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.