I stopped into the Liberal Democrat History Group’s meeting at the NLC on Monday evening after work. The topic for discussion was the 77-78 Lib-Lab Pact with David Steel, Tom McNally, and Michael Steed as the speakers and Geoff Tordoff chairing.
As is often the case with these things the meeting was half analysis and half anecdote. Lord Tordoff’s impression of Clement Freud being a particular highlight. It was an opportunity for those who played a part in these events to reminisce about old times. Yet it was also a chance for those who had been at the centre of a key event in our recent political history to reflect and draw conclusions.
There was some discussion about what lay behind the Liberal Party’s failure to achieve more in policy terms from the agreement with the Labour Party. But both Steel and McNally strongly defended the overall record of the Pact as being a success in terms of the national interest. They were agreed that it was critical in stabilising the economy and taking the country through what was a period of significant crisis. Lord McNally particularly stressed that the Pact had to be seen against a background of huge economic challenges, social change, and a widespread questioning of whether the democratic process was capable of dealing with Britain’s problems. Steed then offered a useful corrective with his analysis of the, overwhelmingly negative, electoral impact of the Pact on the Liberal Party’s vote during the period of its existence. However, all the speakers were agreed that the Lib-Lab Pact was an important pointer to, and shaper of, the various examples of cross party politics we have had since that time.
I’m sure that the History Group’s journal will do a far better job than me in writing up the discussion (see also Jonathan Fryer’s account), but I hope that gives you a flavour of the meeting. What I was interested in was whether there were any general lessons that could be learnt about cross party cooperation. Or indeed lessons that could be applied to the potential challenges the Liberal Democrats could be faced with in the next few years.
I was particularly struck by Michael Steed’s point, supported by Steel, that there had been no public debate, indeed hardly any discussion in Westminster, of the possibility of some kind of pact in the months that led up to it. This was despite the fact that the parliamentary arithmetic made it almost inevitable that the Callaghan government would reach a crisis point. So the Pact itself, when it was agreed, came like “a bolt out of the blue”.
The suggestion was that a key reason why the Liberal Party suffered in the polls and did badly in local elections and by-elections during the period of the Pact was that the reasons for and issues surrounding such a political novelty had not been explained to the public. The ground had not been prepared for such a possibility. So in a political culture not used to coalition style politics, and against the background of what all the speakers agreed was an appallingly hostile press, the pact was seen very negatively.
While we are now a bit more used to cross party cooperation, because of the nature of devolution in Scotland and Wales, than we were in the 70s – European style party cooperation is still very alien to Westminster. If it is right that both the politicians and the public of the time were not prepared for the Lib-Lab Pact, can we say that we are any more prepared for dealing with a hung parliament now?
While the talk of hung parliaments has declined significantly compared to a year or so ago, as talk of a Tory majority has increased, it still remains a very real potential outcome after the next election. I was struck how Tom McNally’s description of the 74 General Election as featuring an unpopular government, a mistrusted opposition, and an opportunity for Liberals set against a background of economic woes sounded rather familiar.
If one of the lessons of 77 is that, if cross party cooperation is likely to be a feature of a parliament where no party has a comfortable majority, it is important to prepare the ground, then politicians of all parties need to start doing some thinking. However, I would be surprised if the Labour party was capable of this. The Tories may be doing some preparation, but it is likely to only be superficial. So it makes it all the more important for the Liberal Democrats to be developing a clear idea of what we would do if we were to enter hung parliament territory.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.