In those Five Days in May, the LibDems made the wrong choice (with 21 & 23 Aug updates)

The LibDems made the wrong choice in May, not in going into coalition with the Tories instead of with Labour, but in going into coalition at all.  With the experience of 100 days of coalition government, and with hindsight, we can now see that the LibDems were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives:  they could and should have let David Cameron form a minority government, promising to support it, perhaps for a year, in votes of confidence and on the budget, but keeping their options open on everything else.  This would have maximised LibDem influence on Tory government policies: the government would have faced the discipline of needing LibDem votes to get its policies through parliament, issue by issue, instead of having the whip hand over a junior coalition partner which can if necessary be ignored on all but the greatest issues.  From outside the government, LibDem deputy leader Simon Hughes has been plaintively but implausibly pleading for a LibDem veto over every Tory policy not sanctioned in the coalition’s founding agreement.  With LibDem freedom of manoeuvre outside any coalition, LibDem MPs would have had precisely such a veto  This would have been good for the LibDems, who would not have been tarnished by such close association with illiberal partners and illiberal policies, nor subjected to such strains on party unity; and good for the country, because parliamentary control over government would have been re-established at last, with the Tories forced to curb their right-wing excesses in order to get their legislation through.   The only losers would have been the Tories, whose freedom of manoeuvre would have been much more limited and who would have been forced into a more consensual and less divisive mode of governing: and the current crop of LibDem ministers and their advisers, who would not have enjoyed the perks and baubles of government office or the opportunity to demonstrate that they were after all leading a party capable of governing.  Yet in those five crucial days after the election on 6 May, coalition seemed to most of us inevitable, the only question seemingly whether it would be coalition with the Tories or with Labour.  How could we have been so wrong?

Coalition so far remains popular with the public.  But the Guardian’s ICM poll, reported on 18 August, was startling.  It showed the Tories and Labour level pegging at 37 per cent each, and the LibDems trailing at 18 (compared with their percentage scores at the general election of:  Conservatives 36.1%, Labour 29% and LibDems 23%).  Tom Clark’s Guardian article drew a conclusion from Labour’s drawing level with the Tories which was at best counter-intuitive, at worst absurd:

The Conservatives have mislaid their lead but it is Labour, and more especially the Liberal Democrats, that ought to worry. That is the paradoxical message of today’s Guardian/ICM poll, which shows a leaderless Labour party drawing level with the Tories for the first time since Gordon Brown’s disastrous dalliance with a snap poll in the autumn of 2007.  Buoyed by strong personal ratings, David Cameron need not be fazed by news that the two main parties are each on 37%, with the Lib Dems on 18%. In the novel settings of coalition, the opposition party can catch up with the principal party of government without threatening the prime minister. And after 100 days at the helm, he remains secure – in charge of a government that most voters believe is doing a good job. Consequently, Labour should draw little comfort from the results.

But isn’t it rather striking that with weeks still to go before Labour elects its new leader, with the five candidates locked in introspective debate about the party’s future, with little or no coherent opposition assault on an increasingly vulnerable government, with the LibDems increasingly obviously split between critics and supporters of the coalition, and above all with nobody yet feeling any pain from the threatened swingeing cuts in basic public services or from the concentration of government fire on the poorest and most vulnerable — despite all these handicaps for the Labour opposition, Labour has already drawn level with the Tories in at least one reputable opinion poll?  Yet according to Mr Clark, it’s Labour that ought to worry — because the Tories have a secure parliamentary majority due to their coalition with the LibDems.  This seems to confuse the fluctuating results of the opinion polls, which can never in themselves “threaten the prime minister”, with the parliamentary arithmetic, which remains more or less static between elections, give or take a few by-election losses and the odd defection.  And the parliamentary arithmetic is plain:  Tories plus LibDems equals an overall majority;  Labour plus LibDems does not:  a centre-left coalition would have had to rely on the support of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish left-of-centre nationalists and the single Green for a majority.  It will take a mass defection from support for the coalition of around a half of the 57 LibDems to deprive Cameron, or Cameron-Clegg, of his or their secure overall majority, and since the LibDems overwhelmingly supported their leaders’ proposal to enter the coalition and the joint programme on which they proposed to enter it, a defection on that scale seems unlikely, at any rate for a time.  Mr Cameron is safe;  but those poll figures ought to keep him awake at night.  If Labour is already neck and neck, what will the poll figures look like in a year’s time, with the savage cuts biting hard, the recovery in obvious peril, and a new, young, confident Labour leader exposing Tory recklessness daily across the despatch boxes and in the media?

Thus it’s not the case that the LibDems took the only viable decision open to them after the end of polling on 6 May, as it seemed at the time.  Often what actually happened seems in retrospect to have been inevitable.  But what happened on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 May was not inevitable.  The usually reliable Jonathan Freedland made a remarkable claim in his verdict on the first 100 days in Guardian2 on 18 August 2010:

Indeed in those first evening hours Cameron’s fate lay in the hands of Liberal Democrat MPs and peers: without their votes he could not become prime minister.

But on the contrary: Cameron was in fact going to become prime minister regardless of which decision the LibDems were about to take.  Supposing that the LibDem MPs and peers had voted down Clegg’s proposed programme for coalition with the Tories, produced after those feverish days of negotiation between the LibDems on the one hand and both the Tories and Labour on the other:  Gordon Brown’s patience had run out and he had driven to the Palace to resign, to Nick Clegg’s consternation (he was by no means ready to sign up with Cameron because his coalition plan still had to be put to the votes of the parliamentary LibDems).  Brown had already recommended to the Queen, however, that Cameron should be invited to try to form a government.  By constitutional convention, this is one of the few occasions on which the monarch is not bound to act on the advice of the outgoing prime minister:  but that advice is bound to carry great weight, and indeed the Queen predictably acted on it at once, inviting Cameron to the Palace, whereupon, equally predictably, he accepted the commission to try to form a government, even though he could not have been sure at the time that his gamble on a coalition with the LibDems would come off.

If Clegg had at that point been prevented from going into a coalition with the Tories through lack of support for the coalition in his own party, Cameron would have had two alternatives:  he could have formed a minority government, with or without an understanding with the LibDems that they would not vote against the government in a vote of confidence or in votes on the budget, remaining however free to vote either way on everything else;  or he could have returned to the Palace to tell the Queen that he had been unable to form a government which would enjoy the confidence of a majority in the house of commons, and recommended accordingly that the Queen should dissolve parliament forthwith to enable another election to be held within a few weeks.  Given that a fresh election so soon after the previous one would not necessarily have delivered an overall majority to any one party this time, either, and anyway would have been extremely unpopular, this was hardly an option, especially in the depths of a major economic and financial crisis.  It’s clear that Cameron would if necessary have formed a minority Conservative government, presented the house of commons when it assembled with a moderate programme clearly designed to make it difficult for the LibDems to oppose it, and dared the LibDems to defeat him in a vote of confidence.  Cameron, Clegg and the Cleggmen (and Cleggwomen) would all have known that to bring down a fledgling Tory government on a vote of confidence only days after the election could only result in fresh elections:  and that these would have been dangerous to the nation’s financial health at a time of fiscal crisis and international market mistrust, and hugely unpopular with the voters, who might well have held the LibDems responsible for the deadlock and punished them accordingly at the polls.  The LibDems would not have dared to take such a risk.  A Cameron minority government would have survived that first key vote of confidence and proceeded with the business of government, although severely constrained by its lack of a majority in parliament — a constraint that it has avoided by successfully luring the LibDems into coalition.

What is the lesson of all this for Labour?  First, Labour’s new leader must have in mind at all times the real possibility that the coalition may come a cropper well before its vaunted ‘fixed’ five-year term is up, with another general election the almost certain consequence.  The increased unemployment likely to result from the almost unprecedented reductions in government spending to which Osborne has committed the government will both add to the unemployment and other benefits bill to be paid by the Exchequer and reduce its tax receipts, thus widening the budget deficit yet further.  There is no obvious indication that the private sector will move in to fill the public sector gap, as Tory ideology recklessly assumes.  Even if the dreaded double dip recession can somehow be avoided, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the recovery from recession will be drastically slowed down, perhaps to a stagnant halt.  Meanwhile the dire effects of the cuts on the unemployed, the poor and the vulnerable will increase back-bench LibDem restiveness:  further damage to the LibDems’ standing in the polls may further frighten them.  If Labour moves convincingly into the lead in the opinion polls, the attraction for the LibDems of a switch from support for the Tories to a loose — or formal — alliance with Labour might well prove irresistible.  The consequence might be a split in the Liberal Democratic party, the loss of the coalition’s majority in parliament, and fresh elections in a year or 18 months.  Labour had better be prepared for that, and be ready to encourage, not maul, those LibDems whose defection alone could bring it about:  not by overtly trying to exploit dissension within the government or among the LibDems, but by patiently developing policies which are both right on their own merits, but also likely to appeal to the socially liberal wing of the LibDems and patently preferable to the ideology-driven axe-swinging excesses of the Tories.  Labour can afford to be progressive again, and can’t afford not to be.

The formation of the Con-LibDem coalition has another lesson for Labour.  If a fresh election within the next two years or so produces another hung parliament, but with Labour this time the largest party in the house of commons, Labour would actually benefit from forming a formal coalition with the LibDems (or with their left-leaning faction), exactly as Cameron has benefited from his coalition.  A minority Labour government dependent on ad hoc LibDem (and other small parties’) support, issue by issue, would create great difficulties for Labour and damaging uncertainties for the country.  It follows that (as I argued in an earlier post about the lessons of the five days in May) Labour should already be wooing the LibDems, not succumbing to a natural temptation to assail them as traitors to the left who have been suckered by the wily Tories (even though some of them are, and have been).  Jack Straw’s recent expression of relief that negotiations after the election for a Labour-LibDem coalition failed, because it would have been so tedious to have to consult the LibDems on government policy all the time, was absolutely contrary to both the Labour party’s and the country’s interests.  Similarly, John Reid’s and David Blunkett’s interventions immediately after the election with denunciations of any kind of Lab-Lib pact were  spectacularly wrong-headed.  Such a pact or coalition was not in fact on the cards, for several reasons which I shall discuss shortly in the third and last of these reflections on the lessons of the Five Days in May.  But open hostility to the idea of a centre-left deal, however formal or informal, was and still is seriously mistaken.  In the new era of hung parliaments (which will become even more likely if AV is approved at the forthcoming referendum and introduced before the next election), it behoves Labour to treat the LibDems as a possible fiançée, not as a discarded girl-friend whose one-time affections have been alienated in a bitter quarrel.  Like it or hate it, we’re going to need them sooner or later; and we might yet be surprised to find that an engagement is actually beneficial to them, to us, and to the country.

Up-date, 21 Aug 2010:  According to a report in today’s Guardian, Ed Miliband, one of the two serious contenders for the Labour leadership, has (a) threatened to make the LibDems an extinct species if he wins the Labour leadership, and (b) stipulated that if Labour has to negotiate a pact with the LibDems in a hung parliament after the next election, a condition of any agreement would be that Nick Clegg should no longer be the LibDem leader.   Does Ed Miliband, who’s not stupid, not see any contradiction between those two propositions?

Up-date, 23 Aug 2010:  I’m very glad to see Jackie Ashley, whose finger is generally pretty firmly placed on the Labour party’s pulse, making much the same point as this post in her Guardian column today — see


5 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    Although I remain of the idea that it is still too early to draw any really meaningful conclusions, I agree with and am encouraged by your final one, that future coalitions of other shades may actually be in the better interest of all concerned, including the country itself.
    Why is is too early? Let one point suffice: when push comes to shove, Osborne’s cuts may not be as swingeing as orignally announced from the hustings, firstly because the constraints of Realpolitik affect Tory-led as well as Labour governments and, secondly, because that may then truly generate the LibDem revolt that would bring the government down. After all, if Hughes is asking for the “contract” to be complied with, there will come a time when his call will be relevant to something so important that it is worth risking the stability of the coalition, though that should not properly be applied to every case of perceived infringement. Contracts are there to be respected by both parties.
    Time will tell.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this. Of course it’s early days and we can’t yet foresee how things will turn out for either the coalition or the country. But I don’t think it’s too early to think strategically about Labour-LibDem relations and the fundamental question: are the LibDems friend or foe? In the new world of hung parliaments and coalitions, pacts or just understandings between two or more parties, it just seems obviously suicidal to make an enemy of the party likeliest to hold the balance of power after future elections.

  2. ObiterJ says:

    Essentially, I agree.  The Lib Dems will be tarnished with the “cuts” many of which are being made without any regard for the consequences.
    “a new, young, confident Labour leader…” Who is that Brian?

    Brian writes: That’s whoever wins in September! I’m not attempting a forecast, but I might venture a bob or two on a bet that it will be someone whose first name begins with A, or more likely with E or D….

  3. Richard T says:

    Let’s hold on a minute in the rush to judgement.  We’re just under 4 months into the Coalition for a Parliament which might last for 5 years and it’s too soon to reach any conclusion particularly about Lib Dem standing in the polls and I suppose if you add the percentages for the Tories the Lib Dems together you get a rating for the Government of 55% – strange that with all the noise about cuts.  The Lib Dem party’s popularity has been historically subject to large mood swings by the public and I suggest that it might be better to see how things stand in the spring of next year when Scotland votes.  It might also be sensible to wait a little before the things that the Lib Dem Ministers have direct power over start to come forth.
    Lib Dems have memories too.  We haven’t forgotten being led up the garden path by Labour in 1997.  We haven’t forgotten the succession of Labour Home Secretaries who seemed to have swallowed every bit of  petty authoritarianism in the Home Office’s lockers and the effects on civil liberties of the alleged war on terrorism.  We haven’t missed the enthusiam for war which all the candidates except Diane Abbott adopted.  We haven’t overlooked the pavlovian reactions for centralisation and statism in Labour.  Finally we can recall the enthusiam for putting new offences on the statute book.
    As a Lib Dem, I could see no advantage to the party and the country for the party to prop up the continuation of  a useless government. I must say the performance of the leadership candidates has reinforced that view.  Add to this, their dishonesty in dodging the fact that a Labour Government would have had to accept cuts in spending and their shiftiness on the Alternative Vote.  These would not inspire this particular Lib Dem to depart his party for Milliband Junior’s blandishments.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Richard. Boringly, I don’t disagree at all with anything you say. I’m not basing my recommendations for a change of tack by the Labour leadership on the currently poor showing of the LibDems in the polls and I entirely accept that this may well change drastically in the future, especially if in a few months’ time the coalition’s savage cuts can be shown, or represented, as ‘succeeding’ according to some credible yardstick, without impeding the nascent recovery. All the same, it’s surely legitimate to take note of Labour’s tentative signs of apparent recovery in the opinion polls, almost entirely at the expense of the LibDems, and to think about some of the possible implications of this, even though as you rightly say it’s still very early days. The cuts haven’t even begun to bite yet!

    Virtually all the damning criticisms you make of New Labour’s performance and record in office have been made equally or more strongly by critics of New Labour (including myself) within the party throughout the life of the Labour governments. Many of us think that a close relationship between Labour and the LibDems, whether manifested in a formal alliance or coalition or in a series of understandings and arrangements for mutual support on defined issues, should help Labour to rediscover its own liberal tradition and its half-forgotten commitment to individual liberty and fundamental rights — not to mention its traditional respect for international law and the UN Charter. I have for years been actively (and completely fruitlessly) campaigning for Labour to ditch its fatal addiction to centralism and executive authoritarianism by extending devolution to England and thus transforming the UK into a decentralised federation, with only very limited powers remaining at Westminster — something that I think goes further than anything the LibDems have been willing to contemplate. And finally, I strongly agree that it’s dishonest for Labour to indulge in automatic knee-jerk attacks on every cut imposed or threatened by the coalition without itself producing an alternative programme of specific cuts — and specific tax increases — that would do the job equally or more effectively but more fairly and with less potential damage to the prospects for recovery. But rightly or wrongly, I believe that these pressures need to be exerted from within the party as well as from outside it.

    There’s a lot to be done, and a lot that can be done by Labour reformers and LibDems working, if not together, then at least in parallel and with mutual goodwill. Mutual mudslinging helps no-one except the Tory troglodytes.

  4. Pete Kercher says:

    Brian, I certainly agree with you that Labour would do well to consider that the LibDems are a potential partner in a future coalition (responsible politics), rather than the source of all evil (cheap and simplistic permanent electioneering propaganda). That change in mindset is not going to be very easy, of course: it takes a major effort to get over the bad habits of decades of empty polemic mud-slinging and I am far from convinced that the current Labour leadership candidates have either the will or the capacity to convince their electorate of the need to change tack in this sense, Equally, and unfortunately, I am far from convinced that the run-of-the-mill Labour electorate would respond responsibly to such a change of tack: simplistic propaganda that has been beaten into not over-discerning minds for decades does not come out in the wash overnight. Sorry if that sounds intellectually snobbish, but it is not the fault of the brain-washed that their brains have been washed.
    I subscribe to the points made here by Richard T and build on the reasoning: if Labour were to want to consider coalition as a real possibility in future, it would be well advised to study some of the objections raised by Richard T and look into modifications in its approach. Coalitions are not just about putting the necessary numbers together, but also about agreeing to find common ground and act on it.
    Your call for a more responsible attitude on the part of Labour is commendable, Brian, but it needs to go far, far further than merely paying lip-service to LibDems as nice people: Labour needs some fundamental reform from within, to banish some of those early twentieth-century pavlovian responses once and for all.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Pete. I hope this isn’t becoming a habit, but I agree very much with everything you say, as I have agreed with Richard T. in my response to him, qv. You may be right in fearing that a more enlightened approach by Labour to the LibDems in the ways I have advocated might not bring any popular approval or electoral benefit to Labour, given the capacity for perversion and misrepresentation of the feral tabloids, the rest of the Murdoch press and much of the political establishment. But that can’t be an argument, still less a justification, for carrying on in the same old discredited ruts without giving a more intelligent and fair-minded politics a go. You never know, it might catch on! Anyway, you’re certainly right in saying that it’s got to come from within the Labour party, not just sermonising from the touchline.

  5. Tim says:

    Surely the key Lib Dem interest in this whole business was to get the British public over its alleged fear of coalitions. A tactical response to the election, as you advocate, would have been seen by the electorate as such: a political game designed to maximise LD inflluence, and popular only with the hard-core members of the party. Who wins the next election will depend on the circumstances in which it is held, and I personally believe that the mass of floating voters would punish any party seen as having provoked an early election on tactical grounds. The prize for Clegg is to show that coalitions can work, and therefore that we should have more of them. He had to do the deal with Cameron, because that was the more stable of the two options on offer.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this interesting comment, Tim. I have some difficulty in believing that a political party in our system will be penalised for acting in a way that maximises its influence: that, after all, is what politics is about and what political parties do. Everyone has known for years that the principal reason for the LibDem obsession with PR was the desire to hold the balance of power between the two major parties, putting themselves in the position of deciding whether a Tory or a Labour leader should occupy No. 10, and being able to hold a series of minority governments to ransom with the threat of withdrawing their favours if their conditions for support are not met, thus bringing down the government.

    The public auction of LibDem favours immediately after the election, with LibDem negotiators shuttling between Labour and Tory meetings, and complaining that the Labour bid wasn’t up to scratch, as if there was no intrinsic reason of policy or principle for the LibDems to favour either senior bidder over the other, gave a pretty negative impression, I believe, of hung parliament politics as a rather shabby affair in which the wishes of the voters were conveniently sidelined. The drop in LibDem support in the polls following their entry into the coalition with the highest bidders seems to me to reflect that distaste: if the object of going into coalition rather than offering highly conditional confidence and supply support to a minority Tory government was to educate the British public in the virtues of permanent coalition government, it doesn’t seem to have succeeded yet. But the night is young!

    I agree that the electorate is likely to punish a third party which provokes an unnecessary second election very soon after the first. But as the German experience demonstrates, a transfer of the affections of the minority partner in a coalition from the senior partner to the main opposition party can in principle mean a change of government without the inconvenience and expense of another general election to sanctify it. After all, very few people indeed, in any party, voted for a Conservative-LibDem coalition, with a programme yet to be negotiated, when they went to the polls last May. If enough LibDems were to become seriously disenchanted by a Tory administration bent on the systematic destruction of the welfare state, there’s no constitutional reason why they should not withdraw from their alliance with the Tories and, with the leftist nationalist parties and the Green, enter a coalition (or a less formal partnership) with a new Labour government. If Cameron were to lose his majority in this way, and requested the Queen to dissolve parliament so that fresh elections could be held, the Queen would be well within her rights to reject that advice and ask Ed Miliband (or Diane Abbott or whoever it turns out to be) to form a new government instead. I don’t suggest that that is at all likely, but it’s certainly not impossible. And in an ironical way, it would serve Cameron right for his cynical move immediately after the election to legislate for a five-year fixed parliament uninterrupted by any pesky elections. Welcome to the land of the well hung parliament!

    I’m not sure which two options for Clegg you’re referring to in your last sentence. If you mean a coalition with Labour or a coalition with the Tories, I agree that the latter was the only realistic choice. But if you mean a choice between a coalition with the Tories or a conditional “confidence and supply” arrangement with a minority Tory government, leaving the LibDems free to vote on the merits of each issue as it arose apart from votes of confidence and budget supply votes, then I would argue that the latter would have been preferable from the point of view of the Liberal Democratic party, its standing in the country, the national interest and the Labour opposition, for the reasons given in my original post above.