‘Could a Lib Dem / Labour agreement happen before 2015?’ asks Hopi Sen

I realise the headline may well pre-destine this post for John Rentoul’s ever-expanding #QTWTAIN category. But Hopi Sen, an influential Labour blogger, is always worth listening to, and this week he put forward a scenario in which “a LibDem-Labour realignment could foil the Tories”:

Could this happen?

For the first time, it seems at least plausible. Senior LibDems feel let down by the Conservatives over Lords reform and the AV referendum. They feel they have delivered painful changes to their policy programme for the sake of national unity and this generosity has not been reciprocated. They see the Tory backbenches unafraid of their leadership and a Tory leadership unable to deliver a changed Tory party. …

A Labour-Liberal coalition would be inherently unstable, given the parliamentary maths. At most, it would be able to set out a governing agreement, pass a budget and perhaps announce a Queen’s speech and an interim spending review. After that, there would rapidly need to be an election to gain a parliamentary majority for this common programme.

To make a deal worthwhile therefore, a Labour-LibDem agreement would have to be binding beyond the next election, no matter whether Labour won a governing majority. It would, in effect, entail an informal “LibDem policy coupon”. In other words, we’d have to convince the LibDems we really meant it, and weren’t just using them to get the Tories out and us in.

You can read Hopi’s post in full (it’s worth it) here.

The ‘policy coupon’ he constructs includes an economic position “similar to Vince Cable’s the 2010 election – a short term stimulus programme followed by sustained spending restraint” together with banking reform and ‘green power’, and an offer of proportional representation for local council elections. (This latter, with the benefit of hindsight, would have been the best option for the Lib Dems to have included within the 2010 Coalition Agreement with the Tories.)

It’s an interesting hypothesis. However, there are three fundamental problems with it that I can foresee:

    1) Hopi is an outlier among Labour members, both constructive and non-tribal. I suspect there are a whole lot more Labour members that simply want to see the Lib Dems crushed not accommodated, believing it will resurrect the simpler bygone age of two-party politics.

    2) Equally, I cannot see Lib Dem members being happy with the idea of fighting the 2015 election on the basis of a ‘coupon’. We’ve always made it clear the party will contest the next election as an independent party.

    3) I think too that Lib Dems would be cautious about switching sides mid-parliament. Whatever the policy details, the public perception could very well be that ours is a party simply which sells itself to the highest bidder.

Still, as the Lib Dem negotiators showed in May 2010, keeping your options open is a necessary condition. A Labour / Lib Dem alignment is probably the least likely pre-2015 scenario around. But it’s not as impossible this week as it was a fortnight ago.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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18 Comments

  • I don’t know, but thanks for introducing me to #QTWTAIN 🙂

    I think the real question is there any pre – 2015 scenario that might involve the (possibly) communist penguin that is the subject of no. 672 (http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2011/07/15/is-this-penguin-a-communist/)?

    And is this a second order QTWTAIN?

  • Yes, I do feel let down by the Tories over Lords reform, but I feel much more let down by Labour over Lords reform … and much else.

  • If we do another coalition in 2015, it should be on the basis that the larger party gets PM and the second party provides the chancellor. When we joined the Tories I said that the worst thing about the coalition was Osborne as chancellor, and he has proved to be pretty poor, but Ed Balls is positively toxic. In the highly unlikely event the maths support a coalition, I think it might be useful to do confidence and supply and see if we have more joy horsetrading in the open than being stuffed with a coalition agreement.

  • Stuart18th Jul ’12 – 11:44pm………………Yes, I do feel let down by the Tories over Lords reform, but I feel much more let down by Labour over Lords reform … and much else…………………..

    “Much more let down by Labour over Lords reform”??????? A rather strange comment. It ignores entirely the context within which the HoL vote was taken and the fact that Labour voted for the 2nd reading – and the Tories largely didn’t.

    “And much else”??????????? So Labour should have voted, with our MPs on NHS, Disability, Welfare, etc. and, of course, not have attempted to have any investigation into the conduct of Liam Fox and Jeremy Hunt.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jul '12 - 7:55am

    @Alistair
    “In the highly unlikely event the maths support a coalition, I think it might be useful to do confidence and supply and see if we have more joy horsetrading in the open than being stuffed with a coalition agreement.”
    I sort of agree, but there is the risk that Lib Dems would then appear to be happy to jump into bed with the tories but not Labour, and face another 5 years of looking like a mini-me conservative party. We should be prepared to go into coalition with any party, but I hope that we would be better at it second time round ( we couldn’t be much worse ).

  • Alex Macfie 19th Jul '12 - 8:32am

    The Irish Labour Party did something similar in the 1990s. They did not do well out of it. After the inconclusive 1992 Irish election result, in which Labour did very well (doubling its seats but remaining the third party), they formed a coalition with Fianna Fail. In doing so, they propped up the governing party that had lost support, even though preferences indicated that Labour voters tended to be Anyone-but-FF voters. Then Labour switched sides mid-term to support a Fine Gael-led government, and fought the following general general election, in 1997, on a coupon with FG and Democratic Left, a small left-wing party that later merged with Labour. The voters were not impressed, and Labour fell back to its earlier level of support.

  • There should be no formal agreement before the election with any other party, but where there are issues with convergence it is better to get these in the open allowing the election to be contested on the bits where there is disagreement. This would be true of the Tories as well. This will require talks but they do not need to equate to being disloyal to the coalition.

    In the mean time where there is a benefit to working together on individual policies, such as actually speaking to them about Lords reform, then it should be a given. Otherwise all the talk of plurality is just that, talk.

    The problem is the nodding dog approach at ministerial questions (and in interviews) taken by Lib Dem Ministers means that it will be difficult to put any distance between yellow and blue in the public mind. There are at most three years until an election, whilst there are occasions where Lib Dems will have to vote against their wishes due to collective responsibility they need to be far more clear about this and stop appearing as sheep.

  • David Evans 19th Jul '12 - 9:55am

    In answer to the question.

    No, because they won’t need us.

  • @Jason – calm down, mate. Yes, I am more let down by Labour over Lords reform because Labour are supposd to believe in it. Yes, they voted for it at Second Reading, but that was just so they had something to tell their credulous followers; they knew that voting against the timetable would kill it. Yes, the Tories let us down too, but at least their rebels had the excuse of voting for what they actually believed in.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jul '12 - 11:26am

    I am unhappy about the present coalition, and would prefer we were in coalition with Labour. However, the argument we should be making and making constantly is that the balance in Parliament in 2010, thanks to the way the electoral system distorts representation, ruled that out as a possibility. So there was just no question about with whom we should form a coalition, we did not have a choice, we did not “put the Tories” in, we simply accepted what the people and the electoral system (which the people endorsed by two-to-one a year later) gave us. This should have let us off the hook, because if we had had a genuine choice we would be in a very much more difficult situation. However, thanks to the inept national leadership of our party, we have failed to get this message across, and instead left the impression that the present coalition was a voluntary choice or even (as one of our prominent MPs is still saying – to our enormous damage) some sort of ideological coming together of people with a fixation on making expenditure cuts under the belief that cuts are true “liberalism”.

    We should shake off this idea, the sloppy talk still all over the media, which likens the present coalition to a marriage. It is nothing of the sort. The term “marriage” implies equal partners, a commitment without a time limit, and a commitment as our leader says when arguing for the term elsewhere based on “love”. The present coalition is not an equal partnership, how can it be when thanks to the distortions of the electoral system the Tories have five times as many MPs as us even though they had only one and a half times as many votes? It is not a long-term merger, it is – or certainly should be – a short -term arrangement at most for the duration of this parliament. And it most certainly is not, at least I am sure for most LibDem voters and LibDem members, based on love of the Conservative Party. If we had a decent leadership interested in the long-term survival of our party, it would be busily slapping down any commentator who used marriage analogies about the coalition.

    For just the same reasons that we should not be fighting a “coupon” election in 2015 semi-merged with the Tories to maintain the present coalition, we should not be fighting a “coupon” election with Labour. We should however be in talks with Labour, because just as the 2010 situation forced us into a coalition with the Conservatives, so the situation after the next election may make a Labour-LibDem government inevitable. If we were in a situation where there was a genuine choice we should be even-handed as to which way to go, and make clear NOW that is how it would be. We should also be making it clear, in particular to the tiresome question “who would you jump into bed with?” (originally devised to conjure up subliminal homophobia at the time when the Thorpe trial was still in people’s heads), that the answer to that question depends just as much on willingness of the other parties, so why not ask their leaders how willing they would be to form a coalition? What is crystal clear from the current situation is that a junior coalition partner cannot act like a mighty kingmaker, as tended to be fondly imagined by commentators (anyone involved in difficult balance of power situations in local government would kn ow what nonsense that idea is).

    We would not need any sort of pre-election agreement if we had AV. Thanks to Labour we do not have AV. Let us make that very clear – Labour is to blame for us not having AV because the near-silence or outright opposition to AV from all Labour people in the referendum doomed it to failure, as it could be presented as just a LibDem thing. Had Labour and the LibDems together been campaigning for AV, using the argument that it would have been a shift away from the situation that forced the present Tory-dominated coalition on us despite the Tories having only just over a third of the votes, “Yes to AV” would have won handsomely. So Labour having wrecked electoral reform then comes to us with a plan for an agreement which is only needed because of the electoral system. What an insult!

  • Stuart19th Jul ’12 – 10:17am……………………[email protected] – calm down, mate. Yes, I am more let down by Labour over Lords reform because Labour are supposd to believe in it. Yes, they voted for it at Second Reading, but that was just so they had something to tell their credulous followers; they knew that voting against the timetable would kill it. Yes, the Tories let us down too, but at least their rebels had the excuse of voting for what they actually believed in………….

    Sorry about that; the ‘????’ rather ran away with themselves. Labour don’t want to kill it; they want it ‘on their terms’
    and why not? It’s our coalition and, for Labour, every such problem is win-win.
    As for “the excuse of voting for what they actually believed in”…… I’d love to have been able to say that about our MPs.

  • Co-operation with Labour is tricky whilst they believe that colluding with the Tories to block Lords reform will force the Lib Dens to vote down the new boundaries. (Unfortunately, the boundaries do not seem to bother the Tory backbenchers enough so that they will back Lords reform either.)

  • paul barker 19th Jul '12 - 4:01pm

    I see another possibility –
    1st the far-left push labour into open civil war/tip labour into bankruptcy

    2nd labour MPs defect en-masse to the libdems, joined later by some moderate tories

    3rd libdems form a minority government.

    Its not very likely, just more likely than labour offering us anything worth having & meaning it.

  • Both the Tories and Labour are overwhelmingly most likely to lead us on with semi-promises, then renege as soon as possible. Labour did it fifteen years ago, the Tories are doing it now.

    Blair was probably semi-sincere in his promises to Paddy Ashdown. Had he faced the choice between governing in alliance with the Lib Dems and staying in opposition, he would no doubt have chosen to govern. As it was, he won a landlside, so he went all quiet and left it to the Prescotts to pronounce the death of the Project. That’s as much sincerity as we can expect. Oh, and by the way, in case I haven’t mentioned this often enough, it would appear that the Tories are no better…

    Labour are tough and rough. The Tories are tough and rough. We need to be tougher.

  • Simon Hebditch 20th Jul '12 - 1:11pm

    There is no doubt that Lib Dems should be in discussion now with Labour about the potential outlines of a joint programme post the 2015 election. We should explore the possibility of such a programme if for no other reason than to provide a counterweight to the current Coalition. If the current arrangements collapsed before the election it will have been wise to at least undertake some joint policy work so as not to be caught short by circumstances.

    Of course, it will be difficult for both Labour and the Lib Dems. Both have their tribalists in equal measure. But we should not come out of the present coalition simply because we want to switch sides. The electorate will rightly punish us for that as well! Just one thought, Matthew, on love and marriage. I think there is considerable evidence that parts of our leadership didn’t simply react in 2010 to the arithmetic post election. Some, in leadership positions, wanted to shift the party to a realignment of the right and are more comfortable with a conservative leaning neo-liberal programme. For them it was a marriage for love not just convenience.

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