Better a dalliance than an all-out alliance

Labour and the Liberal Democrats would do well to keep their relationsh ip purely platonic
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The Independent Online
Yet again, political romance is in the air. The interminable on- off courtship of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties is in one of its most torrid "on" phases. Paddy Ashdown, by questioning his party's "equidistance" between Labour and the Tories is, as it were, nibbling Tony Blair's earlobe. And Blair's relaxed attitude to the two parties' closeness on policy and local politics is a come-hither flutter of the eyelids if ever I saw one.

Neither chap, however, is ready for the full clinch. As soon as the newspapers start panting about national pacts, they go all coy. No pacts, says the Labour leadership. No deals. No chocolates. Got that, everyone?

Despite which, things are hotting up. A Labour MP, Calum MacDonald, today launches "Linc", which stands for Labour Initiative on Co-operation. He is publishing what amounts to a dirty magazine for voyeurs of the Lib- Lab scene. It reveals that, even before the last local elections, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors were enjoying full and uninhibited relationships in 21 authorities. And such respectable places, too: Shropshire and Norfolk, Hereford and South Kesteven. The truth is that Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians are in many respects natural partners. They are agreed on at least 90 per cent of the political agenda.

Labour's years in the wilderness have turned it into a party of political reform as well as a party of local government. It is committed to a referendum on voting reform. In Scotland it has been negotiating privately with the Lib Dems about details of the proposed Scottish Parliament. Its Europeanism, the priority it gives to health, its attempts to redefine its relations with the trade unions - all these have brought Labour close to Liberal Democracy.

Both parties have core territories, which overlap only to a limited extent. Their activists aren't such very different sorts of people - Labour traditionalists even claim that the Blair effect is causing "bloody Liberals" to join their party. At Westminster there is more similarity between the views of some Lib Dem MPs and Labour MPs than there is between the farthest wings of the Labour Party itself.

So it is hardly surprising that a growing band of well-wishers now see them as parts of the same broad anti-Tory movement and urge them to come together with an electoral pact before the election, and then co-operation in government afterwards. The courtship has gone on long enough, say the fans - a consummation is devoutly to be wished.

For both opposition parties, this would be a bad mistake. Tactically, it would allow the Conservatives to concentrate on a single target, Lib- Labour. Blair might try to develop a pragmatic Europeanism that fitted the temper of the times - but he would find himself saddled by Central Office with the most extreme federalist positions of his Lib-Dem allies. He might keep Labour's spending commitments ruthlessly suppressed, but he would find the Tories totting up every Lib Dem commitment and adding them to his total. On tax, too, he would be at the mercy of Lib Dem policy- makers.

It may be objected that the Conservatives will do this anyway. But Blair is strong enough to be taken by the voters on his own terms, and needs to be. You can be a tough, disciplinarian leader of your own party. But you can't also be a tough, disciplinarian leader of somebody else's party.

As to its local electoral impact, a pact would work if constituency parties could be persuaded to drop candidates in favour of one another. But they cannot be. Anyway, voters are showing themselves well able to spot the leading anti-Tory candidate. As the local elections showed, tactical voting is no longer confined to Scotland.

For the Liberal Democrats the dangers are, if anything, even greater. If they want to survive as an independent party, the idea of a pact, a joint programme and a shared government ought to be anathema; for if it worked it would lead to the remorseless absorption of the smaller party into the larger one. For how long did the ILP, the "Independent" Labour Party, survive its coalition with the other one?

This is a matter for the Lib Dems. But it would be odd, wouldn't it, if having survived the era of ideological confrontation between socialism and capitalism (just), the Liberal tradition abolished itself as a separate political force as soon as it reached the age of pluralism and choice? Liberals have been here before. During the Attlee government, Winston Churchill wooed the Liberal Party with the aim of creating a broad anti- socialist front. Then, the Liberals probably agreed with 90 per cent of the Tory programme. The Tories had already virtually absorbed the National Liberals, the right-wing part of the earlier Liberal split, and now tried to persuade the rest to combine against Labour.

In some areas, such as Huddersfield and Bolton, and indeed the Western Isles, which is now Calum MacDonald's seat, Liberals stood down in favour of Tories, or vice versa. In general, however, the Liberals refused to be bedded by Churchill. Though this left them in the wilderness for decades, it has meant that the idea of Liberalism is still alive in British politics.

The Liberal Democrats in 1995 are far stronger than the Liberals were 50 years ago. But the insecurities and the temptations are not so very different. The Blair effect still scares some local Lib Dems rigid. And the thought of being on the winning side, for the first time since the arrival of mass democracy, is a sorely tempting one. Better to be compromised in power than virtuous without it.

But here the Liberal Democrats ought to stop and reconsider the nature of their recent history. They have never had power. But they have had very considerable influence. Time after time they have brought ideas into politics, or stuck by unfashionable ones, only to see others exploit their principles. This has been frustrating, but a kind of success, too. Were they to be absorbed and disappear, that influence, that distinctive Liberal outlook, would die too.

If the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power after the next election, they will doubtless form a coalition with Labour. If Labour wins a majority, they may still exert strong influence: on many issues they might be nearer the position of the Labour leadership than left-wing Labour MPs. They would be able to do deals. The time might come when Blair thought his authority as prime minister would be enhanced, not diminished, by offering Lib Dems government jobs. The opportunities will be there to exploit.

That, though, should be the limit of their ambition. For the time being, each party needs the other. Labour needs Lib Dem radicalism on political reform, and the Lib Dems need the possibility of a Labour government to see any of their hopes fulfilled.

But it is in the interests of both parties and the public that this should be a very Nineties affair, a romance that is rich but platonic. There can be passionate conversations, meaningful looks, earnest discussions over cocoa late into the night. There can be friendship and support. But in the end - hey guys, show a bit of restraint. We haven't got that many parties as it is.