Labour Uncut editor Atul Hatwal writes… The two paths to a Labour deal with the Lib Dems

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about the Lib Dems. Intermittent stories about a UKIP surge into third and a Lib Dem collapse to below 10% at the election are symptomatic of an excitable Westminster bubble rather than the reality on the ground.

I write this not as a committed Lib Dem supporter, hoping for the best. Far from it, I’m lifelong Labour (boo, hiss) and even edit a Labour blog – Labour Uncut. But if Labour want to maximise their chances of becoming the government after the next election, it’s important that they take a realistic view of what will happen to the Lib Dems in 2015.

Despite the heartfelt wishes of many within Labour, there will be no return to the 1950s where Britain’s third party polls in single digits. Labour Uncut commissioned a slew of polling form YouGov in the run-up to conference season. One finding stood out with respect to the Lib Dems: out of the Lib Dems’ 2010 voters, 4 out of 5 intend to vote Lib Dem in 2015.

This is significant.

Voting is a habit – it’s easier to hold on to established supporters than win new ones. If 80% of 2010 Lib Dems are inclined to stick with the party, then converting these intentions into votes is not just possible, but likely, given even a moderately competent campaign. Translated into a poll result, this would place the Lib Dems on 18% at the next election. A drop from 23% in 2010, but not a step off the electoral precipice.

For Labour, where hopes of an outright majority barely flicker – certainly if the mood of the parliamentary party at Labour conference is anything to go by – the sense is that a deal will almost certainly need to be struck with the Lib Dems if Labour is to become the government.

Labour Uncut’s polling is clear on what Labour supporters think about this: Nick Clegg might be personally unpopular in the Labour family (69% of Labour supporters do not want a coalition that involves the deputy prime minister) but if pushed, where the alternative is a continuation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, the tune changes – 50% back a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, even including Nick Clegg, with 41% against.

With Labour parliamentarians and supporters increasingly in alignment on the need, if not outright desirability, of coalition with the Lib Dems, thoughts have turned to what such a partnership might involve.

Two paths are open to Labour to work out the basis of such an engagement.

The first involves adopting some policies that specifically appeal to the Lib Dems which Labour would support, for example, Lords reform. There’s also talk of voting reform for non-Westminster elections. Let’s call it the flowers and chocolate approach, where Labour woos the Lib Dems.

This has the merit of being direct and offering a clear tangible win for the Lib Dems, legislation that Lib Dem politicians will be able to point to at the following election.

But the danger is that, by focusing exclusively on a narrow set of policies, baubles, to be given to the Lib Dems, a broader agreement on government policy is sacrificed, leaving the partnership vulnerable to the rebellious kicks of a junior coalition partner’s backbench that does not feel it has a full stake in delivering the government programme.

The second path involves, paradoxically, ignoring the Lib Dems. Well, not all Lib Dems, just the politicians and concentrating instead on the party’s voters, along with lost Labour voters and switchable Tory voters. Let’s call it the belle of the ball approach, putting Labour in a position to be wooed by the Lib Dems.

Focusing on the centre-ground, that electoral area where there is commonality between voters of all parties, offers the prospect of a wider policy programme that Lib Dems would find it difficult to oppose and attracted to supporting.

Within Labour it is fashionable to talk about the centre of British politics shifting left. But for all the knee-jerk popularity in polls of Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze policy, the underlying poll position hasn’t changed one iota. Labour retains a narrow, and over the past months, shrinking lead over the Tories.

Worse still, the underlying drivers of peoples’ voting choices are moving against Labour. According to polling by Lord Ashcroft on who is most trusted on the economy, a worrying 5 point lead in June for Cameron and Osborne over Miliband and Balls (38% to 33%), had expanded to catastrophic 23% deficit in September (51% to 28%).

In this context, Labour Uncut launched a book at Labour conference, ‘Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why’, which sets out an alternative Labour manifesto that targets the centre-ground.

It includes commitments to adhering to the current government’s spending and deficit reduction path and funding new progressive policy pledges through a mix of deeper cuts and targeted new revenue raising measures.

For example, to fund an increase in house-building of 50,000 a year – the amount needed on top of existing government plans and private sector provision to build 200,000 homes a year and hit the politically magical target of 1m new homes in a parliament – Uncut proposed a mansion tax on properties over £2m as well as removing the ring fences from Health and Education.

The removal of the ring fences is a tough choice but Uncut’s polling found that 49% of the public agreed with making some cuts to schools and NHS budgets to protect spending in other departments with 37% opposed. 49% of Lib Dem supporters backed the move while 40% opposed – even 37% of Labour supporters were supportive.

The book sets out a range of fully funded commitments including universal free pre-school childcare, increased personal allowances and 1m new jobs – all without raising income tax, VAT or putting a penny on the debt.

This route – a programme of broad cross-party appeal– is the alternative to just offering a few specific policies to the Lib Dems: appealing to the centrist voters of each party, rather than focusing on deals with the politicians.

It would provide a more secure basis for potential coalition government, binding truculent politicians within the constraints of party supporters’ opinion and has the merit of avoiding any sense of unattractive, back-room dealing between parties, before an election.

In his speech to Lib Dem conference, Nick Clegg talked of anchoring Britain in the centre ground. If Labour was already there it would be hard not to support its programme.

As the election draws nearer, there will be increasing speculation on the terms of a deal between the Lib Dems and Labour.

Clearly, in the event of a hung parliament, the pivotal factor will be which of Labour or the Conservatives are the larger party. But if it is Labour, then the prospects for stable government will have been much enhanced if Labour has run on a centrist programme and secured switchers from the Conservatives and Lib Dems, than just relying on a few signature policy concessions to the Lib Dem leadership.

* Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut. 'Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why' was launched at Labour's September 2013 conference in Brighton.

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19 Comments

  • Am I the only one who will read this and sense no willingness to properly negotiate a shared programme of Government?

    It must be accepted by the smaller party that their will be a predominance of policies from the larger party, that is simply common sense. But to talk of bauble’s is to miss the point. There needs to be the ability to carry through some real Lib Dem policies, including some the larger party disagree with. There would also be the need, on the part of Labour, to draw back from some of their authoritarian approaches, especially on law and order.

    Anyone who has read my previous comments on this site know I am of the centre left and do not agree with many of the current coalition policies. That does not mean I would agree with a coalition made on baubles or on making it difficult not to form due to an apparent shift in labour position. As much as I despaired over tuition fees and secret courts, I have a long enough memory to know that Labour need to be tied down to detailed agreements, and made to keep to them……

  • Alisdair McGregor 13th Oct '13 - 10:57am

    “The first involves adopting some policies that specifically appeal to the Lib Dems which Labour would support, for example, Lords reform. ”

    The Labour Party deliberately torpedo’d Lords Reform for narrow party political advantage in this parliament. I am not inclined to accept Lord Reform as a negotiating token in coalition discussions. It’s something you claim to have always supported anyway – you don’t get to “give” it to us in exchange for something we don’t want.

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Oct '13 - 10:59am

    “Within Labour it is fashionable to talk about the centre of British politics shifting left. But for all the knee-jerk popularity in polls of Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze policy, the underlying poll position hasn’t changed one iota.”

    Quite the opposite, Atul, a lot of people here seem terribly concerned that the centre of British politics is moving in the opposite direction! Labours poll position shifting not “one iota” is not to suggest that British politics is similarly in stasis.

  • What Steve and Alisdair said

  • I’m puzzled by Labour Uncut’s poll figures. No other polling that I have seen indicates that 80% of LibDem supporters in 2010 intend to vote for us again in 2015. I wish it were true, but it isn’t.

  • Little Jackie Paper 13th Oct '13 - 11:42am

    Alisdair McGregor – That is true as far as it goes, but it does sort of raise the question of what Liberal Democrats would look for. In the past PR was the sine qua non – but I suspect that is off the table for a good few years, at least for Westminster. No one wants a rerun of the AV referendum. To my mind PR in local elections would not really make that much difference, but leave that for another day.

    But then the article does deserve credit for at least asking the question. What might a Lib-Lab Coalition look like? After all, all three main parties have a consensus on deficit reduction as the main priority for policy – so it is not as if there is no common ground. Indeed, it even raises the prospect of a Lab-Con coalition as not totally fanciful.

    What would Lib Dems want from a Lab-Lib Coalition? To some extent of course it will depend on the arithmetic post election. But it is a question that there is a curious reluctance to discuss. Necessarily some people would have to swallow very hard – Lib Dems on civil liberty, Labour probably on local government – but it is right that compromise is what happens in a coalition. And so I’ll have a go and say what I would like to see: a comprehensive, fully thought out, lasting and robustly funded settlement for localism with a Lib Dem controlled Department for Local Government.

    I would also congratulate the author for proposing getting rid of ring-fences in spending. I see no reason why in a fiscal consolidation there should be sacred cows – and that includes the NHS and pensioners. I suspect that ring fences are much less popular than politicians think they are.

  • Steve – my point is that baubles won’t suffice. Yes, there would need to be a properly negotiated programme, but the best basis for this would be a strong, centrist Labour offer

    Alisdair – see my response to Steve. To be honest, Lords reform would be bottom of my personal list of policies for an agreement. Bigger stuff on the economy (childcare, housing, jobs) needed (as per the Uncut manifesto, link at end of piece)

    Jedibeeftrix – not sure the centre has shifted right, more that if the main political issue is debt, people will want spending restraint. But if the issue moves on from debt, to things like universal childcare, increased housing etc the balance of public opinion will be more progressive

    Tony – the polling by YouGov will be on their website soon. The key question is not on peoples’ intention to vote, but of those that voted LD in 2010, what % intend to vote LD in 2015. Personally think this is a good indicator of the core vote

  • Melanie Harvey 13th Oct '13 - 12:13pm

    I suspect Labour will not do well at all, particularly if one aspect /storyof their past mess up comes to the fore .

  • I agree with Tony.
    What the figures probably show is the % of people who REMEMBER that they voted LD in 2010. Most people don’t actually remember how they voted in a specific election, even a recent one, and assume they either voted for the party they usually vote for, or the one which won. Those of us who can tell you how we voted in every election since we were 21 (or 18) are very atypical!

  • paul barker 13th Oct '13 - 2:00pm

    This is all very well but there was a battle for “The Soul of The Labour Party” & the Centrists lost & lost badly. However “Left” the Labour program actually is it is certainly meant to sound Left & has the glowing approval of Len McCluskey. “Labour Uncut” represents a minority faction in internal exile, you have very little influence & even your supporters seem demoralised.
    If we are predicting 2015 we need to get through the next 7 months first. It looks like a deal on The Milliband reforms has been done – The Unions give less money & in return get more Power but theres plenty of space for things to go wrong.
    What happens if Labours Poll ratings continue to decline ? Can the facade of unity be maintained ? The next 7 months will decide the course of British Politics for decades to come.

  • Jonathan Brown 13th Oct '13 - 9:42pm

    Thanks for writing this Atul. It’s no secret that polls of Lib Dems show that we’d prefer a coalition with Labour to one with the Conservatives, but that’s a very different thing from saying that it would be possible work one out. It’s good to know it’s being thought about in Labour circles.

    One hopeful thing to bear in mind is that I suspect that it’ll be easier for Lib Dems and Labour to reach some sort of agreement on many of the social aims of government. (A more equal society, better education for all, better and more childcare, better and more housing, state provision of health care, etc., etc.) The differences in many of these areas are probably more to do with personalities, political cultures and understanding of the methods used to achieve these ends. The Conservatives don’t even share many of these goals, never mind the methods.

    That said, the differences matter. I suspect Lib Dems will find it harder to work with Labour than with the Conservatives, for all the disagreements over policy. The more thought Labour put in to how to make a coalition work however, the more likely they are to find it workable.

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Oct '13 - 11:08am

    One would hope that in all three parties, given how things worked out after the last election, there are teams ‘roleplaying’ strategies for almost all coalition outcomes, for Labour this would include:
    - coalition with the LDs
    - coalition with either of the Nationalist parties
    - confidence and supply with any combination of LDs, Nats, SDLP, Greens and possibly even Unionists
    - grand coalition with the Tories (unlikely as it seems)

    I would have thought that 2010 proved that you have to do your homework and you have to want to be in government to put a coalition together; It now looks rather like Cameron was more prepared than the LibDems were for the coalition negotiation process – can Miliband, if he has to, do what Cameron did and do the hard work on this?

    And in a secret room somewhere is there an LD team (even 2 LD teams) working out how to build agreements with both of the two main parties, if the public vote creates the opportunity?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Oct '13 - 2:48pm

    Firstly, the distortions of the electoral system mean a no-majority parliament is still quite unlikely. The big rise in the third party vote took place in 1974, and has stayed in place in every general election since then, but it took ten general elections before a no-majority Parliament happened.

    Secondly, as we saw in 2010, the presence of a significant number of MPs who are not from the big two parties nor from the Liberal Democrats means even if it is a no-majority Parliament that does not mean it will be a matter of choice over which coalition is formed. In 2010 a majority could just about be cobbled together with Labour, the LibDems, and a few of the others – but it would be unstable since it would always be at risk that a minor backbench rebellion could bring it down. Note that if we did have proportional representation, the combined share of Labour and LibDem votes WOULD have been enough to make a Labour-LibDem coalition viable. But we don’t. That is why I hold that anyone who opposed PR on the ground that the distortion of FPTP and its variant AV is good because it means one-party government s more likely is the TRUE proppers up of the Tories. FPTP may not have delivered a full majority in 2010, but the distortion which its Labour and Conservative supporters say uis such a good aspect of it, did the next best thing (if you think government of one party is best) – it delivered a Parliament where the distortion meant a government dominated by the Tories was the only real possibility.

    Now, the point of going on about this is to say that this endless argument about who’s going to “jump into bed” with whom, misses the point. The language used is often over-emotive, and it generally tends to the idea there will be a real choice.

    For the Liberal Democrats, the problem is that Nick Clegg has played up to this, starting off with the Rose Garden “love in”, and always giving the impression that the current coalition was a matter of choice based in ideological similarity rather than necessity based on party balance. This has HUGELY damaged our party, by giving the impression that there was a realistic alternative choice that was not made, and by making it look as if ther LibDems were just a liberal sort of Tory all along – so destroying decades of effort many party activists have put in to building up the Liberal Democrats as an alternative left and pushing us back to where we were in the 1950 when the party only survived in Parliament due to a few long-standing Conservative-Liberal anti-Labour no-competition agreements.

    Labour has been only too pleased to go along with this, because it is a line which is so much in Labour’s favour. Since the coalition was formed it has played the game of attacking the Liberal Democrats for “propping up the Tories” as if somehow there was an alternative option. How good this is for Labour – no need to think, no need to address the real problems of our economy and society, no need to come up with realistic alternative policies – just “Yah boo sucks, you LibDems propped up the Tories because all you wanted was power” – and that, it is hoped, and to a large extent has worked, will bring over half the former LibDem votes to Labour next time.

    So I think the first step in moving towards the possibility of a Labour-LibDem coalition is for BOTH parties to be more public in recognising that the current coalition came about more because of the balance in Parliament caused by the way people voted and the electoral system we have than because it was a matter of choice. In fact that would be such an enormous move forward if we got that acknowledged from the top of both parties, that I think it’s enough. If it doesn’t happen, my fear is that there will be a shift of LibDem votes to Labour in constituencies where Labour is third, which will mainly benefit the Tories in terms of seats.

  • Simon Banks 14th Oct '13 - 4:32pm

    Both parties need to think about these issues and it’s helpful to do some thinking in the open as here.

    It’s difficult to imagine Liberal Democrat negotiators or activists being impressed by being offered things they want and Labour apparently wants too, though identifying such things would help to build a programme. From our side, I hope we’ve learnt from a coalition programme that offered us many of our policies but made it all subject to the number one priority of reducing the deficit and failed to say how that would be done. I hope we’d look for agreement on a broad direction and programme of government. Within that, no doubt, would be some things we loved and Labour was dubious about and some things Labour loved and we were dubious about, but I agree with what I think is Atul’s thrust, that a collection of such loose jewels is not enough.

    I don’t see why that involves ignoring the Lib Dem politicians. They have to persuade a special conference to support the deal and continue to carry the party with them. And the rank and file may be more interested in specific policies than in the much-discussed “middle ground”.

    What would be very interesting for us would be areas where Labour, at least Blairite and Brownite Labour, has been inimical or at least unsympathetic to our aims, but we know a substantial chunk of the party is more sympathetic. Civil liberties is one such area and genuine, radical devolution is another.

  • David Allen 14th Oct '13 - 5:43pm

    The polling figures, as others have commented, are odd. Most polls say the Lib Dems will lose much more support to Labour than just 20% of their voters.

    One point (similar to that made above) is that if you first remind people which way they voted in 2010, they are more likely to say they will do the same again in 2015. (Many of them would subconsciously be scared that if they said they were going to do different, the pollster would come back with an awkward supplementary question “why?”, which the poor old not very political minded voter would struggle to answer coherently!)

    Another possibility – dd the people being polled know that the poll was commissioned by a Labour organisation? If so, they willl probably have wanted to avoid telling you that they were a pushover!

    What it does show, however, is that these votes could still be fluid. They won’t shift again if things go on as they have been doing, but if the Lib Dems dumped Clegg, they might get a lot of the votes back.

  • Robert Wootton 14th Oct '13 - 7:26pm

    I truly believe that it is possible for the Liberal Democrats to win a landslide victory on its own.
    How? By putting forward in the manifesto a pledge to establish a framework of economic justice that allows people to choose for themselves whether to live a capitalist, socialist or community based life style.
    That framework does not exist at the moment of course.

  • Simon Hebditch 17th Oct '13 - 10:30am

    I have always favoured an alliance with Labour if one could be put together. Some of the approaches that Atul suggests will help in that regard and I see that the Fabian Society has produced a sort of policy manifesto which Lib Dems could study with interest. But all this work needs to be done from now – not in a manic rush after the election. The electorate has every right to know before election day what our preference might be.

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