It was a fiery Prime Minister’s Questions this week: with Nick Clegg standing in for David Cameron, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman was joined by her backbenchers in hurling insults at the Lib Dem leader, which he returned with equal force.
It wasn’t edifying or enlightening. And it may not be a good guide to what could happen after May 2015 if the electoral arithmetic leaves Labour and the Lib Dems with little choice but to team up to form a Coalition government.
In fact, if you review the policies announced by both the Lib Dems and Labour over the past year or so, it is clear that the two parties now agree with each other on a range of major policy areas. With the Lib/Con Coalition running out of steam, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are beginning to sign from the same hymn-sheet.
Here are the 17 policy areas where I think it’s straightforward to imagine the two parties reaching agreement…
Tax-cuts for low-earners
This has been the signature Lib Dem policy delivered in Coalition: raising the personal tax allowance has lifted two million of the lowest-paid out of income tax altogether and given a sizeable tax-cut to 22 million other tax-payers. The party voted last September to go further, and increase the tax-free allowance to £12,500. In February 2013, Ed Miliband announced Labour too would commit to tax-cuts targeted at the low-paid by re-introducing the 10p tax rate (which has the virtue of being cheaper and the vice of being less progressive). It’s not hard to see the two parties reaching an agreement on this.
A mansion tax
Vince Cable’s idea has its critics, not least David Cameron who blocked a Clegg/Osborne deal in 2012 which would’ve seen the mansion tax introduced in exchange for the Tories cutting the top-rate of tax from 50p to 40p. Ed Miliband has already announced Labour would introduce an annual levy on houses worth over £2 million.
Scrap the marriage tax-break
Nick Clegg has consistently denounced the Tories’ marriage tax break as an “unmarried couple penalty”. A Lib Dem abstention on the issue was written into the Coalition Agreement, and when it was announced last autumn Clegg also managed to negotiate the introduction of universal free school meals for all infants in return. Ed Balls vowed yesterday to reverse the tax.
Cut pension tax relief for high earners
The Lib Dems voted last September to reduce the lifetime tax-free limit on pension contributions from £1.25m to £1m. Labour this week announced that those earning more than £150,000 would get only 20% tax relief on pension contributions, instead of the 45% they receive now. The Lib Dems are ‘in principle’ in favour of moving to a single rate of relief though recognise there are many practical problems. But clearly there’s space for agreement here.
Scrap the bedroom tax
Officially the Lib Dems are committed to an immediate review of the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ (or ‘spare room subsidy’ as no-one calls it), including looking at what money (if any) has been saved, the costs incurred, and the effect on vulnerable tenants. However, party president Tim Farron has made no secret of his wish to reform / scrap it. Ed Miliband announced at the last Labour conference that any government he led would scrap it.
Every teacher to have a teaching qualification
Nick Clegg issued his parental guarantee last October, arguing that all schools, including academies and free schools, should only employ teachers with a teaching qualification or working towards one. Labour would go further and require teachers to be licensed, but again there’s plenty of room for accord here.
Schools to have local accountability
The ‘academisation’ of schools has severely weakened local education authorities, with nothing now standing between thousands of academy schools and Whitehall. David Laws has long voiced concerns about this centralisation of power, especially for primary schools, and advocated some form of locally accountable middle tier.
David Blunkett is currently leading a review for Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, on this very issue. Between the two, some form of locally accountable middle tier is likely to emerge.
Cut back wealthy pensioner benefits
It’s a couple of years since Nick Clegg boldly staked out his view that it was time to means-test better-off pensioners and end universal entitlement to benefits such as free bus passes and television licences. Last summer, Ed Balls announced he would axe winter fuel benefit for the most well-of pensioners.
In/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership
At the Lib Dems’ September conference, party members approved the policy of an in/out referendum being held the next time there’s a proposal for a significant transfer of powers from the British parliament to the European Union. This week Ed Miliband announced Labour is adopting the same policy.
More houses and more council housing
At the party’s 2012 conference, the Lib Dems committed to a target of 300,000 new homes each year by supporting private investment and by giving greater powers to local councils and social landlords. Labour’s stated target of 200,000 new homes a year is more modest, but there is considerable overlap in means, such as through new garden cities and increased borrowing powers for councils.
Environment: 2030 decarbonisation target
One of the largest (and least commented-on) Lib Dem rebellions took place last June when 16 Lib Dem MPs rebelled against the Government and voted for a carbon emissions target for the power industry. Lib Dem energy secretary Ed Davey made clear that a decarbonisation-by-2030 target will be in the next Lib Dem manifesto even if it couldn’t be agreed within the Coalition. Labour has confirmed this will be in their party’s manifesto too. And though Ed Davey has clashed with Ed Miliband on Labour’s proposed energy price freeze, that hasn’t stopped him also calling for a re-setting of the energy market to ensure fair prices for consumers.
The 2013 Lib Dem conference backed a policy calling for a reduction in the number of Trident submarines while still maintaining the UK’s nuclear capability. Though Labour has attacked the Lib Dem plans, arguing that the UK should renew Trident and maintain a continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent, the Lib Dem rejection of unilateralism means this is unlikely to be a red line issue.
Health and social care integration
The integration of health and social care has long been a passion of Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb, who has argued for “mov[ing] the NHS away from top-down re-organisation … towards a more integrated health service [that] will stop people falling through the gaps in the system”. This passion is shared by Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham – which means that NHS reform might prove a whole lot less contentious under a Lib/Lab coalition.
Defence of the European Court of Human Rights
One of the Coalition divides which might prevent a second Lib/Con coalition is the Tory party’s determination to scrap the Human Rights Act and consider withdrawing the UK from the European Court of Human Rights. This was one of 16 Tory policies that Nick Clegg told the Lib Dems’ 2013 conference he had vetoed, while Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has also attacked the Tories’ position.
Devolution of public services to local communities
Devolution of power to the most local level achievable is a Lib Dem touchstone: the party of ‘home rule’ has rebuilt its strength from the bottom up in the last half-century. Nick Clegg has drive through the Coalition’s “City Deals” programme, offering greater independence from Whitehall. Last weekend the party voted through a motion at its Spring conference called ‘Power to the People‘. A month ago Ed Miliband spoke up for “people powered public services”. We’ll see if he means it if/when he’s in power – but he could certainly count on Lib Dem support.
Greater transparency of intelligence agencies
There was an odd synchronicity last week. Here was Nick Clegg on 3rd March arguing in The Guardian for “a significant revamp of the oversight applied to our intelligence agencies, [which] should be introduced as quickly as possible”. And here was Labour’s shadow home secretary the same day arguing for “flexible, independent and transparent” processes to oversee the UK’s security systems and “reassure the public that a good job is being done on its behalf”.
This is the one Lib Dem priority within the Coalition which has largely been unfulfilled, with the defeat of voting reform, House of Lords reform and party funding reform thwarting Nick Clegg’s over-ambitious pledge to introduce the “greatest shake up of our democracy since 1832”. Yet on all three issues Labour is, ostensibly at any rate, on the same side as the Lib Dems. Add to that votes at 16 – which Labour wants in place by 2016 – and there is a shared agenda if Miliband can persuade his party’s backbenches to back him.
So there you go… 17 areas of potential accord.
But Lib Dems looking down this list and thinking “Those all look good, I’d like us some of that” should be wary. As I observed a few months ago:
… the Lib Dems have been lucky twice-over in partnering with the Conservatives. [The Tories] have allowed us to frame ourselves as the defenders of fairness in government. [The Tories] have allowed [themselves] to become defined as the ‘bad cops’ in the opinion of most voters.
We wouldn’t be that lucky with Labour, though: they would do their utmost to ensure it was the reds who got the bragging rights for defending the downtrodden and the dispossessed, the yellows who were seen as heartless scourges of the poor. However much we raised the fairness stakes, you can bet Labour would out-bid us. Though perhaps they’d make some concessions on civil liberties to ensure they can blame us for any terrorist outrages.
According to our LibDemVoice surveys of card-carrying members, my party would much rather do a deal with Labour next time around. I understand why and we should, of course, keep our options open: what smart negotiator doesn’t? Especially as it’s the voters who’ll decide what’s possible and what’s not. But we should be very careful what we wish for, otherwise it will be the Lib Dems that end up branded as the nasty party in any future Lib-Lab coalition. We can’t always rely on being so lucky as we have been with the Conservatives.
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to Jan 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.