Labour – Lib Dem coalition talks: where James Macintyre gets it wrong

Having seen trailed in advance the research being done for today’s piece on why Labour/Lib Dem talks broke down, I was intrigued as to what James Macintyre would dig up.

But reading his piece, it’s a big disappointment – because it makes a trio of misjudgements, all of which burnish Labour’s reputation.

Let’s take them one by one.

First, he claims that the vetoing of a private meeting between Vince Cable and Alistair Darling someone shows the Lib Dems weren’t serious about talking to Labour. Actually, no. What it shows is that the party remembers how Gordon Brown went for a series of private meetings with senior party figures in the past in order both to side-step talks with Ming Campbell whilst also trying to undermine him. Saying, “stick to talking to our negotiating team” is a pretty basic negotiating approach anyway – and the obvious one to take given Labour’s previous game playing.

Second, the piece suggests the Lib Dems weren’t serious about their talks with Labour because no civil servants were present. That’s a darn odd claim to make, because the repeated lesson from the party’s negotiations in Scotland has been – make the talks direct between politicians and keep the civil servants out of it. That’s the way to make a deal – and is a point that had been made by Liberal Democrats prior to the election. Excluding civil servants wasn’t a sign the Lib Dems were not being serious.  The exact opposite – it shows they were being serious.

Third, whilst the piece talks about the personal chemistry that has been struck up between Clegg and Cameron, it glosses over one of the formative events in its growth. That was a meeting on party funding reform between Brown and the pair of them, during which Brown just lectured the other two. This lecturing style – the ‘I know best and if you’re serious you must agree with me’ style – has been deployed more than once by Brown in his dealings with Nick Clegg. Yet Gordon Brown’s responsibility for his at times crass approach to the leader of another party (not to mention his addiction to the silliness of repeatedly getting the party’s name wrong) is skipped over and instead it’s all meant to be the Liberal Democrats’ fault.

But the truth is very different.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrea Gill 20th May '10 - 2:15pm

    ” Saying, “stick to talking to our negotiating team” is a pretty basic negotiating approach anyway ”

    Definitely, how else can they judge the responses from reps of one party vs those of the other properly?

  • I’m so glad I read that piece, it reminded me why, at the age of 47, I actually bothered joining a political party (don’t get your hopes up, it was the Conservative Party). Actually, I think you’ve been quite kind in your appraisal, I think I would raise issues Regarding:

    “This contrasts with the 20 hours of talks the Lib Dems had with the Conservatives’ negotiating team of ….” They then list a whole pile of people who were at the heart of Conservative Decision making – as if your Party had some how convinced David Cameron to put them at the table! The obvious question would be, why didn’t they put their top team in if they were serious?

    “A separate Labour source believes that a “deal was done” on that Friday, and the rest was all “game-playing””

    And the evidence for that is?

    “”get on very well”, may have discussed the prospect even before polling day”
    So the leadership of both parties realised that this may be the outcome and may have talked about it, gosh that would have been an incredibly mature thing to do wouldn’t it. It implies that Labour didn’t plan ahead, it either thought that the Conservatives would win outright (always a dodgy belief according to the polls), or that you folks would just roll over.

    “Clegg broke his own rule of not talking about alliances with either main party”
    Ummm, sure that was nothing to do with the fact that everyone was pressing for an answer, at one stage it seemed as if that was the only question he was ever asked.

    I could go on and on really, but suffice to say that I think there is a fair bit of self pitying finger pointing going on (am I allowed to say that in this new era of togetherness politics?).

  • I’m surprised he claims /we/ weren’t serious when the comparison is presumably the seriousness of Labour when they have a ‘team’ of negotiators which includes prominently not one but three unelected party officials (Campbell, Adonis and Mandelson), an offer which has not been cleared or even run past the parliamentary party (who when they hear about it go mental and say they won’t go along with it) and according to Vince and Chris Huhne are unwilling to give way on even the most obviously foolish policy points (ID cards, the third runway), especially Ed Balls.

    Interesting to see that three or four of those responsible for sabotaging the talks are now running for Labour leader; Balls, David Miliband, Burnham and Abbot.

  • I think you have to give MacIntyre the civil servants point, because they were instrumental in oiling the wheels of the Lib-Con negotiations. Gus O’Donnell got a lot of praise for his forethought in planning things so thoroughly, and the details that leaked out about how the civil servants were operating seems to suggest that they were quite useful.

  • New Statesman produces pro-Labour piece of spin? Shurly Shome Mishtake?

    Get used to it guys. The Labour spin machine will now return to the fold now they are in opposition. All of them, the Guardian, Observer – one by one they’ll return to seeing life through pink glasses and objectivity will go out the window.

  • @Leo

    Surely if Labour thought they were so important they could have asked for the presence of Civ Servs. After all, they would have been the majority party (and were still in Government), perhaps they should have thought of that instead of expecting the minor party to sort it out?

  • Paul McKeown 20th May '10 - 5:15pm

    I was amused to read that a supposedly serious political commentator considers Huhne to be a member of the “Clegg mafia”. Propaganda that fails at even the most cursory examination.

  • David Heigham 20th May '10 - 7:04pm

    Alix Mortimer done said it. If Labour wanted a coalition, where was “the offer we can’t refuse?”

  • The Labour need a new myth (a la 1931), it saves them having to deal with the reality.

  • I’m not so sure you can dismiss the thrust of MacIntyre’s piece so easily, but as ever, when your talking about people so much relies on the perceptions of the people in the room. And that is eminently spinable.

    Certainly Adonis appears very clear, sure (and angry).

    What Macintryre glosses over in a sentance is the most impactful intervention – John Reid.

    I believe Clegg was forced into negotions with Labour by the Parliamentary Party.

    He probably believed deep down that the public would never buy it – having rejected the old Government. Even if GB stood down. Right wing press outrage and Coalition of Losers tag too powerful.

    So probably did want the Lab-Lib talks to fail as Macintyre suggests.

    But Reid’s intervention (and Blunketts early on) gave him the opportunity to show to his party colleagues that it was not going to work. Too much of the Labour Party wanted to be in opposition (and frankly I agree with them – it was time).

  • Paul McKeown 20th May '10 - 9:37pm

    That Macintyre could see Huhne as being part of a “Clegg mafia” shows how little Labour were actually at all interested in the Liberal Democratic party, which stands in complete contrast to the Conservatives, who, clearly not only studied our manifesto in detail, but knew exactly which buttons to press and which red lines (ours, theirs) not to cross.

  • I agree with you to a point Geoffrey.

    But we are talking about what ifs.

    Labour’s strategy was to delay the pain. Job losses are/were coming. £6bn here or there is really not going to make much difference against the size of the deficit or the size of the public purse.

    The judgement is one of timing, economist disagree, no-one is wholly sure.

    But my prediction is that whatever happens this year economically, good or bad, it will not be because the Government chose to spend £6bn less.

    It will be about volitility in the internation economic system and tactical shocks impacting on growth, interest rates and inflation.

    The question is how job losses are managed (both public and private) as public spending is squeezed and taxes rise.

    II guess what it boils down to is it may be that you would trust a ‘left of centre’ government to manage that more compassionately and less mechanistically.

    ‘You are more likely to lose your job under the Tories’ is a very difficult statement to provide empirical evidence for.

    Equally ‘you are more likely to find a job under the Tories’.

    You can only have one Government at a time.

    You could say that party politics is the art of convincing counter-history.

    “The Tories won the snap election GB called in 2007. When the financial crisis hit, Osborne made all the wrong calls and banking system collapsed.”

    “In 2003 the Lib-Lab coalition that had been in Government since 1997, insisted that Britain would not join the invasion of Iraq without a second resolution (The United States overthrew Saddam anyway).

    “by 2015, a further 5 years of Labour Government saw Britian turn into a virtual police state due to the continued spread of CCTV.”

  • toryboysnevergrowup 21st May '10 - 4:08pm

    If it is true, as McIntyre states, that LibDem hegotiators were seeking to introduce AV without a referendum? If so it just demonstrates how thoroughly undemocratic the LibDems are. How could any who calls themselves a democrat believe in making changes in the electoral system on the basis of only receiving support from 23% of the electorate.

    Could we have an answer on this matter as it would seem rather important.

  • toryboysnevergrowup – Going by your name I take it you are a Labour supporter because if you were a Tory you would not believe a word McIntyre says. I would point out that during Labour 13 years of government they never had majority support in the country and on countless occasions ignored to will of the majority to push through their own legislation.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 21st May '10 - 9:16pm


    The point I’m making is with regard to our electoral systems – it is one thing to elect a government which then uses its mandate to govern – it is quite another thing to change the electoral system without having had your proposals endorsed in an election or by a referendum. I think you will find that the 13 years of Labour Government have a better track record in this regard than 2 weeks of your lot – that said that really is not of relevance to my argument since two wrongs dont make something right. Was there as major constitutional change that wasn’t in the manifesto or put to a referendum???

    I was asking my question about the LibDems behaviour on AV because I wanted to see if Mr Pack wanted to confirm or deny what MacIntyre reported. I am quite capable of forming my views on my own.

  • toryboysnevergrowup

    Was there as major constitutional change that wasn’t in the manifesto or put to a referendum???

    The Lisbon treaty

  • LOL @ vitabiotics advert above just now… they donated money to the Lib Dems you know… And THANK YOU to them, from this Lib Dem who gave £150 in all 🙂

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