A packed joint meeting of the Labour History Group and the Liberal Democrat History Group at Portcullis House last night heard a lively discussion between Paddy Ashdown, Pat McFadden and Roger Liddle, refereed by Steve Richards. What did we learn from their debate about the events of the 1990s when Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair nearly formed a coalition?
Lesson 1 Sometimes it is difficult to agree on the past, let alone the future.
Lesson 2 Misfit party leaders are often the most successful (Thatcher, Blair, Ashdown). Although this argument could be turned around to claim that successful leaders are seen as mis-fits, by virtue of their rarity.
Lesson 3 Political parties make leaders more cautious. Tony Blair is regarded across the political spectrum as close to an identikit ideal party leader. He was in power with a large parliamentary majority at a relatively benign time economically and internationally: Yet by most people’s judgement, including his own, he delivered much less than expected. He was restrained from many of his key projects (coalition, euro) by his party.
Lesson 4 Viewing defections as an entirely negative phenomenon may be missing part of their value. Political parties are tribal and we have seen the problems caused by different tribes developing separately (Apartheid, BNP). So a certain amount of inter-breeding is probably a positive thing for politics as a whole. Some interchange of personnel between parties (Roger Liddle, Churchill) is overall a positive thing, increasing understanding and removing some of the barriers to effective joint working.
Lesson 5 Some elections produce mainly winners and others produce mainly losers. In 1997 virtually all Labour and LibDem voters will have been happy with the result. However, in 2010, only the Greens had much cause to celebrate, winning their one seat, but supporters of all three main parties had cause to be disappointed.
Lesson 6 Leaders need to be ready to act very swiftly when they first take power. Momentum is soon lost (Blair, Obama). Labour and the Lib Dems could have entered a coalition at any stage between May and November 1997, but after that the impetus was lost.