoided voting Tory last time because of scary folk-memories of Thatcher (a diminishing number anyway) thinking “Well, this government weren’t so bad, and since the Lib Dems had no real influence I’ll just vote Tory this time”. A HUGE amount of your support is predicated on “Ooh, Tories, scary!”, so it’s in your interest to give the Lib Dems credit for as many ‘nice’ things as you can from the coalition government – even (or perhaps especially?) when they weren’t Lib Dem ideas. That way those who like the current government will at least not vote Tory over Lib Dem next time (I assume everyone’s agreed that a Tory majority would be even worse) while those who don’t like it will turn away from the Lib Dems and towards Labour because they had so much influence and it stil turned out badly.
3) and this is the most important… STOP IT WITH THE HOMOPHOBIC SHIT, RIGHT NOW!. The constant ‘jokes’ about Cameron and Clegg being ‘in a civil partnership’ are, frankly, sickening. No true Liberal – no decent human being – will have the slightest respect for anyone making jokes like that. Anyone making that kind of joke is, firstly, showing themselves up as homophobic, and thus nobody any liberal (or any decent human being) could vote for, and secondly showing they have the mentality of a sniggering schoolboy, which doesn’t lead to a great deal of trust in their ability to run the country.
The coalition government presents Labour with a real opportunity to make themselves more attractive, both to future voters and to the Lib Dems as a future potential coalition partner. Instead, they appear to be sinking and trying to pull the Liberal Democrats down with them (and, it must be said, succeeding somewhat in the latter if opinion polls are to be believed).
Next election we *could* have a choice between the Tories, a Labour party who’ve admitted their mistakes and reformed, and a Lib Dem party with experience in government. Or we could have a choice between a still-unelectable New Labour, a Tory party who now appear like good guys because they can take credit for Lib Dem achievements, and a shattered Lib Dem party who the public at large see as a Tory appendage. The second option there does not sound like a good one for Labour *or* the Lib Dems – or for the left in general, or for the country.
I have a number of Labour friends who are convinced that the Labour party can be the party of Atlee and Bevan, the party that gave us the NHS and the Open University, the party that legalised homosexuality and ended the death penalty. That party is no longer my party, and I doubt it ever will be – too much of my political identity is now firmly Liberal, and that’s not going to change – but it was a good party, and a necessary voice in British politics. But at the moment, you’re the party of Iraq and torture, of ID cards and detaining people in psychiatric wards when they’re untreatable, of “British jobs for British workers” and homophobic jokes, of Hazel Blears and David Blunkett.
Take a look at yourselves in the mirror, and ask yourselves – “Is this really who I want to be?” You could be so much more…