People in broad church parties should think twice before attacking coalitions

There are plenty of political parties hanging on to their ideological purity, where all the members pretty much agree on all the key issues. They’re easy to spot: they’re the ones that always lose.

The big parties are compromises – broad churches – people who work together because they agree a bit more with each other than with the rest, or simply because it’s the tribe they’re in.

Broad church parties are necessary in our electoral system. Under First Past the Post, you need to get to a certain size to have any real chance of success, and there simply aren’t enough people who agree on anything for a “pure” party to do that for any length of time.

But they have big downsides for those involved. The main one is the way you can be in the winning party but have absolutely no say, no influence and none of your preferred policies being put into practice.

Such was the fate of those on Labour’s left wing in the era of Blair and Brown. Not for them a negotiated plan. Not for them a deal that said “without us, Tony, you wouldn’t have had the numbers to get elected, so here’s what we get in the programme.” Not for them the ability to hold their more right-wing Labour colleagues to account and make sure they did what they promised.

Then we have the current coalition. Many Labour activists decry it as the Lib Dems selling our soul; but when you’ve been campaigning for fair votes and coalition government for as many decades as we have, the sell-out would be not to go into a coalition when its sensible to do so.

Coalitions of this sort don’t help you win elections – they aren’t an alternative to broad church parties under our First Past the Post system.

But, like our broad church parties, they provide a way for people who disagree on many issues to work together in Government on a common programme.

Coalitions even have some advantages; under our system at least.

For a start, all parties in the coalition have to get something. The one-party situation where a wing of the party is pushed into acting as impotent cheerleaders (or grumblers) is far less likely.

Under the current coalition, each party has a big chunk of its manifesto in the agreement.

But just having it written on a piece of paper isn’t enough – we all want those Lib Dem measures to be put into practice. Another coalition benefit. Under a single broad church party, the leadership normally gets its way whilst those who disagree are sidelined. Policies and pleges get quietly dropped when the leadership no longer want them. In a coalition, each party holds the other to account, and has the power to do it.

The Lib Dems won’t agree with everything the coalition does, just as few Labour supporters agreed with everything Brown and Blair did. But unlike those Labour activists, we Lib Dems have the power within the coalition to get our preferred measures through – and are doing just that.

Those who so vehemently attack the very idea of coalitions might do well to remember that we’re all – Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour – in our own coalition parties, trading purity for an increased chance of power day in, day out.

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20 Comments

  • Andrea Gill 29th Jun '10 - 4:24pm

    Very *very* good article, I sincerely hope that Labour readers/posters (who seem to be more frequent here than Lib Dem ones these days) take this advice to heart.

  • Many Labour supporters are cheesed off because they wanted a Lib-Lab pact to keep the Tories out forever. Now that it is clear that the Lib Dems are not averse to going into government with the Tories, their dream of sidelining the Tories forever lies in tatters.

  • I have always thought FPTP was preferable. However, as a lifelong labour party supporter, I like coalition government. We have able people from both both parties compromising and policies developed for the good of the country. The Labour Party are embarrassing me at the moment as they seek to cause division between the coalition parties and fail to acknowledge the difficult situation the country faces. It seems apparent that they will face years in opposition with their attitude. We all know the state of the deficit and that some of it was caused by the last government. I am also embarrassed about how aggressive some Labour MPs are being in the House. I am totally fed up with tribal politics and do not consider it has a place in the current climate.

    I shall be voting for AV.

  • Andrea Gill 29th Jun '10 - 5:34pm

    @Jane – Thank you for restoring my faith in Labour supporters not being on the same track as their MPs

    @Richard – You’re probably onto something there, however maths aside it seems to me it was the Labour negotiating team and Labour bigwigs speaking out on TV during the negotiations were largely responsible for the failings of those talks as the radio 4 podcast shows. At one point Labour at last agreed to concede something – scrapping the third runway!

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8693309.stm

  • This is all true. On the other extreme, we should not surrender our critical faculties just because we are in coalition. Remember all those independent thinkers- Frank Field, Kate Hoey etc- who we all admired when we were in opposition? Support the principle of coalition government by all means, but criticise where you must, urge the leadership to stand firm in other areas, and argue your case with moderation and good manners. It isn’t disloyalty to think for yourself and occasionally criticise where it is warranted. The Social Liberal Forum, for example, serve a useful function in providing leverage with the Tories, drawing the occasional red line and coming up with new ideas.

  • “an excuse to abandon your manifesto after a week is very unpopular.”

    It never stopped Labour when it came to a referendum on voting reform, dead by the weekend when Labour “won” a massive majority in 1997. Manifesto commitments – very funny.

    No, I don’t want all the Lib Dem policies implemented, cos I dodn’t agree with all of them either.

    PR needs broad church parties and co-operation or else it can be as useless as FPTP. Imagine a big BNP bloc or even a purist Labour party under PR taht wants to work with no-one and has no-one that wnats to work with them, yet can command 1/3 of the seats.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 29th Jun '10 - 8:50pm

    Broad churches are one thing – but they do tend to believe in the same religion.

    Clearly the Labour Party has always been a coalition and long may it continue to be so. It is quite prepared to support and adopt the ideas of those two great Liberals Keynes and Beveridge and will continue to keep their light burning, unlike the leadership of the LibDems.

  • “Many Labour supporters are cheesed off because they wanted a Lib-Lab pact ”

    If you believe that you’ll believe anything.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Jun '10 - 11:49am

    Red Rag

    Those in parties of coalition should realise that using the coalition as an excuse to abandon your manifesto after a week is very unpopular.

    “An excuse” suggests we wanted to do that anyway, so we would have found another had we won an outright majority.

    I do not think this is the case. The election results left us in a very weak situation – only one coalition partner was realistic, and they could see they had all the strength because our poorer than expected results in the election indicated we would be the big losers in another early general election if no stable government was formed.

    Quite obviously, therefore, we were not in a position to implement our manifesto. Just about the only realistic alternative would have been for us to give “supply and confidence” to a minority Tory government, which actually would have meant our MPs going even more against what was in the manifesto, because they would have to abstain on just about everything no matter how right-wing Tory it was.

    I see in today’s newspaper a promise that the economic austerity will work, and we will see a turnaround in unemployment in a year’s time. Good – let’s hold them to that. No turnaround in two years’ time and it’s clearly not working, and we can then decently say we tried, we gave the election winners a chance to show whether their ideas work, and it’s time for the people to give judgment on them.

    I’ve put this message enough times and in enough places in the hope that if there are others thinking that way there will be some organisation to do what is necessary should there be a need to pull the plug on the coalition before a general election has to be held anyway. It means that those who are members or supporters but are unhappy with the coalition should stick with us and promote this happening should it be necessary. But we have the promise of the government that it won’t be necessary. So, OK, fair deal, I support the government for now despite all thrown at me by non-aligned and Labour-oriented friends and colleagues, in return the government supplies me with the case “See, I told you so” I can use when the turnaround happens.

    The closer it comes to a general election, the more those LibDem MPs who stand to lose their seats might think “Sod it, if I’m going to lose anyway, I’ll go down fighting”. Or “A big show of rebellion from the LibDems with me in the front might save me”. This is our negotiating tool, it’s a weak one now, it will grow stronger as the years go on.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Jun '10 - 12:00pm

    “Many Labour supporters are cheesed off because they wanted a Lib-Lab pact ”

    If they wanted a Lib-Lab pact they should have lobbied their party to make a form commitment to proportional representation, because that was about the only thing that would have delivered it.

    Had a Lib-Lab pact been formed after the 2010 election, we would have in effect been saying “there are no circumstances ever in which we would form any sort of governmental agreement with the Tories” because the situation had just about everything there could be to rule out Labor being the preferred partners. That would have thrown away our independence. If that was our position I might as well have joined the Labour Party 30 years ago instead of the Liberals, I probably could have got a decent political career out of it instead of a lot of hard work for little material reward through my choice to be in the Liberals.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 30th Jun '10 - 12:18pm

    “The closer it comes to a general election, the more those LibDem MPs who stand to lose their seats might think “Sod it, if I’m going to lose anyway, I’ll go down fighting”. Or “A big show of rebellion from the LibDems with me in the front might save me”. This is our negotiating tool, it’s a weak one now, it will grow stronger as the years go on.”

    Perhaps not, if there’s an electoral pact on offer from the Tories.

  • ROB SHEFFIELD 30th Jun '10 - 3:58pm

    @Iain R: “Those who so vehemently attack the very idea of coalitions might do well to remember that we’re all – Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour – in our own coalition parties, trading purity for an increased chance of power day in, day out.”

    Hhhmm- A broad church is not the same as- purely for the sake of argument illustration- a bunch of Hindu’s deciding they will go along to a Buddhist temple because it gives them access to power and riches even though their beliefs and creed are fundamentally different: ditto (and perhaps more accurately as an analogy) Zoroastrians deciding they will set up camp within the local mosque.

    A broad church means that- though there are differences- the fundamental basic beliefs are the same.

    Are you saying you sign up to what the mass of the Tory party believes in ? Not just the thin blue line on the wet flank that overlaps with Cleggy…

    What you have done- and continuing the religious motif introduced by yourself- is stand on your head for a bit of (negligible) influence !

    “But just having it written on a piece of paper isn’t enough – we all want those Lib Dem measures to be put into practice”

    Not looking good is it…

  • ROB SHEFFIELD 30th Jun '10 - 4:01pm

    “If they wanted a Lib-Lab pact they should have lobbied their party to make a form commitment to proportional representation, because that was about the only thing that would have delivered it.”

    Well I wonder how you are going to feel when the masse of the Tory party campaigns for a NO vote and the new leadership of the Labour party campaigns for a YES vote.

    If you were honest, it would be a little bit foolish…

  • ROB SHEFFIELD 30th Jun '10 - 4:05pm

    ““An excuse” suggests we wanted to do that anyway, so we would have found another had we won an outright majority.”

    WHAT !! You don’t think that the Tories like Clegg and Laws et al were not *desperate* to lose most of what their devolved Federalised “beard and sandals” party had decided as policy ???!!!

    Extremely naive I have to say.

  • ROB SHEFFIELD 30th Jun '10 - 4:21pm

    “The closer it comes to a general election, the more those LibDem MPs who stand to lose their seats might think “Sod it, if I’m going to lose anyway, I’ll go down fighting”. Or “A big show of rebellion from the LibDems with me in the front might save me”. This is our negotiating tool, it’s a weak one now, it will grow stronger as the years go on.”

    “Perhaps not, if there’s an electoral pact on offer from the Tories.”

    ********
    Yes- an offer of an electoral pact from Dave would be the Lib Dems own Iraq war in terms of the division it would cause amongst MP’s/ members and the votes it would cost out in the country.

    It would be the smartest thing Dave would have done for the entire parliament. Though it might not (in-the-end) save his skin- that depends on the economy, jobs, house prices and inflation- Cleggs complicity in this would be one of the things most likely to.

    I personally think a pact is less likely than Clegg and his fellow light blues either splitting off or simply going the whole hog and joining with Cameron:

    Adopts Clegg voice “what the Prime Minister has shown unequivocally in the last 5 years is that this is a changed party…a liberal Conservative party. A party I have waited for my entire adult and political life..” etc etc etc ad nauseam.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jul '10 - 5:17pm

    Rob Sheffield, your religious analogy is false. Religions so not have to form a government, political parties in Parliament do. It was not a matter of “power and riches” for most of us in the Liberal Democrats, we will get nothing from the coalition except attacks from people like you. The coalition was accepted by most party members, including people like myself who are to the left in the party, because it would have been extremely damaging for our country had no stable government been formed, and the arithmetic of the Commons after the election meant that a Conservative-LibDem coalition was the only stable government that could be formed.

    I have seen plenty of comment on this Liberal Democrat Voice site from people saying the sort of thing you have said here. I have challenged many of those people making those comments with “OK, what would your alternative have been?”. And, NOT ONE OF THEM has given a reply. We didn’t get the election result we wanted – we lost. Live with it, that’s democracy. Since we didn’t get the election result we wanted, we can’t do what we wanted.

    How am I going to feel if the Tory Party campaigns for NO in a vote on proportional representation and the Labour Party campaigns for YES? I would be very pleased if there was such a referendum – Labour never gave one when it was in power. Not that we are promised one now, but if Labour were to promise one and to campaign for YES, of course that would be part of reconsidering the coalition.

    You see Rob, I am not permanently committed to this coalition. I have accepted it as a necessity in the current situation, that’s all. As I’ve already suggested, the exit plans need to be worked out. But the exit plans cannot involve a coalition with Labour in the current parliament because there aren’t enough Labour MPs. It’s that pesky democracy again, and that electoral system Labour still supports and we don’t. You’re the ones who think it’s good to distort representation in favour of yourselves and the Tories because you think a majority Tory government is a better thing than a coalition.

    Now when you write “You don’t think that the Tories like Clegg and Laws et al were not *desperate* to lose most of what their devolved Federalised “beard and sandals” party had decided as policy ???!!!”, I don’t say yes or no. I’m not a fan of Clegg, I argued passionately against him in the leadership election, but the Liberal Democrats are not a Leninist or Fascist party, the membership is ultimately in control. It is up to the membership to decide whether Clegg really wants to lead them or ditch them, and if Clegg wants to ditch them, the membership should ditch Clegg.

    Far from being naive, I’m playing the situation as it is, whereas you are playing it as you want it to be but it isn’t. There weren’t enough Labour MPs for a coalition with them, nor enough willingness from Labour to try and form one. You know that, so all your comments and those from others like you are just party political argy-bargy.

    If Clegg should make moves to form a permanent alliance with the Tories, and I would regard an electoral pact with them as such, I would leave the party. So would many others. Clegg and any LibDem MP who goes along with him would be left with no activists to get them re-elected, so utterly reliant on Tory votes. I would be sorry if it happened, it’s much like what happened in the last century, but I hope there are enough hard-nosed people in the Liberal Democrats who could see it happening and so pull the plug on Clegg if he tried it. If not, well sadly, I shall give up party political activity since Labour sure are not attractive enough for me to join them.

    That’s why I’m talking about this now in order that people may think and plan ahead for all eventualities.

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