The progressive centre-left politicians from Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to “come together” to stop the Conservatives monopolising power in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, Sir Vince Cable has said.
The former Lib Dem business secretary who lost his seat to the Conservatives in May said his party was facing fundamental questions about how it relates to moderate Labour MPs unhappy with Corbyn’s leftwing leadership.
Speaking before his party’s autumn conference in Bournemouth, Cable said he hoped to see an end to tribalism among progressives and a union of like-minded centre-left politicians, more than three decades after it was tried by the Social Democrat party.
“I would hope there is a coming together,” he told the Guardian. “How exactly it happens is a moot question. I don’t think anybody has really thought through how you do it. If you remember the old SDP thing, it was a real mixed experience anyway and it took place after years of planning and Roy Jenkins’ talks with David Steel.
“This has all happened very quickly and I think what I would simply want to acknowledge is that there is a progressive centre-left out there but it is at the moment fragmented. And unless it is in some way effectively unified, the Tories will just have a monopoly on power.”
Corbyn’s rise has given new optimism to some Liberal Democrats after their election wipeout, which left them with just 8 MPs and 8% of the vote. They hope to occupy a vaccum on the centre-left, and have been cheered by a few unexpected recent council election wins and an increase in membership by 20,000 since the election.
Tim Farron, who was elected as Lib Dem leader over the summer, was seen as the leftwing, grassroots choice but is now tacking clearly towards the centre ground of politics in the face of Corbyn’s win.
Farron will reach out to liberal-minded members of other parties on Saturday. In a speech to a Lib Dem conference rally, he will say: “Britain is teeming with liberals, some of them are not yet in the Liberal Democrats. Some of them are in other parties. But we are their home.”
Ed Davey, another former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister who lost his seat, said Farron was one of the luckiest Lib Dem leaders ever, as he found himself with a lot of political space to occupy while Labour was far to the left and the Conservatives were shifting further to the right.
“There is an unfolding narrative that [the Lib Dems] showed they were up for government and credible on the economy but also have a competitive agenda on housing, refugees, the environment, political reform and Europe,” he said.
However, others within the party are cautious about the fact that some traditional Lib Dem voters will be attracted to Corbyn’s liberal stance on issues such as human rights and immigration, his clear call to scrap all nuclear deterrents and vociferous opposition to war.
Whether Labour politicians are currently open to overtures from centre-left colleagues is questionable. There does not seem to be an appetite for such as step, particularly with the Liberal Democrats’ popularity and influence at such a low ebb.
On Thursday, Farron suggested he had been in contact with unhappy Labour MPs, hinting that they could cross the floor to the Lib Dems.
But this has been rubbished by Labour MPs, including John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, the Labour mainstream group. Several high-profile moderates, including Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna, have made it clear they want Labour unity rather than a break-away party.
However, Cable, a former Labour councillor who joined the SDP and then became a leading figure in the Lib Dems, still believes there is a chance of the emergence of unity or practical cooperation on the centre-left even if it may take several years to emerge.
“I would say there is a vast space between Cameron and Corbyn,” he said. “It is a gigantic open field and it needs somebody to occupy it. The Liberal Democrats are in that space and should be. The fundamental question is how do they relate to the Labour moderates? We’ve had this terrible tribalism for decades, going back to the SDP, the treachery and traitors. All that stuff is a mental block to practical cooperation but I think that’s what’s going to happen.”
Cable’s position was echoed by Norman Lamb, another former coalition minister who lost the leadership race to Farron, who said the party had to be willing to engage with others.
“This is a moment where narrow tribalism would be disastrous and I’m very keen for there to be engagement between like-minded progressives across party divides,” he said. “A Labour MP said to me this week ‘I actively oppose what they stand for’ and that’s within the same party.”
Asked whether he thought an SDP-style split was possible in the Labour party, Lamb said: “I think all sorts of things are possible. And of course the moment which could be significant is the EU referendum next year and we know that referendums on the big defining issues can fracture politics. It fractured politics the first time round, leading ultimately to the creation of the SDP …”
He said people would remember some of the problems with the SDP so at this stage it should be a case of “let’s talk, let’s engage, let’s find common ground”.
“What I am aware of is that there is a great mass of people, both involved in politics and amongst the public, who share similar ambitions, but are divided across parties at the moment and I think that we should be able, especially at this stage in the electoral cycle, to just relax and talk and identify options,” Lamb said.
Lord Oakeshott, the former Lib Dem peer who correctly foresaw his party’s near wipeout and made an unsuccessful attempt to oust the former leader Nick Clegg, took a slightly more sceptical view about the party’s chances of being the main occupants of the centre-left space.
“A yawning chasm needs to be filled in British politics between Corbyn and Cameron,” he said. “If the general election had been a retreat and not a rout for the Liberal Democrats, they would have been in pole position to do this but now it all depends on Labour.”
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th September 2015 16.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010