Five Days in May (III): the lessons for Labour

In the five hectic days between the election results on 6 May 2010 and the appointment of David Cameron as prime minister on the 11th, Labour never had a chance of a deal with the LibDems that would have kept Labour in office, even under a new leader. Some LibDems have suggested that they were forced into bed with the Tories by Labour’s failure to negotiate seriously with them or to offer a better deal than the Tories.  This is false, although it has a grain of truth in it.  The LibDems went through the motions of negotiating with Labour purely to maximise their leverage in the real negotiations they were conducting with the Tories.  It’s worth re-visiting those five days to see what lessons Labour might draw from them next time an election results in a hung parliament — something that now seems likely in most future elections while the state of the parties in the country remains broadly the way it is, even if the electoral system is not changed between now and the next election.  What really happened, and why?  In this third and final assessment of the lessons of the Five Days in May, I look at what Labour did and didn’t do in that frenetic period and what lessons Labour can learn from the experience.

An essential but widely neglected factor in these events is that the parties were seeking to conform to a new, or newly formulated, rule-book for a hung parliament, drawn up by the Cabinet Secretary and approved before the election by a parliamentary select committee and by the leaders of the principal parties.  (Before the election I wrote a more detailed analysis of the new rules, e.g.  here and here.) Briefly, they provided that (1) whatever the arithmetic of the election results,  the incumbent prime minister had not just a right but a positive duty to remain in office, and not to resign, until there was clearly and incontestably an alternative member of the new parliament able to form a government that would have the confidence of an overall majority of MPs;  (2) it was the duty of the party leaderships, not of the Queen, to negotiate with each other until there was clear, firm agreement on a government and a head of it able to command the confidence of the majority of the house of commons;  and (3) if inter-party negotiations failed to agree on such a new leader and government, it would be the duty of the incumbent prime minister, regardless of whether his or her party had the most seats in the new House, to present a programme of policies in a Queen’s Speech to the house of commons at the opening of the new parliament and to invite the House to vote to approve or reject it.  The purposes of these re-formulated rules were to protect the monarch from involvement in party politics and the need to make invidious and controversial decisions, and to ensure that government could be carried on, with a prime minister in place in No. 10, throughout the time needed for the negotiation of a new and durable government, so that in the event of a sudden crisis during that period, the ship would not be without a captain and crew.

It was clear from 6 May that although the Conservatives had failed to win an overall majority of seats in the house of commons (which would have required Brown to resign and Cameron to become prime minister immediately),  in every sense Labour had lost the election, having lost almost a hundred seats, with the Tories winning 48 seats more than Labour and more than 2 million more votes.  Unsurprisingly the Tory tabloids screamed for Gordon Brown’s instant resignation and vilified him for ‘hanging on in No. 10’, either not aware of the clear provisions of the rule book, or preferring to ignore it for a more newsworthy and politically exciting headline.  Clegg, who had repeatedly set out as his guiding principle before the election that the party with the most seats and the most votes should have the first opportunity to try to form a government, nevertheless invited both the Labour and Conservative leaderships to hold talks with him and the LibDems about the possibilities of a deal with one or the other.  (In an earlier and different age, the then Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe had advised with exemplary clarity and concision how his party should conduct itself if holding the balance of power: “Keep your distance but allow the largest party to govern.”  In the event Clegg acted on the second part of this advice, but ignored the first.)

The Conservative-leaning website TotalPolitics summarised what happened next according to the BBC programme “Five days that changed Britain”, made by its political editor Nick Robinson, in a review by Juliet Shardlow:

…But even as the bullish PM offered to step aside on the Monday, Robinson asserts that the Labour negotiating team just gave up. A key player in this loss was Ed Balls who even in his retelling of the frosty, unorganised talks with David Laws and co, seemed arrogant and bullish.  The programme sheds light on the future role of Vince Cable. His discomfort with the coalition was plain to see, having secret phone calls with Brown. Ming Campbell even claimed that the Liberal Democrats should avoid looking like a Tory “pet”.  William Hague could deny it all he liked, but the Conservatives obviously had a coalition back-up plan – putting an 11-point policy paper on the negotiating table for the Lib Dems. This slick attack broke any chance of a Lab-Lib deal.

According to the detailed and informative account of the five days in Lord Mandelson’s new book, The Third Man, well before the election Gordon Brown had begun to contemplate the implications of a possible hung parliament after the election and had been actively considering the potential for a deal with the LibDems that might enable Labour, if not Brown himself, to remain in office.  Throughout the five days, Brown clung to the hope that this might yet be achieved, frantically working the telephones to see what it might involve.  Recognising that the election result was in part a verdict on himself, he offered to step aside and allow a new Labour leader to head a Labour-LibDem coalition or a minority government with LibDem support, and indeed there was a long-lasting argument about how long, if at all, Brown could remain in office after the formation of the new government before formally stepping down.  (It seems not to have occurred to anyone that Brown could have remained Labour party leader while one of his Labour front-bench colleagues headed a new Labour-LibDem government.)  The question of Brown’s future so preoccupied the negotiators that discussion of the policy agreements and concessions which might have tempted the LibDems into a deal with Labour rather than with the Tories seems to have been rather a side-show.  Any pretence of seriousness was undermined by the harrumphing from the sidelines of a few has-beens such as John Reid and David Blunkett, unhelpfully trumpeting their opposition to any dilution of the fine wine of New Labour with the insipid water of the LibDems.   Only Brown apparently came prepared for a detailed negotiation: Labour had produced no collectively agreed plan ready to be presented to the LibDems in the way that the Tories had done, a fact which helped the LibDems to put all the blame on Labour for their eventually being ‘forced’ to sign up with the Tories.   Blaming Labour was something they needed and still need to do in order to try to pacify those on the left of the party who were and remain deeply unhappy at their party’s close partnership with a party of the political right.

In the end, the rule-book requiring the prime minister to stick it out in No. 10, humiliated by defeat, until the Tory-LibDem deal was signed and sealed and approved by the LibDem MPs and peers, proved to be unworkable.  Gordon Brown, his patience exhausted, and having been cannily advised by Mandelson to leave No 10 for the last time in daylight and dignity, not slinking away in the dark, telephoned Clegg to tell him he was going to the Palace to resign.  According to Mandelson’s account, Clegg was appalled:

“You can’t,” Nick replied.  He said he still couldn’t be sure a Tory coalition would work.  Gordon’s resignation could end up leading to a minority Cameron government.  Gordon was serene in his reply.  “The public has run out of patience. And so have I,” he said.  “I have served my country as best I can. I know the country’s mood.  They will not tolerate me waiting another night.  I have no option.  You are a good man and you have to make a decision.  I have made mine.  It is final.  I am going to the Palace.  Goodbye.”  [Mandelson, The Third Man, p. 554]

So much for the ‘rules’, imposing a duty on Brown not to resign until a new administration was agreed and ready to take over immediately:  the LibDems in parliament still hadn’t voted to approve the proposed coalition and its newly negotiated programme.  But Brown, of course, was right to resign when he did.  Had he obeyed the rule book and sat it out for another night while the LibDems went through their tortuous procedures, the whole process of secret haggling and horsetrading between the party bosses, already obnoxious to much of an electorate accustomed to clear majorities and clean quick handovers, would have been seen as having descended into farce.

The fact was, anyway, that there were at least two  obstacles, one of which was absolutely insurmountable, to any deal that would have meant  Labour continuing to occupy No. 10 Downing Street:  the plain rejection of Labour by the electorate, and the parliamentary arithmetic.  The voters had shown that a sizeable majority of them were tired of Labour after its 13 years in office, and wanted a change — almost any change.  A deal that would enable a heavily defeated party, widely although unjustly blamed for presiding over a major national economic and financial crisis, to hold on to the reins of power would have been seen, rightly, as a constitutional outrage.  Labour’s negotiators knew this in their heart of hearts;  no doubt that was why in their ‘negotiations’ with the LibDems it was evident that their hearts weren’t really in it.  Moreover, the total of seats won by Labour and the LibDems added together still didn’t add up to an overall majority.  A minority Lab-LibDem government would have had to rely on the support of some at least of the 6 SNP, 3 Plaid Cymru, 3 SDLP, 1 Alliance, 1 Green, and even possibly some of the 8 DUP members to win a vote of confidence in the House and to get its legislation and policy proposals through parliament.  Most of these votes would probably have been forthcoming, at any rate when the alternative would have been either a minority Conservative government or a fresh election resulting, probably, in a majority Conservative government.  But the opportunity for policy blackmail by one or other of the fringe parties would have proved irresistible over time, and a minority Lab-LibDem government on that basis could not have lasted long.  In any case, it was really ruled out by the first obstacle:  it would have been a constitutional outrage for a manifestly defeated party to hold on to office.

So the lessons for Labour?  It’s unlikely that either of the two obstacles to a Lab-LibDem pact or coalition last May will apply in the situation following the next election, even if it again produces a hung parliament.  Depending on whether the present coalition’s slash-and-burn policies will have succeeded in reducing the budget deficit without too greatly impeding continued recovery from the recession, and if the level of unemployment, having initially risen sharply, has begun to fall, and if the sweeping changes to the NHS, the state education system and the structure of social benefits have resulted in perceptible improvements in these crucial public services despite the swingeing cuts in their budgets, then the electorate might well provide a mandate for the Tory-LibDem coalition to carry on — or even deliver a clear majority to the Tories.  But these are all huge ifs.  The likelier scenario is that coalition policies will have had only limited success, if any, and that widespread disillusionment will have set in.  The next election may even be precipitated by a split in the Liberal Democratic party or the eventual withdrawal of the LibDems from the coalition, out of nausea at their association with reactionary policies driven by an obnoxious ideology.  In that case another hung parliament will be very much on the cards, and Labour will need to be much better prepared for it next time.  With luck the problem of a deeply unpopular Labour leader won’t yet have arisen.  Before there can be another election, Labour will need to have worked out, published and campaigned vigorously  for a new and radically different programme for government, offering credible alternatives to reactionary Tory cuts and assaults on the welfare state, putting the restoration and protection of civil liberties at the heart of its agenda, and proposing realistic, hard-headed changes to such moth-eaten policies as those on the UK nuclear deterrent, intervention in foreign wars, the core functions of the armed forces, more realistic ways of tackling drugs, cutting the prison population to civilised levels, and so forth.  If Labour is ever to return to office, it must do so on the basis of a programme which the LibDems will be forced to recognise as hugely preferable to anything the Tories have to offer.  It must be manifestly realistic and progressive in its own right;  if it is, there should be no question of the LibDems even thinking about rejecting it.

But not only must Labour produce, very soon indeed after it has at last elected its new leader, a progressive, changed, radical and LibDem-friendly programme for government:  Labour must also get over its bitterness at what its tribalists (and others) see as the LibDem betrayal of the centre-left by climbing into bed with the Tories — and even worse, giving every impression of thoroughly enjoying the experience (always excepting the ever gloomy St Vincent Cable, of course).  Whatever the provocation, Labour must learn to treat the LibDems as likely future friends and partners, respecting the decision they felt they had to make in May, but resolved to make them a better offer next time and to welcome them as allies if they accept it.  Self-indulgently attacking the LibDems can only achieve what their critics accuse the LibDems themselves of having done: splitting the underlying centre-left majority and wrecking all hopes of a semi-permanent government of the left for the future.   Ed Miliband camp, please note.

[This is the last of three articles about the events of the five days immediately following the election in May leading to the formation of the Conservative-LibDem coalition government, and the lessons of those events for the Labour party.  The first two articles are here (also here) and here (also here).]