Coalition with Starmer’s Labour?

In principle, it should not take the Conservatives’ disastrous record in government for the past fourteen years for Labour under Keir Starmer, which does not seem to stand for anything other than vaguely promising change, to win by a landslide. Labour’s double-digit lead unfortunately begs to differ.

However, after the recent local elections in England, as well as the Blackpool South by-election, Starmer did not rule out entering coalition with our party if Labour failed to win an outright parliamentary majority at the next general election. In contrast, he categorically ruled out doing so with the Scottish Nationalist Party owing to a ‘fundamental disagreement’ on Scottish independence.

This was in response to projected national shares based on the local election results predicting that Labour would fall short of an overall parliamentary majority. With the Conservatives’ disastrous local election results – coming in third behind us – is it any wonder that Rishi Sunak clutched at straws and touted this prediction as part of his ‘better the devil you know’ pitch to voters?

Their vague stance on Gaza or willingness to welcome defecting Conservative MPs, overestimation of Reform UK’s poll rating, and FPTP’s random distortive effect could prevent Labour from winning a majority of seats despite their poll lead. However, after five years of ‘Tory-lite’ Labour government, and with Conservative mismanagement still fresh in voters’ minds, a hung parliament could more likely be elected by 2029. Given Starmer’s non-committal statement, and recent experiences of political partnership, we should consider our position in the event of a hung parliament.

The hung parliament elected in 2010 led our party into entering coalition with the Conservatives. For five years of stability – certainly in comparison to what came afterwards – our party gained Cabinet positions and the fulfilment of some of our policies, namely marriage equality. However, most of our policies were blocked or stymied, and obligation to support unpopular programmes such as austerity led to us being electorally punished in 2015.

That is why our party supports a confidence-and-supply agreement. By supporting the government on the budget and during confidence votes, we can extract policy and funding concessions whilst avoiding shackling ourselves to unpopular policies. Although this would normally preclude ministerial posts, the Scottish Greens’ co-convenors held Scottish Cabinet positions as part of the Bute House Agreement with the SNP. For these reasons, it is understandable why we would support such an arrangement, and Labour a coalition.

The failures of the Conservative-DUP Agreement at Westminster, the Bute House Agreement at Holyrood, and the Labour-Plaid Cymru Senedd co-operation deal likely gave Starmer pause for thought. Under FPTP, the two major parties feel entitled to parliamentary majorities and governing alone. Thus, Starmer believes that we ought to support Labour come what may or that a ‘do-over election’ to get over the line could force our hand, similar to what happened in 2019 after the Tory-DUP deal collapsed.

This demonstrates a stark contrast with the devolved legislatures. Junior agreement partners have been able to make principled withdrawals without causing government collapse or early elections, due to the cooperative culture created by PR. In fact, Humza Yousef’s presumption that the Greens should support the SNP in government, even after his pre-emptive termination of the Bute House Agreement, forced his resignation as First Minister.

Because of the typically confrontational and short-termist attitudes FPTP induces, a supply-and-confidence agreement would be far better for us than a coalition. If Starmer insists on coalition talks, we should avoid redlining altogether and drive a hard bargain, if only to make the idea of supply-and-confidence more appealing to him.

* Samuel James Jackson is a member of the Executive Committee of the Calderdale Liberal Democrats, the Secretary of the Lower Valley Liberal Democrats and has served as a council candidate in the Ryburn and Park wards

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32 Comments

  • Again, a pointless article – perhaps The Voice Team could think about rejecting pieces that are just nonsense ?
    Short of War, there is no chance of any result in the next Election that doesn’t have a solid Labour majority.

  • Peter Martin 21st May '24 - 11:27am

    @ Paul Barker,

    There may only be a very small chance but that’s literally infinitely greater than “no chance”!

    There would be an even greater chance if the Lib Dem leadership started telling it like it is about Starmer, Streeting, Reeves and co. The Lib Dem membership understand all too well just have reactionary the decision to admit Natalie Elphicke was the two child cap policy still is. The integrity of Starmer is also easily called into question when you compare the Starmer in the period prior to his being elected Labour leader and the Starmer we see now.

    If Lib Dems do want some say in government, you won’t want Starmer to have a thumping majority.

    The target is there and it’s not a small one. Lib Dems would do well to not use up all their energy attacking the Tories. Everyone knows what they are like already. I doubt that they know how bad Starmer is and how he won’t be any different.

  • The Local election result is misleading.
    1. The turnout was low compared to a General
    2. There were limited numbers of Reform candidates unlike the General where they could poll 10 -15%, most off the Tories boosting Labours majority immensely
    3. The Green vote likewise, get some votes but what 2 seats if Bristol Central comes up Green.
    Labour to win by a massive majority, what we need to concentrate on is winning 30 seats to ensure we have a reasonable size block in Parliament
    Fully agree with Paul Barker

  • “Pointless article”? Why is Paul Barker so scared of talking about coalition? Well, I suppose that question answers itself, when we look back at disastrous Lib Dem history!

    Actually, the OP makes some interesting points about the difficulties of coalition. Basically, the junior partner tends to get shafted.

    The OP then suggests that the alternative option of a confidence-and-supply agreement reduces the risk that the junior partner will get the blame when a government becomes unpopular, as all governments eventually do. However, he does not really explain why that should necessarily mean Lib Dems “avoiding shackling ourselves to unpopular policies”.

    I would suggest that it all depends on negotiating priorities, whatever form of propping-up-government (either coalition or confidence-and-supply) is to be considered. Before 2010, Lib Dems always made pious noises about a coalition being about demanding adoption of crucial Lib Dem policies, and nothing to do with careerist ambitions. Then Clegg and friends did quite the opposite in practice, demanding plenty of Ministerial roles in return for propping up cruel Tory austerity. Lib Dems keep saying that these events are now consigned to ancient history. The voters keep saying that no, they aren’t!

    So yes, thinking about coalition is scary. Lib Dems not wanting to think about it is (to this disillusioned ex-Lib-Dem) even scarier. One day, the option will suddenly fall onto the table, and the Lib Dems will need to make a choice.

  • Chris Moore 21st May '24 - 1:17pm

    @Paul Barker: you’re being unnecessarily dismissive. There is a very small chance we will hold the balance of power after the GE.

    We do need to plan for that very unlikely circumstance.

  • Andy Chandler 21st May '24 - 2:13pm

    We shouldn’t be entirely dismissive of the prospects of a hung parliament; future proofing is in our best interests from a electoral strategy but also in communication, both public or private. I think the op-ed is just creating that space.

    As the article clearly says this in something that has a real chance of happening in upcoming future ones but that is sort of playing too much of looking into crystal balls. I do take issue when people compare the Local Election vote share. It’s not good data to compare the wider picture.

    I still think people have long memories of the coalition government so it’s fruitful to learn lessons of that. It is a good advocate of having a supply and confidence arrangement. Its still a bit “wobbly” politically to enter so soon into coalition due to those long memories, especially when our propsects is that we are not going to be back to the level of seats we enjoyed in 2005 and 2010 based on current polling so we will enjoy less influence.

    Right now, our focus should be about building back our core base. I am confident we will get roughly 30 to 50 seats but our vote share is still around 8 to 12% with a lot of votes being bleed by Labour and now more worryingly to the Greens. So I think before any talk of any these hypotheticals we need to focus on growing our base, unless of course we can be in a position of getting that electoral reform.

  • Peter Watson 21st May '24 - 3:39pm

    Andy Chandler “So I think before any talk of any these hypotheticals we need to focus on growing our base, unless of course we can be in a position of getting that electoral reform.”
    I think the party needs to be clearer about – and to communicate – exactly what that base is! Members and activists may like to believe it’s a radical, compassionate, liberal/Liberal one (and maybe even imagine it’s slightly centre-left), but their leaders appear to be securing and publicising growth based on soft Tories.
    And without a clear identity, with regards to electoral reform, be careful what you wish for. It seems credible that PR could lead to separate hard and soft right-leaning Conservative parties and separate soft and hard left-leaning Labour parties, squeezing the Lib Dems out of the centre.
    Attacking Starmer for being … well, pretty awful, really! … is one way for the party to distinguish itself, but as with the Labour party itself, fear of rocking the boat and accidentally letting this terrible Tory government off the hook seems to be driving everything. And ironically, that seems to mean looking as much like a terrible Tory government as possible! 🙁

  • Anthony Acton 21st May '24 - 4:42pm

    It is obvious that the LDs and Labour have arrived at – if not expressly agreed – a non-aggression pact. That is consistent with the strategy to concentrate on blue wall targets and getting out the tactical vote. There is no sign that Starmer has any ambition to run the country differently from Sunak, and after the GE I hope the party will develop a distinctive policy programme which offers an alternative to “keep calm and carry on”. As for another coalition – you cannot be serious.

  • Tristan Ward 21st May '24 - 4:45pm

    “a coalition being about demanding adoption of crucial Lib Dem policies, and nothing to do with careerist ambitions. Then Clegg and friends did quite the opposite in practice, demanding plenty of Ministerial roles in return for propping up cruel Tory austerity”

    If we make a show of saying the Lib Dems in government are rubbish why should anyone vote for us at all?

    I suggest you go back and look at the coalition agreement to see what Lib Dem policies were actually adopted. There were quite a few, and many were put into effect as well as some that were not in the coalition agreement (same sex marriage being the most obvious example). Lib Dem ministers means l actual power in the hands of liberally minded people. That is a Good Thing.

    As for “cruel Tory austerity”, the spending delivered was more than the Conservative manifesto, and about the same as proposed by Labour’s manifesto. Remember the financial crisis.

    I don’t think apologising for or or attacking our own record in government is a viable position in the run up to the next election. We can be sure the Green Party and Labour will be loud about the coalition, but they have had the luxury of opposition. To govern is to choose.

    I think the Coalition was one of the better governments of my lifetime in terms of both policy delivered and general stability. Compare the sh*t show since 2015.

  • Paul Barker 21st May '24 - 4:55pm

    We need to keep focused on our two immediate goals – getting as many Libdem MPs & as few Tories Elected as we can. I don’t see how attacking Labour helps.

    I have gone on & on about The Calition in the past – it was a stupid idea & Im sorry I fell for it. Never again.

    Talking about a Hung Parliament this Year makes us look both Sad & silly.

  • Chris Moore 21st May '24 - 5:08pm

    Come on, Paul, no one thinks it’s a likely outcome.

    But it’s also not a zero chance; so it has to be thought about.

  • Peter Martin 21st May '24 - 5:11pm

    “It is obvious that the LDs and Labour have arrived at – if not expressly agreed – a non-aggression pact…..”

    Yes it is.

    “…….There is no sign that Starmer has any ambition to run the country differently from Sunak”

    No there isn’t!

    So, why choose Starmer to ally yourself with? He is even worse than Sunak in that he’s cheated and schemed his way into the Labour leadership. If he’d been honest about his intentions he would never have been elected.

  • Peter Davies 21st May '24 - 5:19pm

    The coalition should have taught us that what you initially negotiate is not that important. Government is mostly about reacting to events and the larger party gets to dictate that. It’s even less important in a confidence and supply agreement. What matters is that we oppose anything they do that is illiberal or just stupid and put in our own amendments that challenge Labour backbenchers to vote for their party or their conscience. Under Starmer, they won’t be able to do both.

  • James Fowler 21st May '24 - 5:37pm

    Holding the balance of power after the forthcoming election would appear so improbable as to be absurd. However, if we do secure ca. 30+ MPs it’s possible that another 2010 or 1974 type scenario might emerge – probably in the 2030s. The central problem we’ve always faced – except in 2010 – is that our posture, part opportunist, part non conformist, part social democrat, more or less rises and falls with Labour. Ironically this makes coalition with them difficult because (apart from all the other things!) by the time they need us we’re being flushed out on the same tide of disillusionment with progressive causes as they are.

  • Neil Hickman 21st May '24 - 5:49pm

    I’m not convinced about this supposed non-aggression pact with Labour. One of the few successes for the Tories this month was in a by election in a seat near here held (just) by the Lib Dems. Labour, with no prospect of winning the seat themselves, piled resources in and campaigned vigorously. The result, a narrow Tory win, appeared to delight the local Labour agent. He has form for this.
    I believe he is also the Labour PPC; but the seat is one of the few which the Tories are projected as holding even if RefUK’s intervention reduces them to 35 seats or so. This pleases me because I won’t have to debate with myself whether I’m going to cast a tactical vote for someone I regard as an utter prat.

  • We all speak as fools in guessing General Ellection results. That being said I can’t help thinking ththat one of the best outcomes might be a Labour small to medium majority with enough Lib Dems to regain third party status. The latter could have a role in radicalising some of Labour’s actions using the quality of argument and conviction to exploit cross-party dissent among back benchers.

  • David Garlick 22nd May '24 - 7:38am

    NO!

  • Perhaps more relevant would be to ask the simple question: have the current government granted the opposition parties the same level of access to Whitehall that John Major did in the 1990s.
    We are basically, 7 months away from the end of this government and currently it seems they are (once again) putting party interests ahead of the country and so denying opposition access to Whitehall until the last possible moment. If we are lucky, they will begrudgingly allow access fro:the beginning of July, however, we can expect them to announce a GE and so reduce that access from 6 months to a couple of months over the summer recess…

  • @johnhall. Have you even read what Ed Davey says about Gaza? On twitter today, he supports the ICC, calls for weapons sales to Israel to be stopped and for an immediate bilateral cease fire coupled with the release of all hostages. Layla Moran’s stance has been widely praised by both sides. So what is your problem?

  • Mick Taylor 22nd May '24 - 1:00pm

    Oops. I meant Facebook not twitter.

  • The mistake made by Clegg & co wasn’t going into coalition, it was the way they did it, going in too quickly and conducting it as a “love-in” rather than a business arrangement. I think it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t to make the same mistakes again if the opportunity did arise to become partners in government. Besides, most of the architects of the coalition on the Lib Dem side have left active politics. Nowadays it’s almost exclusively tribal Labour people who bring up the Coalition as a reason not to vote Lib Dem. Ordinary voters care a lot less about events 14 years ago than do party apparatchiks.

  • Mary Fulton 23rd May '24 - 5:21pm

    @Alex Macfie
    I was completely sickened by the Liberal Democrat decision to back the Tories in 2010. The party made a huge tactical error – when they could have had massive influence on a vote by vote basis – and betrayed millions of voters who voted for us to try to remove the Tories from power. I could not tolerate anything similar in future

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd May '24 - 7:55pm

    i don’t count myself as a Lib Dem any more, but talk of coalition or confidence-and-supply is unwise baloney. You need to concentrate on building up seats up into the 30s or so, and then go again and maybe after the next election coalition will be a prospect. Also, I really don’t believe you’ll get the opportunity, Starmer seems reasonably likely to get a majority without difficulty.

  • Alex Macfie 24th May '24 - 7:00am

    @Mary Fulton: Confidence & Supply would have had the same risks for us as a full-blown coalition. It would have looked like we were just propping up the Tories for minimal benefit. We’re not the DUP, which is not electorally in competition with the Tories and doesn’t have an interest in being in government and could therefore extract maximum concessions from them for its parochial interests with minimal electoral penalty. This is why we rejected even Confidence & Supply with Theresa May’s government in 2017 — ANY association would have tained us.

    Confidence & Supply isn’t some way of gaining influence on a government without being tainted by it. It usually gives the minor party less influence than Coalition but runs the same risks. The Lib Lab pact lost us a lot of support in 1979, through previous Liberal voters reverting to the Tories.

  • Hello Mary,

    you say this, “he party made a huge tactical error – when they could have had massive influence on a vote by vote basis – and betrayed millions of voters who voted for us to try to remove the Tories from power”

    The Tories were not in power!

    The Labour party were very unpopular after many years in power. We couldn’t have gone in with Labour, apart from the maths not adding up.

    I left the party for a couple of years after the Coalition was formed. And many mistakes were made. But the good things the party did in Coalition shouldn’t be forgotten; it wasn’t all bad. Poor Pupil Premium; Ed’s work on renewables. Gay Marriage. raising lowest tax threshold and a few others.

  • Alex Macfie states, “The Lib-Lab pact lost us a lot of support in 1979, through previous Liberal voters reverting to the Tories”. As someone who was around at the time in the then Liberal Party, I’m sorry to say Mr Macfie is mistaken.

    In 1979 the Liberal vote dropped from 5.3 million (18.3%) to 4.3 million (13.8%) from October 1974….. in the wake of the Thorpe affair and the Winter of Discontent.

    In 2015, the drop was from 6.8 million (23%) in 2010 to 2.4 million (7.9%). In 1979 nearly twice as many people voted for the then party.

    1979 was a slight setback in difficult circumstance. 2015 was a calamity.

    As for “previous Liberal voters reverting to the Tories”, this ought to be a warning about relying on the ‘Blue Wall’ today…… which will eventually revert to type when the tide turns as it eventually will.

  • Mary Fulton 24th May '24 - 4:08pm

    @Chris Moore
    Of course, a clumsy error…it is just that for most of my adult life, the Tories have been in power.
    That said, most of the seats the Liberal Democrats won in 2010 were in areas that would traditionally be Tory rather than Labour areas, and we often won those seats by attracting the votes of people who may have otherwise voted Labour or other parties, but switched to us to try to keep Tories out of parliament. By choosing to support the Tories in government, we sickened a huge number of voters who voted for us precisely because they detested the Tories…and we, rightly, suffered the penalty in 2015.

  • Alex Macfie 25th May '24 - 1:16pm

    We lost votes to the Tories as well as Labour in 2015, because many Tory~LD waverers did not see any reason to vote for us instead of the Tories. Those voters generally liked the Coalition and thought that a vote for the Tories was a vote for its continuation. So the Coalition worked against us both ways, and one reason 2015 was particularly bad was our utter failure to differentiate our party from the Tories in coalition.

    I wasn’t trying to make an equivalence between Liberal or Lib Dem results in 1979 and 2015. My point was simply that Confidence & Supply can taint us just like full-blown coalition can. The Liberals had changed leader after the Thorpe affair so it likely was only a factor for Thorpe himself and his ally John Pardoe, who both lost their seats. The Winter of Discontent harmed us precisly because of our previous alliance with Labour.

    The Tories will probably only regain support in the Blue Wall if they end their flirtation with right-wing populism. However, their expected GE defeat is likely to lead to a further lurch to the right. We saw this before — after 1997, the Tories spent a decade in the electoral wilderness under a series of leaders who pushed the party to the right, and only seriously started to gain ground against us in 2010, when David Cameron “modernised” the party persuading it to accept (for instance) that Clause 28 wasn’t coming back and that devolution was here to stay.

  • Peter Hirst 27th May '24 - 3:04pm

    If Keir Starmer wants a lasting legacy he need look no further than introducing PR for Westminster and English local elections. This would also increase his chances of gaining a second term. It would be such a seismic change to our governance that the history books might mention him and not most of his contemporaries.

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