If only they'd talk a bit more: Labour and the Liberal Democrats must be prepared to shock us, writes Ben Pimlott

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The Independent Online
JUST occasionally in politics, a spark is struck offering a tantalising glimpse of the possible. Then firemen rush in, and douse it efficiently with a bucket.

Last week such a momentary flash was ignited by Richard Hall, a young trade unionist who stood as Labour candidate in Newbury at the general election. Following the death of Judith Chaplin, Tory MP for the seat, Mr Hall declared that he would not seek renomination, and expressed the hope that no other Labour candidate would be put up in his place. As Labour stood no chance of winning, it made more sense, he suggested, to withdraw in favour of the well-placed Liberal Democrats. A considered abstention would boost the wider cause of political realignment, he argued.

Sacrilege] Obscenity] Madness] The cause that dare not speak its name] Labour's hierarchy moved with clinical dispatch. On Tuesday, Walworth Road announced that Labour 'is a national party and we put up candidates in every national election'. On Wednesday, the leadership briskly disposed of the matter at the weekly meeting of the PLP, with only one voice against. Labour will put up a candidate, who will get about as many votes as Lord Sutch. Splosh.

So that is an end to the matter. But should it be? Should Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, automatically dismiss such an idea - just because this has always been so?

In the deeply conservative Labour Party precedent has habitually been the guide, in electoral as in policy matters. However, Labour has recently been showing extraordinary signs of policy developments, even of revolution. In the past few weeks John Smith has displayed enthusiasm for constitutional reform; Tony Blair has stolen some of the Tories' more respectable clothes on law and order; Gordon Brown has announced a new, post-collectivist, Labour interventionism to restore the economy; and Lord Plant, chairman of Labour's working group on the subject, has indicated personal support for electoral reform. Meanwhile there is every sign that Labour will alter its rule-book in the direction of greater democracy, sealing down the trade union link.

These imaginative changes not only remove most of the remaining obstacles to Labour-Liberal Democrat discourse. They also show that Labour can be flexible and innovatory. At the same time, the majority of Liberal Democrats have abandoned the fantasy of displacing Labour as the official Opposition. It is much more possible than before for both parties to consider the advantages of a greater degree of friendliness.

Talk of 'popular fronts' has always alarmed the official Labour Party. It did so in the 1930s, when Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan joined forces with Liberals like Sir Richard Acland, and helped to bring about a notable 'Independent Progressive' victory at a by-election in Bridgwater in 1938, with support from both the local Liberal and Labour parties. The same year Labour stood down in Oxford for the popular front candidate, A D Lindsay, master of Balliol, against the youthful Quentin Hogg. Hogg won, but the by-election raised the profile of opposition to appeasement and to the rise of fascism. Later, the Labour Party expelled Cripps and Bevan for appearing on popular front platforms.

However, Labour's stance has been ambivalent. It has not been so exclusively 'national' as to scorn Liberal support in hung Parliaments - most recently in 1976-79. Nor is it so proud that it will reject such backing in future, in the event of another minority Labour government - which, indeed, is the rational limit of its aspirations.

If Labour and Liberal Democrats were now to build a bridge to make collaboration easier after an election, the aim should not be a national electoral pact - which would be impossible to agree. It should start with a more co-operative spirit in the House of Commons, to strengthen the assault on the Government and prevent repetition of the silly failure to agree tactics which occurred over the Maastricht vote last autumn. It should also encourage public acknowledgement of the extent of accord that exists between party speakers, who at present confuse the public by ritually disagreeing.

Most dramatically, it could encourage electoral gestures, by one party or the other, of the kind suggested by Mr Hall. The point would not merely be to increase tactical voting and maximise the Opposition vote, it would be to build up a head of steam. The psychological effect of an abstention and an endorsement would be immense. Media attention would increase tenfold, public interest and enthusiasm would grow, particularly if there were a successful outcome. Parties could revert to normal competition in the general election. But in the meantime, a new mood would have been created of benefit to both - and the Government would have been hard pressed.

There has been talk of 'realignment' in the past. This time, however, as it becomes clear that incompetence and complacency are no bar on a Conservative Government staying in power indefinitely, it could be different.

The first requirement may be a reduction of mutual suspicion through a campaign of fraternisation which would demonstrate the common ground that already exists among trade unionists, in local parties and pressure groups, as well as in think-tanks and national bodies like Sir Gordon Borrie's commission on poverty, which is currently showing, in its composition, the irrelevance of party chauvinism. Joint working parties, even joint conferences, might be a useful beginning.

The final object would be to produce a British New Deal to arouse the enthusiasm and the conscience of the nation, and revive its hope.

Many MPs talk about it privately. But who will bell the cat? Senior politicians in both parties have to break cover, and show that they are prepared to shock. Given the shared dismay and anger over our misgovernment, it ought not to take much to start a forest fire.