In the coalition politics era Labour should court, not vilify the LibDems

Several lessons for Labour need to be learned from Nick Robinson’s BBC programme Five Days that Changed Britain, broadcast on 29 July, about the five days in May between the election and the formation of the Tory-LibDem coalition government.

The first and most important lesson was summed up towards the end of the programme by Peter Mandelson, usually a canny strategist, when he speculated that we were now in an age of coalition politics, in which no single party was likely in the foreseeable future to win an overall majority in the house of commons:  that if ever there was to be another Labour government, it would probably have to be in coalition or some other kind of alliance with the LibDems:  and that Labour strategy would need to adapt itself to this new and by implication unfamiliar and unwelcome reality.

Yet it has been all too obvious in recent weeks that the Labour parliamentary leadership and perhaps also the PLP as a whole still haven’t learned this lesson.  Directing its firepower more at the LibDems than at the Tories, excoriating Nick Clegg for his supposed betrayal of LibDem principles and promises by joining the Tories in government, trying to drive a wedge between the coalition partners — all these self-indulgent activities have been directly contrary to the interests, not only of the Labour party, but also of those hundreds of thousands of people who will lose their jobs and in many cases their homes and the availability to them of the welfare state safety net as a direct result of Cameron’s and Osborne’s slash-and-burn ideology-driven policies.  The latest folly has been to commit Labour to voting against the Bill providing for a referendum on AV (the LibDems’ main jusification for being in the coalition) and for a reduction in the number of MPs and re-drawing of electoral boundaries to make their population sizes more nearly equal.  There are certainly serious flaws in the detail of the Bill, which need to be addressed at the Committee stage, but to oppose the entire Bill (especially after Labour had been the only party to promise a referendum on AV in its manifesto) is simply crass, partly because it makes Labour look opportunistic and unprincipled, and partly because it’s bound to infuriate and alienate the LibDems whose support Labour is sooner or later going to need as an absolute condition of forming another government.  It really is time for Jack Straw (and some other ageing Blairites) to hang up his penchant for opportunistic ducking and weaving and leave the strategic thinking to younger men and women.

We aren’t necessarily thinking only about what might happen in five years’ time, however much Cameron may try to fix the constitution to keep himself and his coalition in power for a full parliament.  Germany’s PR system means permanent coalition governments, with the Free Democrats, the German equivalent of our LibDems, almost always being in the position of king-maker after every election: since its foundation in 1948, the FDP  “has been in federal government longer than any other party, as the junior coalition partner to either the CDU/CSU (1949–56, 1961–66, 1982–98, and since 2009) or the Social Democratic Party (1969–82)” (quoted from this).  But the significant point is that twice in this period, in 1966 and 1982, the FDP has switched sides between elections, causing the fall of a right-of-centre CDU/CSU government and its replacement by the SDP in 1966, and vice versa in 1982.  It’s constitutionally perfectly possible for the same thing to happen here if three conditions come to be satisfied:

  • first, very widespread disillusionment in the electorate with the dire consequences of Tory economic and social policies;
  • secondly, mounting dissatisfaction among LibDems in parliament and the country with Tory policies which LibDem members of the government are being forced to support;
  • thirdly — and easily the most important:  a Labour opposition offering a coherent and practical set of alternative policies fully consistent with LibDem principles, including active support for the repeal of New Labour’s most illiberal measures eroding fundamental civil liberties (even if the repeal is the work of a Tory-led government), renunciation of any policy of military intervention in other countries unless in self-defence or under UN auspices, and economic-social policies expressly designed to protect the poor and vulnerable and the public services on which they depend, and to ensure that the sacrifices necessary for recovery are made only by those rich enough to make them.

If all three conditions are satisfied, the pull of a transfer of LibDem support to a Labour programme (and a Labour leader) hugely more attractive to the vast majority of LibDems could prove irresistible.  Of course the fall of the Tory-led coalition government and its replacement by a new Labour-LibDem administration under a Labour prime minister would certainly need to be ratified very quickly by a fresh election, probably within weeks.  But all this could happen surprisingly quickly.

There’s no guarantee that it will.  Tory slash-and-burn policies just might succeed, against all informed expectations.  The LibDems might continue to be repelled by the idea of putting into power the party which without doubt lost the last election by a substantial margin.  Cameron’s and Clegg’s  apparent personal chemistry might yet keep the coalition going for the full five years, and current LibDem ministers might be reluctant to put their ministerial perks and power at risk by abandoning the Tories and putting alternative support for Labour to the test in an unpredictable fresh election.  But all this is very iffy.  And in any case, Pascal’s wager applies:  Labour could have a huge amount to gain, and anyway nothing whatever to lose, by developing a coherent set of centre-left progressive small-l liberal policies calculated to appeal to the LibDems just as soon as the new leader has been elected in September — and helping, not hindering, the LibDems on their journey back to their true and natural home on the centre-left of British politics.  It’s not just that this could help to bring about a transfer of LibDem support from the Tories to Labour:  it’s also the right and necessary thing to do on its own merits.  But in the meantime it’s essential to treat the LibDems as potential future allies, not as irreconcilable enemies.  Don’t trash them: woo them!

A recent blog post on Labour List by Hadleigh Roberts, Countering the coalition: Don’t attack the Lib Dems, arrived at the same conclusion but by a somewhat different route.  Such a strategy may not satisfy the blood-lust of the more pugnacious Labour front-benchers, blinded by their anger at what they choose to see as LibDem treachery to the left.  But that anger needs to be tempered by recognition that in those Five Days that Changed Britain, the LibDems ultimately had no alternative.  Clegg had enunciated an unexceptionable guideline for action if there was a hung parliament:  that whichever party had won the most votes and the most seats should be allowed the first attempt to form a government.  The country would have felt betrayed if the LibDems had used their limited but crucial numbers to keep in No. 10 the party which had manifestly lost the election.  And while the Tories immediately presented to the LibDems a coherent policy programme with attractive concessions to LibDem policies as the possible basis for a coalition, Labour failed utterly to present a coherent alternative, apparently caught on the hop without having done any homework against the possibility of a hung parliament.  But that leads to consideration of another of the three lessons Labour needs to learn from those Five Days, and that will be the subject of a further blog post.  Watch this space.


3 Responses

  1. Leo says:

    I think there are several reasons for the ferocity of the Labour attacks on the Lib Dems which all relate to a general expectation Labour had that in the event of a hung parliament the Lib Dems would naturally come to them and would never join the Tories. The result of the dramatic disproving of that assumption was first, a kind of self-righteous anger and sense of betrayal in the shadow cabinet; second, a tilting of power towards the more viscerally anti-Lib Dem people in the cabinet like Jack Straw and Ed Balls, and away from those who might’ve been more pro-Lib Dem like Adonis and Mandelson, as a result of the Lib Dem ‘betrayal’; third, the pursuit of a strategy that looks like it’s a) trying to collapse the coalition by picking off the partner perceived as weaker, and b) aiming to maximise this opportunity to wipe out the Lib Dems at the next election, which i think many Labour figures desperately want to do.
    In my view, this is a fundamentally wrongheaded strategy for the Labour party to pursue, because the Lib Dems provide a place for disaffected Labour voters (of at least some kinds – obviously others may go to other small parties) to go to without switching to the Tories or staying away from the polls altogether. There’s a limit to that logic, but i think what Labour should be more concerned by is the takeover of the Lib Dem leadership by a set of people who are much more classically liberal than i think most Lib Dem members – and certainly activists – want. It’s indicative that all the ex-leaders are quite pissed off about this whole affair, and not because they’re jealous as far as i can tell. As someone who considers himself a very left-wing liberal, that’s the part that most distresses me – not that the Lib Dems are in coalition with the Tories, because in the circumstances that was a) politically unavoidable and b) probably best for the country, but that Clegg and co are secretly quite pleased at being able to drop what they regard as the more bizarre left-wing Lib Dem commitments and reshape the state in a more classically liberal direction. If we’d had a leader as left-wing as Simon Hughes, i’ve no doubt that we’d have got more out of the Tories and we’d be making the Tory right more uncomfortable. It’s surely better for Labour that, if we’re going to have a natural party of government like Germany’s FDP, it’s a left-wing liberal one rather than a free-market, right-of-centre one.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Leo. Your analysis is very persuasive, if I may respectfully say so, and it usefully complements my own post (above). Your description of the varying attitudes of different Labour spokespersons to the LibDems in the Five Days (immediately after the election) is also very plausible — remember those discredited voices from Labour’s past, belonging to David Blunkett and John Reid, busily trying to discredit and undermine any attempt at forming a Lab-LibDem coalition or alliance?

    I agree that if we’re going to have an FDP-like LibDem party permanently in government as kingmaker, it’s better for Labour (and for the country) that it should be a left-wing rather than a “classically liberal” right-wing LibDem party, although some might argue that a left-wing LibDem party is a greater electoral threat to Labour than a right-wing one, since it gives voters of the moderate left somewhere else to go besides Labour. But if we are now into many years of hung parliaments after almost every election, or even after every one, the left-wing LibDems will be more natural coalition partners with Labour than with the Tories, and we might then enter into a period when the Blair-Ashdown short-lived dream of a centre-left Labour-LibDem majority permanently in government might even become a reality. But on present form that will require either a radical change of LibDem leadership or else a LibDem split of the kind some have predicted.

    That speculation arises from the possibility that the stresses of coalition with the Tories may eventually cause the LibDems to split into the two factions which you describe, with the “classically liberal” right wing being in effect absorbed by the Conservative party and the left-wing liberals forming some kind of alliance, either loose or formal, with Labour. This of course has happened more than once before, mutatis mutandis — to Labour in its early days as well as to the Liberal party. I doubt whether there’s anything that Labour can do to encourage a split of that kind, even if it’s seen as advantageous (it might be), except to ensure rigorously that Labour policies under the new leader are in harmony with and attractive to the left-wing LibDems, and even so far as possible to the classical liberal LibDems as well. Any overt efforts by Labour to encourage a LibDem split or even to agitate for the LibDems to cross the floor and put Labour into office before an election has given a popular mandate for a change of government are certain to be counter-productive.

    I plan to examine more closely how Labour handled the post-election Five Days, and what lessons can be drawn from that, in another blog post soon.

  2. David Ratford says:

    From the stand-point of one who has no party-political affiliation, decades of experience in PR-governed countries and a passionate belief that single-party majority government as practised in the UK is an unmitigated political evil, I warmly applaud what you say, Brian ( and all the more so because, after so many years of argument with you, I thought you were quite  irredeemable!). I sincerely hope that many more party tribalists, whether in the Labour Party, among the Tory backwoodsmen or the woollier-minded ranks of the Liberals, will show the same constructive realism.

    Brian writes: Thanks, David. I hate to disappoint you, but I remain convinced that single-party government with a reliable overall majority of seats in the house of commons is greatly preferable to coalition government, and indeed I see all my objections to coalitions (and hence to PR which invariably produces coalitions) being amply confirmed by the experience now being visited on us. I quite see that in some countries where politics are already relatively collaborative and where the class system is less abrasive than it is in Britain, coalitions may work tolerably well, although there are others — Israel being a dreadful example, of course — where they are a total disaster. Our political tradition, like our judicial one, is irredeemably adversarial, and the history of coalitions here is replete with failures, usually involving the destruction or near destruction of the junior coalition partner, as the history of both the Labour Party and the Liberal Party demonstrates. Now we see a catastrophic collapse in popular support for the LibDems and for Clegg personally as a direct result of their entry into a coalition, with the real possibility of a split in the LibDems which could in turn deprive the government of its commons majority. The prolonged period of political uncertainty at a time of economic crisis which would result is about the last thing we need. Of course the coalition may well stagger on, but if so it will be despite being a coalition, not because of it. And meanwhile we have a government whose election manifestos, on the basis of which the people voted, are inoperative and the rule-book has been replaced by a ‘Coalition Agreement’ produced after polling day following five days of horse-trading behind locked doors, with the party leaders scurrying along secret underground tunnels beneath Whitehall to escape detection. This seedy process produced said ‘Coalition Agreement’ for which by definition not a single voter voted. How anyone can call that democratic, I can’t imagine. This was produced of course by First Past the Post, but for the first time in around 80 years (although it may well happen much more often under FPTP in the future). Under real PR it would happen all the time; under AV, more often than under FPTP. Let’s hear it for FPTP!

    So I think Mandelson was right in the Five Days television programme to envisage a long period ahead of probably no single party winning an overall majority of seats, even if there is no change to First Past the Post, and almost certainly if there is. That gives quite disproportionate (the right word!) power to the LibDems, currently on 12% in the latest poll, but likely to be able to decide which of Labour and the Tories goes into No. 10 for several elections to come, provided that their party doesn’t break up, and possibly even if it does. That’s not in any way a desirable situation, in my view, but we all have to adapt to it as best we can, which in the case of the Labour party means making a big effort not to make an enemy of the king-maker, but instead to offer him a more obviously attractive partnership in the future than anything the Tories are likely to drum up.

  3. David Ratford says:

    Knowing your constitutional inability ever to allow anyone else to have the last word I had originally intended not to waste my breath on a further response. But there are so many illogicalities and misrepresentations in what you say, that in all conscience I must.
    Many of the faults that you find in the present situation have come about not because we have a coalition but because that coalition has arisen out of the failure by the present system this time to produce the usual clear-cut single party majority control of Parliament (aka ‘elective dictatorship’). If we had true PR the whole process by which elections take place would be different, manifestos would be written differently, the resultant balance of forces in Parliament would be quite different, expectations of them would be different and the behaviour of the two major parties might in time just possibly also become different (though that’s expecting a lot of the Ayatollahs who run the Labour Party).
    To take some of your specific points in turn: “In some countries… Coalitions may work tolerably well”.  “Some countries” in fact covers much of Europe, including Germany, politically and economically the most successful country in Western Europe, the whole of the Nordic area, Benelux, the Iberian peninsula, to name but a few. On the whole they work rather better than “tolerably well”, mostly producing outcomes that are politically, economically and socially better than ours.
    As to that old chestnut beloved of the anti-PR brigade, “Israel being a dreadful example”, it has to be conceded that no system can be entirely proof against the people running it (just look at the USA in the Bush era). In Israel’s case it is currently a “parliamentary mob”. (Not my description, but that of a former member of the Knesset, Uri Avnery, whose piece in the latest number of the London Review of Books provides ample evidence).
    You react like a young girl who has just seen a mouse at the thought of the horse-trading behind doors to form a workable coalition in entirely unexpected and exceptional circumstances. For my part I am rather more shocked by the way in which in the UK major decisions (e.g. the decision to invade Iraq) have for decades been routinely arrived at around the sofa in No.10 and then rail-roaded through a Westminster “democratically” elected  by, say, 44% of a turn-out of, say, 65%, i.e. by about 30% of the whole electorate.
    “…countries where the class system is less abrasive than it is in Brtain”: once again, that applies to a large number of other countries; does it never occur to you that one reason why class divisions are so persistent in the UK is that they are partly institutionalised by two parties alternating in an adversarial system?
    “Let’s hear it for FPTP!” It is FPTP that visited on us the twin plagues of Thatcher and Blair/Brown (plus a few other ills). I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.