If not a pact, why not a pow-wow?: It need not be a deal, but it must be radical. Ben Pimlott suggests how Labour and the Liberal Democrats might work together

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SO IT'S hey ho and back to work we go, following last week's results in Newbury and the shire counties. You might have expected on the left and centre-left a feeling of euphoria, combined with a new resolve. Instead there is a degree of cynicism. We have been here too often before.

In the two opposition parties, the instinct has been to protect their rear. True, Tony Blair has spoken about 'dialogue' with non-Labour elements, while Paddy Ashdown has called for 'partnership' with non-Lib Dem ones. Mainly, however, the weekend was notable for frontbench silence on the issue of realignment. Even the boldest comments have been reminiscent of the kind of guarded statement that used to issue from the White House and Kremlin during the Cold War. One side would make a pronouncement about the need for peace and the danger of weapons of mass destruction; the other would respond by indicating its own earnest desire to co-operate to create a better world. But when you looked at the small print, there was nothing more concrete than a call for the other lot to make a concession.

One reason for the reluctance to do more than talk blandly is an accurate perception on both sides that the most obvious expedient - a top- down national electoral pact - offers little. It would be hard to agree, harder still to make stick, and the benefits are questionable. The Pavlovian response of many politicians to mention of realignment is to think 'pact', and then think 'no' - and the discussion grinds to a halt. However, a pact is not the only basis on which the opposition parties could usefully work together, and it is mentally lazy if not disingenuous to imply that it is. Other forms of co-operation could be much more constructive.

That there is a demand for such co- operation in the country can scarcely be denied following the 6 May results. If there was a single message that came from the voters, it was this: a deeply unpopular government must be defeated by any possible means. The message came from the shires, where 'No Overall Control' has virtually become a new party; it came from Newbury, where - despite the expert endeavours of Peter Mandelson - the vast majority of electors intelligently supported the Liberal Democrat. It has come from a brace of recent opinion polls, all showing that the voters would prefer a united opposition to a divided one. The message also comes, as a matter of fact, from every sensible person you bump into, who doesn't happen to be a politician.

Nor is the general public being nave. For the truth, ridiculous though it may be, is that the opposition parties now agree on almost everything, but find it painfully hard to admit it. On most issues of importance to the voters - restarting the economy, creating jobs, constitutional reform, education, social justice, Europe - Labour and the Liberal Democrats have policies which are so similar that it requires a PhD in political science to tell them apart, plus a talent for hair-splitting.

On other matters (electoral reform, trade unions) the gap is narrowing. Indeed, one reason why the huge anti- Conservative vote last week seems to be combined with a large dose of public apathy is perplexity about where the parties stand. Why, people ask, cannot the fact of agreement - which all politicians acknowledge in private - be openly proclaimed and celebrated, instead of treated as a guilty secret?

Here, then, is a possible starting point for inter-party co-operation. John Smith and Paddy Ashdown might appear together on the same platform, make speeches stressing their areas of common ground and announce their joint condemnation of a disastrous administration. The event would be dramatic and, very probably, would have an instant effect on public opinion. Let us imagine that such a performance were fixed to take place in Basildon, symbolic home of Tory failed promise. The 'Basildon Declarations' would become famous and people would quote them as the basis for a new politics.

Basildon would not suggest a formal deal, though it might pave the way for informal, but officially sanctioned, talks about policy, leading to a common platform. It might be followed by fraternisation between Walworth Road and Cowley Street, and a series of national and regional - even constituency - joint meetings. Centrally, the parties might call a joint conference on a topical issue, such as unemployment or constitutional reform. There would be no hidden agenda, or attempt to thrash out details: the purpose would simply be to meet and air views, even to argue. Such an event might be followed by a 'Defeat the Tories' jamboree, on the scale of the parties' annual conferences - but without any commitments or promises.

Who knows, Labour people and Liberal Democrat people might end up liking each other. But the hope and intention would be to work towards a broad-based popular front, built around policy areas that arouse most passion, and on which the Government is most vulnerable. There would be no process of formal negotiation. But there might be loose agreement on a joint statement of basic principles, perhaps drawn up by an outside body. This simple package would provide the basis for joint campaigning - using the first appropriate by-election as an initial test.

Newbury was a victory, but it was also a tragically missed opportunity. (How much greater the excitement if Labour had stood down and earnt a share of the credit. And what a launching pad it would have been for the war against the Government.) Fortunately, however, the Parliament is still young and there will be more chances. When one arises, it would be best if one opposition candidate stood down, but this should not be forced. If, however, as at Newbury, one party was an obvious non-runner, the relevant leadership would not put up any pretence of a serious campaign.

Beyond this, it is hard to predict. But if the result was a good one, then - as might have happened at Newbury - victory night would be remembered as the moment when the earth began to move. Party workers would fall into each other's arms and the plodding rituals of opposition would be transformed. There would still be no merger, no pact, no deal, no detailed common programme. However, the language would change. MPs who still believed there were macho points to be gained by mouthing the old chauvinistic rhetoric would be marginalised: instead, people would talk about winning. Labour would continue to announce its intention of forming a government on its own with an overall majority and, indeed, its chances of doing so would have increased; so far from making any policy concessions, it might even be emboldened to adopt more radical policies, in place of the cautious me- tooism of 1992. But it might also indicate that, in the possible event of a hung parliament, it would have no difficulty in welcoming the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners.

Meanwhile, Mr Ashdown would continue to declare his ambition to hold the balance of power, but he would also make clear how he would use it in the event of a hung parliament - and, in effect, his support for Mr Smith as the next premier. Although there would be no pact, it is conceivable that in a few seats local parties might voluntarily choose not to put up candidates, in the interests of the common cause. The benefit would be that, for the first time since 1931, the election campaign would have the atmosphere of 'Us against Them', with the forces of reform jointly attacking the status quo.

What is the flaw? Obviously, such an approach would be bold and perilous, requiring, in Clement Attlee's phrase, a period of silence from party warriors accustomed to speaking their mind. But it involves no squalid deals, or questionable arithmetic, and there is nothing in it that is incompatible with the current position of either party: it requires a psychological, rather than a political, shift. If Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Parliament (for it is there that the problem lies) can stop treating opposition as a congenial way of life and regard it rather as a deep humiliation; if they can discover a hunger for office, rather than going through the motions, then there is a chance to bring radicalism back into fashion.

But who will bell the cat? Somebody has to be first to pick up the phone. It is a moment for courage and statesmanship. But it could also become the moment when everything begins to happen.

The writer is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, London. His biography of Harold Wilson was published last autumn by HarperCollins, price pounds 20.

(Photographs omitted)