Should Lib and Lab lie down together?

Ahead of Paddy Ashdown's key speech tonight, we offer two contrasting views on cross-party co-operation; Yes, Calum Macdonald says: we must end yah-boo politics and co-operate to make government work
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Confrontational politics leads inevitably to a culture of secrecy, to closed minds and to a possessive - indeed manipulative - attitude towards official information. This is because the driving incentive for politicians is, too often, to catch the other fellow on the hop rather than to produce better decisions. The latter requires genuinely open debate in which all views are sought and assimilated as part of the political process.

That is why the case for replacing the knee-jerk adversarial culture of British politics goes wider than the particular interests of Labour andLiberal Democrats. If we aspire to a more open democracy and more efficient government in Britain, a greater emphasis on co-operation and cross-party consensus is an indispensable part of that.

When the German government produces its budget, for example, it first of all sets out a "green budget" which is open to the widest possible debate. Only after many amendments and refinements does the final budget become law. In Britain, by contrast, even most ministers in the Government are not aware of the contents of the Budget until it is unveiled in the Chancellor's speech. Thereafter, the Government will strain every sinew to ensure that the entire, complex package goes through months of legislative ritual almost completely unchanged.

The cockpit of Commons debate makes for entertaining theatre, but it is lousy government. This political culture of closed minds is at the root of numerous policy-making debacles in Britain, from the Dangerous Dogs Act to the poll tax.

Of course, there is also a particular case for Labour and Lib Dems now to be co-operating more closely. They both espouse a more open and plural political system; and, more widely, there is a growing convergence of policy between the two parties on a range of crucial issues.

Labour has adopted a wide-ranging constitutional agenda. At the same time, the Lib Dems have taken on a sharper social focus, for example by embracing the Social Chapter. Investment in our national infrastructure, renewal of public services, a fairer tax system and public responsibility for the environment: in all these key areas, a radical, left-of-centre agenda is emerging which could profoundly transform Britain.

It misses the point to talk of "coalitions". That is too grandiose a term. What is needed is detailed work between the two front benches on specific policies to develop the common ground that already clearly exists. This should be done carefully, constructively and, above all, naturally. There is no need to force the two parties into artificial consensus. We simply require to break down the artificial and partisan walls that keep politicians unnecessarily apart.

Recent experience in Scotland provides the model for this. After years of discussion, the two parties recently announced a scheme for a new Scottish Assembly to be set up in Edinburgh. The agreed scheme is different in detail from that originally advocated by each party separately, but it embodies their shared commitment to renewing Scottish democracy.

Other areas of policy would reward a similarly constructive and co-operative attitude between the two front benches. The most obvious need is for detailed discussion on how a post-Conservative government will implement the broad democratic revolution - affecting the House of Lords, devolution, a Bill of Rights and even the voting system - to which the two parties are committed.

A joint announcement that the two parties were committed to a constitutional package would greatly increase public support for and confidence in that scheme. It would also deflect critics who argue that the agenda of democratic reform is so ambitious that it will bog down the next Labour (or Labour- led) government.

Talk of using the Liberal Democrats to "prop up" the next Labour government is both silly and unnecessary. The Lib Dems need to focus on a number of key areas and, after discussion with their Labour counterparts, to state that they will work with the Labour Party to implement the legislative fruits of those discussions after the next election. This, of itself, would be a revolutionary act, transforming the agenda for the next election.

The stakes are too high for ritualistic carping from Paddy Ashdown about the Labour Party having no policies. It is time to end yah-boo politics and get down to some serious business.

The writer is Labour MP for the Western Isles and chairman of Labour Initiative on Co-operation (LINC).

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