By Callum Gurr
"Given how intrinsically linked the two parties’ fortunes are, Labour and the Liberal Democrats must accept that an attack on the other is an attack on their own chance of gaining more seats come 2024."
It is the 1st of May 1997. Professor Anthony King proclaims that “[there] is an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying all life on Earth.” This is not a quote from a late 90s disaster movie, but the way in which an academic described the scale of Labour’s 1997 election triumph.
Whilst it might sound like hyperbole, it was anything but. By all measures, 1997 was a supreme triumph for New Labour: it was the largest victory achieved by any party since the Second World War and it ushered in 13 years of virtually unrivalled power in Westminster.
What caused this “asteroid”? Tony Blair’s charisma, Conservative in-fighting and The Sun throwing their support behind New Labour are all well-documented reasons. But a less-reported factor behind Labour’s victory was the informal pact they agreed with the Liberal Democrats.
For years the two left-leaning parties had aimed fire at one another to disastrous effect - in the 1983 election, a virtually even split of the opposition vote between the two delivered Margaret Thatcher another term in government. Further defeats in 1987 and 1992 underscored the fact that a Left disunited would struggle to beat a Conservative Party which enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the right-wing vote.
In 1997 this changed. Labour's Tony Blair and the Liberal Democrats, led by the late Paddy Ashdown, agreed to a pact of sorts. The two parties would not deploy heavy resources in a seat which the other was targeting but they had no chance of winning. In the media, they would aim their fire solely on the Conservatives, not each other. Consequently, Labour gained 145 seats in the following election. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats more than doubled their parliamentary presence despite losing 1% of the nationwide vote share. This was largely possible thanks to an acceptance by both sides that targeting the same seats and slinging mud at each other only played into the Conservatives’ hands.
Despite the success of this pact, the reunification of the Left was only fleeting. Blair briefly considered inviting the Liberal Democrats into a coalition government during his first years of government, but a mixture of the scale of his own success and his Deputy Prime Minister threatening to resign if he pursued such an arrangement scuppered those plans. Similarly, a joint committee on Constitutional reform between the two parties fell apart after only four years, with Blair’s failure to enact electoral reform being one of the main reasons why the new Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, cooled his interest.
By 2005, the pact fell apart completely. The Liberal Democrats were vehement in their opposition to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; Kennedy said in a 2003 Stop the War rally shortly before the invasion, “there can be no just or moral case for war against Iraq”. The Blair-backing Sun compared Kennedy to a snake in a now-infamous front page in response to his opposition. The 2005 election saw Labour’s majority shrink by over 100 seats, with the Liberal Democrats gaining 9 from Labour and the Conservatives making a net gain of 33.
Since then the Left's civil war has taken on a life of its own. The 2010 Leaders’ debate saw Nick Clegg repeatedly aim fire at the incumbent Gordon Brown and 2015 saw Ed Miliband criticise the Liberal Democrats for entering a coalition with the Conservatives. By 2019, both parties seemed to be more focused on beating each other than the right. The Liberal Democrats inexplicably targeted Kensington, despite having been a very distant third in 2017, and this seat turned from Red to Blue. Despite the wishes of local campaigners in Canterbury, the only Kent seat held by Labour, the Liberal Democrats' national party insisted on fielding a candidate in the seat, although this seat did remain Red. Labour seemed just as keen to prevent Liberal Democrats gains - despite the fact that the majority of the Liberal Democrats' target seats were Conservative-facing. In Wimbledon, Labour continued to campaign despite the fact the seat ended up just 628 votes away from flipping from Blue to Yellow. Similarly, the party refused to step down in North Norfolk, which had been held by the Liberal Democrats since 2001, and this seat was picked up by the Conservatives. A non-aggression pact may well have prevented many of these seats from ending up as Conservative gains.
In contrast to the Left’s disunity, the right-wing parties stood united. At the 2019 election, the Brexit Party stood down in all 317 seats held by the Conservatives, in a move which gave the governing party a belief that their 2017 haul of seats was the floor for their electoral ambitions. The result, as we all know, was a large Conservative majority of 88.
This demonstrates the benefits an electoral pact can have, and it was only possible thanks to the Brexit Party putting aside their ego and differences with the Conservatives to achieve a loftier goal. Had the Brexit Party not unilaterally decided to create an alliance, it is likely this would never have happened.
Any alliance on the left would be far less formal than this full stand-down by Farage’s party. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have unique histories and ideologies that mean it is virtually impossible that they would formally step aside for the other. Instead, both parties would still run candidates in seats against each other, they would just simply not target seats the other is better placed to win (unless it is a Labour-Liberal Democrat marginal like Sheffield Hallam).
The results of such an arrangement could well change the outlook for both parties, and the whole UK as a result. The Labour Party are currently 123 seats away from the 326 seats required for a parliamentary majority, meaning they face an uphill challenge even with their improving fortunes under Keir Starmer. But of their 123 most winnable target seats (i.e. those with the smallest swing required), none are currently held by the Liberal Democrats, meaning an alliance could be very helpful in eradicating this parliamentary deficit. The Liberal Democrats too would benefit. All but 3 of their top 25 target seats are held by the Conservatives, meaning if they could turn these 22 seats gold it would be 22 fewer seats the Labour Party have to make ground on the Conservatives. In fact, of the Liberal Democrats' 50 most winnable seats, just 4 are held by Labour, meaning a non-aggression pact could pay extremely well for both parties. In Scotland too, the Liberal Democrats refraining from firing at their fellow Unionist party could well give Labour a shot at winning back some of the seats they have lost to the SNP in Scotland, and this would work vice-versa too.
Whilst in 2019 a non-aggression pact was impossible - due to Liberal Democrat concerns over Labour’s anti-Semitism and Labour’s distrust of the Liberal Democrats for entering coalition with the Conservatives - today much has changed. Both Keir Starmer and the new leader of the Lib Dems Ed Davey are more moderate figures who have shown an interest in coming to an arrangement with each other. But such an action cannot wait – both parties cannot spend the next 3 years slinging mud at each other, like Angela Rayner’s recent jibe, only to down tools come 2024. Given how intrinsically linked the two parties’ fortunes are, Labour and the Liberal Democrats must accept that an attack on the other is an attack on their own chance of gaining more seats come 2024. So, the non-aggression pact must mean no more public attacks on each other for the time being.
The results since the expiration of the last non-aggression pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats are evidence of why Starmer and Davey must act today. A Left disunited does not win, so it is time for the main parties of Britain’s Left to face the electoral reality: stand together or face many more years of right-wing rule.
Callum Gurr is a journalism graduate and former member of the Liberal Democrats. He is the current co-host of the Wizard Radio politics and current affairs discussion show, To Be Discussed.