A Labour-LibDem government must be better than any alternative

My Google Alert service has belatedly noticed this:

Twitter / LabourList: Brian Barder on what Gordon’s people should say to Clegg’s people if parliament is hung …
Brian Barder on what Gordon’s people should say to Clegg’s people if parliament is hung… http://bit.ly/9wKCI0.

I wrote this two days before the election and put it on my blog.  It also appeared in LabourList.  “Gordon’s people” are now apparently reading from my suggested script almost word for word.  I shouldn’t say “I told you so”, but….

My proposed imaginary message for Labour to transmit to the LibDems concluded, if you remember:

One last point.  Strictly between ourselves, Gordon has told me that whatever happens he’s definitely going to step down in six months’ time and retire from politics altogether.  He wants to devote himself to charity work and to spend more time with his family.  But he would love to be able to leave behind a stable centre-left government based on a close LibDem-Labour collaboration that would have the best chance of safeguarding the economic recovery and building on his legacy.

That was pure guess-work laced with advocacy, written on 4 May (before the election) and derided by some readers as absurd.

Unfortunately my powers of prophesy don’t extend to forecasting the outcome of the current Westminster soap-opera.  A tug-of-war seems to be in progress:  Clegg and the rest of the right-wing faction of the LibDems seemingly want to seal the deal with the Tories on the terms now offered by Hague (and presumably Cameron) despite the rumbling opposition of the Tory troglodytes;  the LibDem left (probably Huhne, Hughes, Cable and the majority of the grass-roots) is pulling the other end of the rope towards a deal with Labour, now that the Brown obstacle is effectively removed.  Clegg may well be using his negotiations with Labour simply as a means of strengthening his position in his bargaining with the Tories (and he has already had some striking success in this); some in his party, perhaps a majority, genuinely want them to succeed.  Clegg has the advantage of being the leader; the LibDem left probably has the numbers within the party’s organs.  The outcome, it seems to me, is anyone’s guess.

The objections to a government of Labour and the LibDems with the likely support in major votes of the smaller centre-left parties don’t seem to me impressive.

The right-wing tabloids complain that Gordon Brown’s successor, to be elected by the arcane processes of the Labour Party constitution, would be yet another “unelected” prime minister.  But all our prime ministers are “unelected” by the British electorate.  Only the voters in the putative prime minister’s constituency get to vote for (or against) him or her.  In Brown’s case, he was re-elected in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath with an increased majority.  The rest of us voted for candidates identified by their parties, and research has shown that the vast majority of the electorate determine their votes by reference to the party of their candidate of choice, only rarely influenced by the candidate’s personality or record.  (The expenses scandal may of course have distorted this generalisation in the case of this month’s election, but the generalisation remains broadly valid.) Thus it’s basically the party which is elected, not its leader.  The regrettable precedent set by the ill-conceived television “leaders debates” may have obscured this truth, but truth it remains.  There have been numerous examples of changes of prime minister between elections without the querulous bleatings of the Daily Mail declaring them illegitimate because they served as prime minister without having fought a general election as party leader.  One prime minister in recent history actually held office in No. 10 for two weeks while not even a member of either of the houses of parliament: and even after that he was only elected an MP in a by-election, not in a general election.  Few complained at the time that anything unconstitutional had happened or that his position as prime minister was invalid.  We elect parties, and the parties elect their leaders, with parliament choosing which party to entrust with office.

Nor need we be swayed by the ritual description of a Labour-LibDem coalition or pact as a “Coalition of the Losers”.  No single party won an outright majority either of the votes cast or of the seats won, so all of them are in that sense losers.  Labour and the LibDems combined would hold more seats in the Commons than the Conservatives and this has usually been the main criterion for forming a government.  It’s true that the two parties would still be short of an overall majority but the decisive question is whether such a government would command the confidence of the majority in the Commons in a vote of confidence:  and since most of the smaller parties belong to the centre-left and are more or less virulently anti-Conservative, it’s a reasonable expectation that on crucial votes they would support a Lab-LibDem administration in preference to the only alternative (a Cameron government or fresh elections); and that accordingly they would probably collectively provide a majority.  Of course a Lab-LibDem government wouldn’t be able to guarantee its ability to get every last piece of its legislation through parliament:  but that’s true of any minority or coalition-type government when intra-party rebels may defy their Whips.

It’s no doubt true that “the markets”, those ill-defined but apparently omnipotent forces, would prefer a Conservative government with LibDem support to a Labour government with LibDem support.  The markets calculate, no doubt accurately, that a mainly Conservative government would focus almost exclusively on reducing the deficit and paying off much of the national debt, starting yesterday, whereas Labour would attach at least equal importance to safeguarding Britain’s recovery from recession (since renewed growth in the economy is the key to deficit reduction and debt repayment) and to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society from the worst effects of cuts in spending on public services and increased taxes, both of which are inevitable whichever government emerges blinking into the sunlight later this week.  But one of the great issues of our time is whether we are tamely to accept the primacy of the markets over our own democratic processes and system of government.  Chancellor Mrs Merkel, Presidents Sarkozy and Obama, and many other world leaders are determined that we must not, and are actively working towards an international consensus on how to bring the menacing and fundamentally anti-social influence of the markets under democratic political control.  Such an attitude to the markets is anathema to both the British Tories and the British Blairites, both of whom have adopted a position of cringeing pre-emptive surrender to the City and its markets.  Now that the markets have demonstrated their essential destructiveness, and their blind commitment to the transfer of wealth from the many to the mega-rich few, by bringing the world’s economy to the brink of collapse, the case for bringing them under control by much tighter regulation must surely be unanswerable.  A Lab-LibDem administration is far more likely to play its part in that international effort than a Tory Party still in hock to its rich supporters.  The frenzied opposition of the markets while this process is being worked out will do us considerable harm, in terms of higher costs of government borrowing and general panic in the markets over Britain’s and other perfectly reliable countries’ creditworthiness, but the alternative — continuing to let the markets control our policies — will be far more harmful even in the medium term.  (My immoderate views on all this are spelled out more fully here.)

A more potent objection to a Labour-LibDem outcome is that a savage electoral penalty awaits whichever party is in office in the next few years of compulsory and unavoidable austerity, with the whole population having to suffer painful reductions in welfare and incomes and very little opportunity for other reformist measures, however desirable, costing money which the government won’t have.  It will be almost impossible for any government to avoid harsh and unpopular measures which may well bring thousands of people onto the streets in protest, as is happening already in Athens.  There’ll be a general feeling of gross injustice that ordinary people, who have not a shred of responsibility for the ecomomic and financial calamity that has overtaken us, should be made to pay much of the heavy cost of recovery from it.  If it’s a predominantly Labour government that has to bear the brunt of these perfectly justified protests and this sense of unfairness, it could be the end of Labour’s electability for a decade;  and if Labour’s unpopular measures have succeeded in bringing Britain out of the recession and made a start in restoring its financial balance, it could well be a decade or more of Tory government that will reap the benefit and govern in much happier times.  In other words, the next few years might be a good time to be in opposition.  Against this, though, must be set the deep damage likely to be done to millions of innocent people by the accession of a Cameron-Osborne government hell-bent on prematurely paying off the bankers at whatever cost to the nation’s recovery from recession, and regardless of the penalties inflicted on the most vulnerable people in our society,  while the mega-rich see their taxes cut and their inordinate wealth relatively undisturbed.  It would be intolerable to wish that on our country simply to preserve a medium-term electoral advantage for the Labour Party.  So the choice for decent progressive people is clear, pace Mr Blunkett and Dr Reid:  a Labour-LibDem administration, whether in coalition or a confidence-and-supply pact, would be vastly preferable to any available alternative.

Whether we’ll get it, however, remains an open question, at any rate as of 11.30am on Tuesday 11 May, 2010!


2 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    Bravissimo Brian! If I explained my own rationale for reaching the same conclusion I would simply be reiterating much of what you’ve said. So let me add other less substantial but nonetheless, I think, telling points.

    I heard Michael Meacher this morning on R4 talking enticingly about ‘..the possibility for real Labour renewal, which would only be brought about by a period out of office after the demise of NuLabour.’ It’s an enlivening thought. But could it happen? I look at my own constituency and see a Labour Party membership down from roughly 1000 in 1997 to about 200 today – and many of them too young ever to have known what Old Labour was! The real Old Labour activists have mostly gone for good – typical of what Blair and Brown wrought in activist constituency parties in their 13 years at the helm. (They didn’t like activists, so they introduced the postal-voting-on demand scam to by-pass them.) So, little chance of renewal at the grassroots in the near future, I think.

    Then I look at the fate of real Old Labour in the last parliament, in the form of the excellent John McDonnell, Kelvin Hopkins, Bob Marshall-Andrews, and other members of the Socialist Campaign Group. They were condemned to virtual impotence by the mob of new Labour war-mongering free marketeers. And they are neither numerous nor influential enough (especially after resignations such as that of Bob M-A) to be able to effect a revival of an idealised Labour Party within parliament. And they are getting older – as are all we Old Labourites.

    So I have to wonder where, when and by whom Michael Meacher imagines the Party would be renewed – and how long in the wilderness he envisages the process might take. I can’t see it happening in my ever-shortening time-span….

    So, what’s the alternative? On the sound philosophical basis that it’s an ill wind….. I’d say that if the otherwise highly unpalatable Clegg brings his troops to join Labour on condition that we cancel even just a few of: Trident, ID cards, the prison-building programme and the 3rd Heathrow runway, we’d be getting a programme that NuLabour would have had fits about, and which would have seen us Old Labour dinosaurs six feet under before it ever came about under MM’s ‘renewal whilst out of power’….

    So, holding the nose firmly between the thumb and forefinger, let’s welcome Nick Clegg’s offer. If he ever makes it. And if it’s the right one.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Bob. Amen to everything you say. If governing in some form of alliance with the LibDems were to lead a predominantly Labour government to renounce Trident (although all Clegg wants is to include it in the forthcoming defence review, a pretty anaemic policy compared with giving up our nuclear deterrent altogether), to be a little more humane in our treatment of long-resident but illegal immigrants, to jettison not just ID cards but the monstrous intrusive database that’s to support them, to halve the prison population by releasing those who should never have been sent there in the first place and not building yet more prisons for more of the same, to start playing a genuinely constructive and enlightened role in the EU, and to repeal four-fifths of the illiberal crime and anti-terrorism legislation rushed through parliament during the Blair years, it will all be worth-while. But these are big ifs, alas. What is not at all iffy is that virtually none of these good things will happen if we have to endure several years of a Cameron government, which would take not the slightest notice of their junior LibDem coalition partners tugging vainly at their sleeves, whatever promises they might be making this week in order to get their hands on the (non-existent, actually) keys to No. 10.

  2. Rob Storey says:

    How gloomy Bob. The spirit of Labour – and by other names  – lives on. It doesn’t depend on ageing defeatists to carry the mantle.  We were all dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters until Blair happened when winning elections became the sole raison d’etre.
    Thirteen years. War and then another, attacks on civil liberties (and human rights), soaring prison population, proposed ID cards, the Dome (we got a hint then), the soaring divide between top and bottom,  consummerism gone mad, free rein to the bankers and bonuses, Trident  – and on it goes.
    Of course there was good but overwhelmingly new Labour deserved to lose.
    Conservative/Lib-dem pact was/is  the only game in town.  The voting numbers said loudly and clearly that it is the least worst option. Any other would have removed any last chance there is to rid ourselves of the embarassment of Blair, Brown and Mandleson. Especially Mandelson.
    I don’t see this coalition lasting. But Labour can’t win if they occupy the same centre ground. Which is why David Milliband would be a mistake.
    Young people are just like we are – just younger of course.
    Anyway, stay well, Rob