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Labour moderates need to swallow their pride and join hands with us Lib Dems

January 12, 2017 9:20 PM
By Alistair Carmichael MP in The Telegraph
Originally published by Rutland and South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Alistair CarmichaelWhat is the future for centre-left politics? Its traditionally dominant force, the Labour Party, cannot win on its own, yet seems incapable of working with others who can. This week the Fabian Society, historically the midwife of the party, effectively pronounced its last rites, estimating that the party could be reduced to as few as 150 MPs after the next election.

Labour now seems institutionally incapable of moving back to the centre ground, as it did under Tony Blair. Thus they leave the field open for the Conservative Party to command the stage for at least the next two general elections, if not more.

Such a prospect may delight many Telegraph readers. They would, however, be well-advised to temper their glee. This is not the 1980s. Then the battle was defined along the lines of ideology. Identity politics was confined to Scotland and Wales, and even there it sat at the margins.

The politics of 2016 is fundamentally different. Referendums on Scottish Independence and Brexit have yanked identity politics from the margins to the mainstream. Labour in Scotland has been hollowed out by the SNP. Post-Brexit they face the same threat from Ukip in the North of England and Midlands.

The stakes are higher than ever. That is why Conservative-leaning Telegraph readers should be cautious. Nicola Sturgeon must realise that even Brexit will not deliver her the independence vote she craves. The prospect of Conservative rule from Westminster lasting a generation, however, could be the final straw to break the Union's back.

Back in the 1980s, those who stayed with Labour after the Gang of Four left to form the SDP could sit tight and wait. It worked - eventually. So why won't this happen again?

First, as this summer's leadership election made clear, they do not even have a Neil Kinnock, let alone a Tony Blair. The Corbyn grip on Labour is stronger than ever, and so the party will continue to look inwards not outwards to voters.

Secondly, Labour then could look to Scotland and the North for both raw numbers and talent. No longer.

So as they view their prospects for 2017, Labour MPs face some unpalatable but necessary decisions. The Fabian estimate of Labour reduced to 150 seats may turn out to be optimistic. Its leader is more interested in ideological purity than winning elections, and, challenged by identity politics in its heartlands, Labour is as far from power as it was under Michael Foot. This time, however, there is no way back. Our first past the post electoral system - long supported by Labour - now threatens to consume them.

Anyone seeking a vehicle for challenging Conservative hegemony can no longer look to Labour. Their tribalism and complacency have, belatedly, come back to bite them. Labour is no longer a vehicle for progressive politics; it is a road block.

Decades ago my predecessor as MP for Orkney and Shetland, Jo Grimond, spoke about political realignment. It has been a long time coming. There have been many false dawns but finally that moment has arrived. Jeremy Corbyn has rendered Labour an historical curiosity. Will Labour moderates seize the moment?

Liberal Democrats, Greens, the Women's Equality Party and others who wanted a progressive modern Britain without attaching themselves to any individual party took the first tentative steps in the Richmond Park by-election - and to some effect. Now we need moderate mainstream Labour politicians to do their part, by breaking away completely or working with us informally.

Will they work with Liberal Democrats to maintain the most vital aspects of our relationship with Europe, notably our membership of the single market? Will they recognise that we need a successful economy to give our underfunded schools and hospitals the investment they need? And will they abandon the class-based, divisive politics of yesterday to represent all of Britain?

There are many moderate Labour figures who share our vision of a positive alternative to this divisive Brexit government. They also want to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.

The stakes have never been higher. Our United Kingdom may rely on it. Surely that must be more important than tribal party loyalties that are already dead, and may soon be buried?