Scorched Earth: A plea to labour and the left

There are worrying vibes going round the Labour camp. Twitter, the Guardian, mates at the pub; it’s everywhere. It’s the desire to undermine the Lib Dems, to make things as difficult for them as humanly possible, and even to hope they fail. Hundreds of comments about “Lib Dems scuttling to Labour” and “Con-Dem to be stopped at all costs”. Putting Nick Clegg up on ebay and other hilarious internet satire. It’s all very funny, and it’s important to be critical of his dealings, but I’m not sure how constructive it is. Indeed from some parts of the left, what I’m worried about is  the Tory-baiting temptation, and a return to scorched earth thinking which could harm us all.

The scorched earth strategy was pursued in South Yorkshire in the 90s. Thatcherism destroyed the local economy (based on coal mining and steel), but in some cases the Labour-run local authorities made things deliberately worse. Sheffield City Council is widely thought to have tried to bankrupt itself in order to force a government bail-out. City funds were piled into paintings for the town hall and building Sheffield Arena (where ironically Neil Kinnock delivered his death speech in ‘92). Local rates were increased to such high levels that the poor couldn’t pay and were forced to default. Nationally this was mirrored in the rate-capping rebellion. Now they try to deny it, but party members were quite aware of what was going on. The strategy was to create huge difficulties for the Tory government, while maximizing local rage.

I describe this as a parable for how a party whose very purpose is to protect the poor might play a game that harms the poor. Because right now we face some very dangerous decisions. The cuts proposed by the Tories would create massive social damage. There is no doubt that they intend to slash local services, especially provision of nursery places and support for the vulnerable. The much praised “free schools” scheme, modeled on a trial carried out in Sweden, has been roundly condemned by the Swedish authorities’ own research due to increasing educational inequality. There is no justification for a short-term debt reduction plan which is certain to cause long-term damage to social and human capital. Especially since it is entirely avoidable. But this is the Tory plan.

The worst case scenario then, is a conservative majority government. This must be avoided at all costs. And there are only two ways it can be avoided. Either 1) a “progressive coalition” of the left, or 2) a lib-con coalition of the centre, keeping the Tory rightwing in their box. But I am worried that there are elements in Labour who seem determined to avoid either scenario. Which leaves only outcome number 3), a government collapse followed by the inevitable election of a Tory majority. After all they were only 16,000 votes short this time, and are the only party with the cash to run another campaign.

Why would anyone in Labour let this happen? Due to the same sort of scorched earth thinking described above. We know the economy is in for a rough time in the next year, we know some cuts will be made. But they want the pain to fall upon the conservatives, to let Britain and the Tories burn together. A short period in the wilderness would allow the Labour party to make a clean break from its unpopular leadership and emerge fresh and renewed, with a soothing hand to wipe the tears suffered under recession and Tories. The worse the pain in between, the greater the likelihood of cruising back into government in an unreformed electoral system. We’d be begging them back all sins forgiven. But this would be deeply irresponsible. You can blame a rabid dog for savaging the electorate, but if you could have stopped it and chose not to, then you too are to blame.

This is why Labour must put country before party, and talk to the Lib Dems. Ideally they would cobble together a coalition of the left which offers swift electoral reform, and bring the deficit down gradually without regressive cuts. But if this can’t be done, they must allow a lib-con coalition without trying to sabotage it. I understand the temptation. The Lib Dems are treading on eggshells and risk a severe grassroots backlash. If they collapsed there would be a flood of refugees to Labour and possibly the greens. But this would be a TERRIBLE OUTCOME for the left. Labour might gain, but the Tories would gain much much more. A Lib-Dem collapse would rule out any coalition of the left, and it would prevent any co-operation with the right.

And Nick Clegg “selling out” to Cameron would be an absolute PICNIC next to leaving Tebbit, Letwin et al with a chainsaw in one hand and the keys to the country in the other. The Lib Dems need our support no matter what. Of course, we must use all our political pressure to ensure the best deal possible with the most concessions – especially anything we can get on electoral reform. But equally, we must refrain from pulling the rug out from under their feet. The sniping, bitching, ranting that has been going round and round, the blatant hope that the Lib Dems will be finished if they make any sort of deal: it is just not helpful. Because the Lib Dems have no choice, unless you make a better offer.

The ball is in Labour’s court. Labour activists, if you want the best deal for the country, you either 1) push for a fast and full attempt to build a progressive coalition based on compromise, or 2) sort yourselves out in private, and in public be constructive, on no account trying to undermine Clegg’s delicate work.

Whatever you do, don’t throw the Tories, the Lib Dems, and the whole of Britain into the furnace together.

I realize that directing this rant at “Labour activists” may not be the most pertinent. I’ve no doubt that the majority within the Labour party understand these things already and want the best for the country. And those eying a “Lib Dem fail” in gleeful expectation of savaging them afterwards are hardly confined to Labour, indeed those to the left of Labour may be even more guilty. Nevertheless, this is a crucial time, and we must all hold our politicians to account. Constantly, but most important, responsibly.


34 Responses to “Scorched Earth: A plea to labour and the left”

  1. Marcus Cosgrove Says:

    Interesting piece. I think your musings are bang on the money right now.

  2. BIna Ndamu Says:

    This is idealistic dreaming. Look at the local government scene and you will see that it has been dominated by CON-DEM alliances, carrying out the same policies. There is little to distinguish the Cons from the Dems. Labour left can dream all they like about trying to form a progressive alliance, but the Dems leadership are passionate to be in bed with the CONS. The way it will work out is that both DEMS and CONs will focus on ‘the national interest’ – by which they mean the economic crisis: and both (and probably LAB too) are all too keen to use public funds to bail out the oligopolies. The only thing that makes sense for LAB activists is to exacerbate the crisis within the LibDem party, which is more than likely to split or become demoralised.

  3. elliepant Says:

    Thanks for your comments. Bina, while exacerbating the crisis within the lib dems might be fun, how exactly will it improve the government situation?

  4. Rupert Read Says:

    Interesting post. Check out, on a similar theme,

    Recent Green Party tweet: ‘@CarolineLucas happy to consider confidence/supply w/ reform-oriented coalition.’
    Caroline said recently to the New Statesman: “I think we would rule out a formal coalition, but we’re very interested in talking about ways we might co-operate.”
    This is the direction we need to be moving in…

    Most voters and members see LibDems as leftofcentre. A #progressivemajority ‘rainbow’ government WOULD reflect the democratic popular will. See : LDs should be part of a progressive majority ‘rainbow’ govt-along with Nats , Greens (See ), SDLP, Alliance, and the independent Unionist.

  5. blanco Says:

    This is brilliant, Ellie. Can you please send it to all the idiots in the Greens (not Rupert) and Labour who are trying to sink a LibCon deal? You’re right, they want it to fail so they can win back seats from the Lib Dems. And all the idiots who are saying “I wish I hadn’t voted Lib Dem last week” – Clegg always said he would allow the party with the most votes and seats to try to form a government first. In PR systems, talks and coalitions are the norm.

    A lot of the “Take Back Parliament” campaign is very unproductive. For example, the Vote for a Change group encouraged its supporters to make a DOS (look it up) attack on the Lib Dems’ HQ’s communications. All this stuff about “don’t do it Nick” – don’t do what, talk to the Tories? Sell out your soul? That’s great. You want the guy to do what you want, so you insult him.

    I get the feeling Labourites and Greens WANT the Tories back in power, so they can blame it on the Lib Dems and get people back into their own ranks. So selfish.

  6. elliepant Says:

    Thanks for the comments, and Rupert for the links, I’d already seen a couple of those posts – Twitter is awesome 🙂 – but I’ll read the others now. I agree that a progressive coalition would be best, so long as it could be made to work. However this totally relies on the labour party being open to compromise and leadership, and at the minute they’re showing no signs of willing. Besides, it’s not even clear what their own position is since their leader is a lame duck.

    Blanco I totally agree that the “DOS attack” plan sounds both stupid and dangerous. The nature of coalition gov’t is that parties have to hold talks. If we want electoral reform we need to respect this and show that it works, rather than trying to shut down Lib Dem HQ’s communications. This is exactly the kind of divisive action that would show electoral-reformists up as nutters trying to undercut the political process, rather than as progressives interested in making government more balanced and representative.
    In general though I think the “Take back Parliament” campaign is a very good thing. Our electoral system has been terrible for years – just witness John Cleese tearing it to shreds back in 1983 – but it is rare that we get an opportunity like this to bring it into the spotlight. And even rarer to have this situation of a hung parliament with a pro-PR party holding a key position. Reading comments on Conservative Home, many on the right are terrified of the public using this opportunity to push for PR, and conspiracy theorists even accusing Nick Clegg or organizing the protests in order to give himself political capital. As long as the “Take Back Parliament” campaign is run in a non-partisan, non-negative way, it may play an important role in increasing the leverage of the Lib Dems with respect to electoral reform, keeping the issue on the agenda, and highlighting the deep faults in the current system.

  7. elliepant Says:

    seems the situation changed in the time it took me to write that comment

  8. blanco Says:

    Yup. Looks like the progressive coalition is back on. A minute is a long time in politics…. Here’s hoping Labourists give the Lib Dems the respect they deserve in the coming negotiations. Who replaces Brown as Leader and PM is the real stickler, though. I see no obvious candidate!

  9. blanco Says:

    Caroline’s ‘confidence and supply’ would not be enough to ensure the Progressive Government would survive the onslaught of the Murdoch press. She has to support them as part of a formal coalition. If she did, she might even get a minor ministerial position, and could achieve a heck of a lot more than a single MP, especially when all the other centre-left MPs are uniting to change the country.

    She has to put the country before her own interests as an MP and that of the Green Party.

  10. elliepant Says:

    One things for sure the next few days will be very, very interesting. *popcorn*.

  11. blanco Says:

    Indeed. It is possible that Nick Clegg, in demanding Brown go, achieved what so many within Labour failed to do! What are your thoughts on whether Caroline should formally join the Progressive Government? If she doesn’t, it will find it hard to get a majority, and could fall apart.

  12. Greens on board for a progressive government | Left Foot Forward Says:

    […] possibility volubly, notably over at Bright Green Scotland. Scottish Green activist Ellie Pant also warns eloquently against the dangers of not seizing this progressive […]

  13. elliepant Says:

    The prospect of Caroline Lucas in a progressive government is intriguing. From the perspective of the green party I suppose there are risks and opportunities. Risky if the coalition got screwed up due to a crisis of confidence/legitimacy or serious disagreement on major issues (which already exists). Opportunity to actually be involved in proper politics (on the condition of getting a cabinet position), which would be excellent both for progressing the green agenda, and for public exposure. She’s a brilliant politician and I think she’d do very well. People who vote for the greens already would be unlikely to be put off even by compromise or involvement with “tainted parties”, whereas a prominent and successful role in the public arena would attract new supporters.

    Agreeing with you that the national interest goes before party politics, I think for the nation as a whole it would be an excellent thing, so long as the coalition survived. However I’d be very worried about the actual conditions for such a deal, and who is calling the shots. So for now I suppose my opinion is that: yes she should formally join in principle (if offered a cabinet position), but if it seems that she is just being used as a pawn or that the coalition is likely to be a shambles, she should not touch it. In that case I’d hope to see a relationship of loose support as we have here with the SNP.

    And of course this is all assuming we don’t get Cameron as PM.

  14. blanco Says:

    The thing is that her vote isn’t strictly needed for the Progressive Alliance to get a majority, their NI sister parties and the Nats give them more than enough to get a majority. She would only really be needed in case the Nats withdrew, or if Labour rebels kicked up a fuss. I think she stands to benefit much more from being in the Alliance than it benefits from having her.

  15. blanco Says:

    Here is a tweet from a typical Green supporter: “Labour’s death bed conversion to PR would seem more sincere if they were contemplating it before defeat looked certain.”

    This is the kind of unhelpful comment you allude to above. It is as if Greens want to sabotage the Progressive Alliance because it is not as pure as the Green Government that will never happen, or as if they are jealous that they aren’t needed. Many progressive reforms have happened when parties have had no choice but to implement them. Does it matter? No, what matters is the outcome.

    This is why, in my other thread, I sympathise with Andy C’s decision to leave. The Greens are often not serious about taking progress when it is offered, and instead choose to simply criticise the big parties for trying to get on with the hand they’ve been dealt.

  16. elliepant Says:

    re the greens, I replied on the other post.

    re coalition, I agree that an alliance could work quite fine without the greens. we could potentially benefit a lot but only if it’s the right kind of alliance offering the right kind of conditions. to take an offer which would harm the green party or the issues which the green party stands for, would be short-sighted.

  17. blanco Says:

    Looks like Labour took the scorched earth option 😦

    I do hope the Greens, going forward, will present a positive alternative, not simply try to act as a protest movement against the evil Lib Dems in government.

    I would say I have the same hope for Labour, but I know I will soon start getting leaflets through my door denouncing the government for the cuts Labour would’ve made had they stayed in.

  18. Liberal Conspiracy » Why Lefties should worry about the Con-Dem-nation Says:

    […] A good point made by Ellie: Scorched Earth: A plea to labour and the left. (cheers […]

  19. Stiffed and Disappointed « London North East One Says:

    […] ahead of my rabid hatred of the Tory ethos. (I was going to say "ethic" but it's an oxymoron.) As someone somewhere said this is better than the other option, which would Tebbit and Letwin et. al. with a chainsaw in one […]

  20. Ben Says:

    I’m afraid this desperate, partisan and blinkered re-writing of history isn’t going to get you anywhere. Labour made major concessions on PR and cabinet places, and the Libs took a less good deal from the Tories instead.

    This utterly bizarre and histrionic attempt to re-write what is in front of our faces isn’t going anywhere.

  21. elliepant Says:

    To Ben: this was written before Brown resigned and before any dealings between the Lib Dems and Labour were made public. Which bits in particular do you refer to as “partisan” or “blinkered”?

  22. blanco Says:


    “On Monday night Lib Dem MPs and activists were aghast as Labour MPs took turns on television to denounce the idea of a pact between their two parties as a “coalition of losers” even as the two teams of negotiators were in talks.

    When their negotiating team reported back to their parliamentary party after their first two-hour meeting on Monday night there was shock.

    Every one of the Lib Dem negotiators gave an individual report back of their meeting with Harriet Harman, Lord Mandelson, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Lord Adonis, and they each reached the same conclusion: that the Labour team were uninterested, with no movement on ID cards, the third runway at Heathrow, or increasing the proportion of renewable energy from 15% to 40%.

    The Labour team’s minds were said to be more focused on their own leadership prospects.”

    Can you name me a single “concession” Ben, in terms of Cabinet places? PR? They pledged something they knew Labour MPs would never vote for. How is that a concession? Ironically, Brown forced the Tories to up their offer to include a referendum on AV.

    I wish the new government well. At least the Lib Dems are getting on with trying to be constructive. All Labour will be doing for the next 5 years – and yes, the new government’s only been in for a few hours and it’s already introduced fixed term parliaments, something Labour didn’t do in 13 years – is whining about how evil the government is, and how the Lib Dems are traitors to the left.

    One word for you: Iraq.

  23. Mr S. Pill Says:

    Excellent post.

  24. Some spiffing quotes, what « Freethinking Economist Says:

    […] honesty about Labour councils in the North from Ellie: Thatcherism destroyed the local economy (based on coal mining and steel), but in some cases the […]

  25. blanco Says:

    I must say, I found the “big offer” on the Greens’ website unnecessarily partisan and petty.

    I find it very interesting – the psychology of people that are leaving the Lib Dems as soon as the Lib Dems get power, to join Labour as soon as Labour leaves power.

  26. elliepant Says:

    I gather those (misjudged) comments came from communications staff not from Caroline herself.

    The psychological component is indeed interesting. But its also quite understandable that if someone genuinely disagrees with the decision taken by their party they would leave. Especially so with Lib Dems given they are such a broad church and rarely tested with difficult decisions. From a matter of principle, one might oppose some of the compromises being taken on policy. From a career perspective, they may be predicting a LibDem collapse and want to start again asap. From an influence perspective, this could be an interesting time to become involved in shaping future labour or green party policy. It will be interesting to see what happens to this new “liberal” aliiance in party political terms. One thing’s for sure, there will be more splits and defections to come.

  27. blueboy Says:

    “Nationally this was mirrored in the rate-capping rebellion.”


    Thatcher deliberately set out to cripple local councils that had the temerity to set out their own tax and spend plans rather than submit to the public services squeeze her ideology called for.

    Thatcher couldn’t abide pluralism – the distinct lack of localism in British politics is very much her legacy

  28. elliepant Says:

    @Blueboy, I totally agree with you

    However the example of the rate capping rebellion was to illustrate a point about the conflict between party-internal politics and good governance. Thacher’s policies were brutal and short-sighted. But the fact is that local councils had at least some power over people’s lives and there were times when, due to their approach to fighting the central gov’t, they took decisions which actively made people’s lives worse.

    The rate capping rebellion was not a success. in Sheffield it caused months of wrangling during which the funding of public services was interrupted, and a serious feud in the local labour party. In other cities it was much worse, notably in Liverpool where the council made the “tactical error” of issuing redundancy notices to 30,000 of their OWN WORKERS as part of the “protest”.

    Now I can understand why some labour councillors decided to follow this course of action. Likewise I can understand why some labour MPs chose to savage the lib dems and walk away from a progressive alliance. However in both cases there is no doubt that opportunistic party politics played a significant role in the decision.

    • blueboy Says:


      i will not claim that any politician is purer than pure. i do not entirely buy your cynical portrayal of Labour councils but neither can i wholly discount it. truth is, i wasn’t a Labour councillor in the 1980s. 😉

      however, i do think it is worth bearing in mind the unique circumstances of the time: Thatcher divided the country in a way that is hard to comprehend now. she was, certainly to her opponents, a quasi-dictator. whilst i instinctively fear the tories, Cameron is by his nature a consensual politician and i don’t foresee unrest or underhand council manouevering on anything like the same scale.

      as it happens i suspect the one thing that could have caused a damaging division in the country was the ‘progressive alliance’. it was a fantastic idea for a few hours but the reality is that it would have been hugely unstable, lacked legitimacy and might very well have triggered a constitutional crisis. maybe the motives of people like abbott/reid/blunkett etc were questionable, but we should thank them for not allowing us to lose our heads.

      • elliepant Says:

        Yup ‘progressive alliance’ is consigned to the quite-possibly-couldn’t-have-beens of history. I suppose a feature of the election was how unlikely all of the outcomes were. A rainbow coalition would have been incredibly hard to pull together – even for long enough to get PR and stop cuts after which they could have called another election -but then again no one had even floated the idea of Cleggaron until a week ago. A tory minority gov’t would also have carried a huge risk.

        Perhaps I’m over-compensating on the labour councils vs thatcher thing. But I did choose my words pretty carefully, I’m not trying to say the whole country was like that – it wasn’t – nor all the councillors on said councils. It was an example, and an example labourites in particular should not forget. If we continue in a party or ideology we have a duty to remember where and how its predecessors screwed up, both for respect to history, and to be humble and aware of avoiding those mistakes in the future.

        Cameron def isn’t the bogeyman of Thatcher, but I won’t be surprised that Labour is slow to get used to this more consensual form of conservatism. It’ll certainly take a while for the some Tories!

  29. blanco Says:

    I think the whole scorched earth approach, either intensely or just in a “grrr evil libservatives, lets be lazy in the councils we own and blame it on them” way, has always typified Labour in opposition and what Diane Abbott said on This Week tonight proved it’s still the case – that Labour gave up on the idea of a progressive alliance because “it wouldve been too hard”, and “we lost” and “we wanted to be in opposition.”

    I was struck by how mature Heseltine and Hughes were on Question Time, especially compared to the bizarre ranting of the barely-concealed Labour propagandist Mehdi Hasan. And Abbott’s condescending attitude to Billy Bragg for not being completely cynical about the Coalition Government – “youre being naive” – and attacking Clegg&Cameron’s public school background when SHE sent her own kids to private school – sums up for me why I think it would be a waste of any political activist’s time to help Labour “fight back.”

    They have nothing to fight for – this Coalition is promising to do a lot of shit things, sure, but pretty much all the good things Labour promised to do/roll back a lot of their bad things they did. And without the dead hand of the state + free markets model that Labour thought would lead us all to the promised land.

    I think it might take another ten years for Labour to become a party with a vision. The last time they were in opposition they ate themselves and then forgot who they were.

    • elliepant Says:

      I hope you’re wrong about the 10 years Blanco! But you must admit it’s not just Labour that behaves like that in opposition – and indeed it’s only been a couple of days so they’re all over-reacting. If anything, it’s the nature of an opposition itself. Nietzsche would have had a fucking fieldday if he saw how we organized our parliament, built on action and reaction. The tories were hardly a positive or constructive force in the Blair years either. Agree with you on hypocrisy of reverse-snobbery by ppl who sent their own kids to elite schools.

      • blanco Says:

        True, it is a common feature of our politics that opposition parties tend to be OTT after losing an election. What is different in the UK now is that a party that has always been in opposition, and whom the other opposition party is saying should have remained in opposition, has decided to take responsibility for the cuts that ALL the three parties agreed upon, and try to moderate the government anyway.

        One thing that hasn’t received much discussion is why in our system we couldn’t have conceivably had either a Grand Coalition (LabCon) or a government of National Unity (LibLabCon). As a Green I’m sure you’re aware that there is enough consensus among the three main parties in a lot of areas that makes their opposition to each other quite contrived and prevents real principled opposition from others.

        The reason it was never on the cards was because of tribalism – the idea that my tribe, right or wrong, is the only tribe I want in power (with the Lib Dems being my bitch-tribe who can only work with my tribe and not the other tribe). Diane “My son went to Private School” Abbott yesterday said the anti-coalition mood among the PLP was widespread. This is because they’d rather just wait their turn to get back when they won’t need to compromise on having power just to themselves – despite the fact that Labour majority governments have sold out most of the principles she as a left-winger claims to hold dear.

        I have hope that the LibCon govt will prove that left and right can work together for common goals – and let’s face it, only the most tribalist idiot could refuse to work with people with different political views in any other walk of life – and that this might lead to a more congenial and consensual politics. As to Labour’s role – well, if the government provides the balance of left and right that matches this country’s mixed viewpoints, why would we need Labour at all?

  30. Kyle Says:

    A good post on the same line as your’s Ellie, from a Scottish Green:
    The Liberals have got significant concessions on environmental policy and civil liberties from the Tories; better than the deal the Green Party got from Fianna Fáil in the Irish coalition.

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