Opinion: Labour’s preparations for the next hung parliament

Compass have published a document written by Dr Mathew Sowemimo called “The next hung parliament – how Labour can prepare”.

Dr Sowemimo is co-founder of The Social Liberal Forum network, established in 2008 to promote progressive policies within the Liberal Democrat party. He joined the Labour party in September 2010.

This document is generally very encouraging and forward-looking. Dr Sowemimo identifies a list of areas which were important in the May 2010 post-election period, and from which Labour should learn. These include:

  • Tone – as in Cameron’s inclusive tone towards Clegg, compared with Brown’s dismissive attitude to Clegg.
  • Don’t destroy trust
  • Understanding the other side’s perspective
  • Communicating with the electorate
  • Consulting Labour MPs
  • Managing the mood – through “outriders” supporting the idea of a coalition in public

The key area which jumps out at me, is the need for prior engagement between the party leaders. Dr Sowemimo points to the very positive relationship build up by Blair and Ashdown before the 1997 as a very good model.

The author also points out areas which the Liberal Democrats should consider in advance of future hung parliament negotiations. These include:

  • Democratising the negotiation strategy – i.e ensuring that there is consultation on the negotiation strategy beyond a small clique.
  • Avoiding being boxed in by the assumption that we couldn’t fight a second election
  • Don’t try to negotiate a coalition agreement over five days (in fairness some of the details took a little longer than that to thrash out, from memory).
  • Don’t box yourselves in – Nick Clegg shouldn’t have put the ball in the Tories’ court the day after the election, says Dr Sowemimo. On the contrary I think Nick Clegg’s statement outside Cowley Street on the afternoon of May 7th 2010 was remarkably statesmanlike and showed clearly that he was following up what he had said during the campaign – that the party with the mandate should have first dibs at forming a government. It seems ridiculous to argue that Clegg should not have made that statement during the campaign and shouldn’t have delivered on it. It was, after all, a statement of the obvious, particularly given the chronic “Fin de siècle” feel of Gordon Brown and Labour.

One passage in the document which does not entirely ring true is about “clarity of objectives” which says “Liberal Democrat MPs and campaigners could have utilised their political capital on insisting on specific policy commitments in the coalition agreement.” While that statement may well be true, it appears that Dr Sowemimo is approaching the subject via a somewhat more jaundiced view of the LibDem negotiating team than that of many Liberal Democrats. Tuition fees debacle notwithstanding, it is still relatively gobsmacking to see how much of our manifesto was included in the coalition agreement.

Where we have come unstuck is somehow getting the unpopularity for all the bad stuff, which getting precious little popularity for the good stuff. Dr Sowemimo says, essentially, that we should have seen that coming and done a better “assessment of what the risks and rewards might be for their party as a junior coalition partner across the range of available options”. I think that ignores the fact that the Liberal Democrats had precious little choice given the parliamentary arithmetic, the unenthusiastic Labour party and the risk of economic meltdown.

Let’s face it. Labour were knackered in May 2010 with a knackered leader. Corporately, they didn’t want to stay on in government if it involved negotiation. Dr Sowemimo’s recommendations are excellent, but a party needs to want to be in government. One can only hope that come the next election, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have refreshed themselves sufficiently to put in sufficient groundwork so that, in the event of the electorate presenting appropriate parliamentary mathematics, a coalition involving the two parties is feasible.

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  • “The key area which jumps out at me, is the need for prior engagement between the party leaders. Dr Sowemimo points to the very positive relationship build up by Blair and Ashdown before the 1997 as a very good model. ”

    A very good point. I don’t see much chemistry between EdM and Clegg at present though.

  • Tabman – Well, true to a point. But the bottom line is that Blair was going to win and win big. Ashdown either had to work with that reality or accept total irrelevance.

    The bigger question is how far will the Lib Dems have any clout? Will Labour gain anything from being seen as with them? Right now I would hazard a wager that the 1922 Committee is having serious reservations about associating with a party at 10ish% in the polls (and I dread to think what Clegg’s personals are). How far can the Lib Dems ever engage with any opposition, given that the main Coalition Partner almost certainly has an eye on a snap election?

    I don’t know – and the next election is likely some way off. I would not even be 100% confident that Milliband and Clegg will be leaders.

    Though the slightly more interesting question is whether this suggests that a very real concern about AV – a locked in 3rd party kingmaker with a disproportionate say – might be more real than some will accept.

  • Dr S makes some valid observations, but the blame he casts on Gordon Brown I think is slightly odd. At least Brown was trying to make something work. Blunkett and Reid (whom Dr S at least mentions), and Burnham, Hoey, Abbott, Tom Harris, Ainsworth, Straw, Stringer et al were trying to do the reverse and have consciously pushed the country towards the slash and burn madness it finds itself in.

  • I’m curious-would Libdems have more power and less flack if on opposition benches with a minority Tory government sitting opposite them? All Labour has to is keep their ideas to themselves and keep a low profile while keeping an ‘umbrella’ up for only four years!

  • Labour wont go into a coalition with Clegg. You MUST realize that telling a political party which has held more power than we have in a century to sack their leader because we dont like him on a personal level is going to come back on us. Clegg would have to be outed before for this to work. Plus the debacle witg the tuition fees marks us as “the bad guys”. To literally promise a huge policy and then go back on it is ridiculous. To get into bed with Cameron and Osbourne is unforgivable. We will lose many many votes and our 5 mps next term will be as important to Labour as the welsh and scottish. Clegg has literally killed the Lib dems, but at least wr can go out with a bang and etch our name into the history books with tuition fees, nhs and the big society! Amd please remember that this will be writtwn about very thoroughly academically as well as in popular press.

    Reports on fantastical futures that cant happen might make us feel slightly better today, but blinds us to the truth of today.

  • Labour wont go into a coalition with Clegg. You MUST realize that telling a political party which has held more power than we have in a century to sack their leader because we dont like him on a personal level is going to come back on us.

    And you know it will come sooner if you hurt the Tories popularity.

    The only thing Clegg has to show for at the moment is the referendum, and a icily frosty relationship with the Prime Minister – he loses the referendum then thats the one thing he has in the coalition that he has lost – and he cant moan against the publics decision

    And does anyone know how to stop Lib Dem members asking me to vote for them because they will get rid of tuition fees – its getting ridiculous.

  • @Paul Walter

    Great piece.

    I would be shocked beyond the point of human shockedness if Labour and Lib Dems were to form a Coalition after the next election. Even if Clegg were to leave, there are too many of his MPs (Alexander, Laws, Huhne, Cable, Browne, Teather etc etc etc) who have adopted classic Tory positions which are absolutely impossible for Labour supporters to swallow.

    Recent articles by Dominic Grieve and Jeremy Browne get to the point I think. The Lib Dems have declared they want Right + Centre Right voters to replace the existing voter base they’ve relied on for years. The LDs would look ludicrous if they were to swing from such a right-wing Government into a Labour-sided one. They would be victims of betrayal calls from new right-wing supporters.

    EdM would be an idiot to form a relationship with Clegg. It just will not happen. I still believe that whereas the LDs were right to go into Coalition, the Clegg strategy of complete policy ownership with the Tories was always going to harm him and your party. It means there is no way back.

  • “who have adopted classic Tory positions which are absolutely impossible for Labour supporters to swallow.”

    Labour supporters managed to swallow a fair few Tory positions during the Blair/Brown years, so I’m sure this wouldn’t be an obstacle were the electoral arhythmetic to suggest it.

  • Cuse
    “such a right-wing Government”

    As we don’t have “such a right wing Government” your arguments are specious.

    On some issues the Coalition Government is slightly to the left of the last Labour Government, and on others slightly to the right of it.

  • @Simon Shaw
    Cutting housing benefit by 10% if the applicant has been unemployed (but meets all job seeking criteria laid out by the DWP) is not slightly to the right of anyone but Thatcher….

    The serious point about potential talks with Labour is that if they are shunned (as some would like) then the Lib Dems can no longer claim to be a pluralistic party that will work with other parties. Instead it becomes a party with a strategic alliance with the Tories.

    If Labour play games they will lose. People have worried about them moving onto Lib Dem territory, the answer to that is that they do so as guests unless the Lib Dems leave vacant possession….

    The current coalition was right in 2010. Labour were out of ideas, had a leader more unpopular in his own party than he was in the country (and that was some achievement) and whose spanking at the polls, whilst not a victory for any other party was a message to leave office. They didn’t want the talks to work as they knew this. A coalition of the losers can never have true legitimacy, and this may be a lesson to ponder on before 2015.

    They actually needed some time in opposition and also the much maligned “blank sheet of paper”. The needed to look at what they did well and what they did badly (and there was more of the latter towards the end of their time in office).

    The choice for the Lib Dems now is whether to encourage those within the Labour Party who can be worked with and to help build a set of consensus policies. Both parties will not agree on everything, or even on most things, but where there can be solid agreement this must be grasped. Let’s get some common sense on the blank sheet of paper along with the bits that most Lib Dems will not like.

    Then there may be more than one realistic choice in 2015 which can only lead to more liberal policies and emphasis in government, and less attacking of those who cannot help themselves.

  • Simon – the diagrams on this page make interesting reading. http://www.politicalcompass.org/ukparties2010

  • mark Wilson 16th Feb '11 - 7:38am

    It is too soon to have this discussion. Too soon because any speculation along these lines could severely damage the out come of the referendum in May. Indeed the drip drip arguments the No Campaign is putting forward are based on either people being convinced the referendum is too expensive, or more convincing it appears that it will lead to perpetual Lib Dem involvement in Govt. If that was not an argument that could be persuasive to many at the moment, worse is the personal hatred towards having Nick Clegg being a Lib Dem involved in Government.
    With Labour big hitters such as Winston backing the No Campaign, the first thing that Labour supporters persuaded to the Social Liberal agenda must do before they can contemplate their navels is to get a YES vote in the referendum. Everything else at the moment is pie in the sky.

  • @Simon Shaw.

    You keep believing that Simon.

    Because your MPs and the electorate don’t.

  • Mark Wilson – one of the best arguments the Yes campaign have is the current coalition – FPTP doesn’t stop it (and indeed, trends in voting allegiance make it more likely to happen in the future than less). Furthermore whats to stop a Labour/Tory alliance in national government? The Political Compass graph shows how close they have been in the past.

  • The reality is that their are many in the Labour Party who believe that the majority of people in the UK are on the centre-left and this is born out by voting trends. The emergence of the SDP caused Labour a huge problem and essentially split the centre left vote for many years. The Lib Dem-Tory coalition has clearly started the process of re-uniting the centre-left under one party again and I think this will ensure that the only credible coalition is between the Tories (who could not win a national election outright despite everything being in their favour) and Lib Dems who will need the Tories to survive. Only Labour will have a realistic chance of being a single party of government going forward and they know it.

  • Patrick Smith 16th Feb '11 - 4:45pm

    Dr Sowemimo is right to blame Gordon Brown for not being prepared to respect Liberal Democrats as a potential partner in any `Hung Parliment’ on May 6th 2010 .In any event Labour had no voter mandate- 29.1% popular vote mandate and lowest since 1931-to continue in Government and as it is conceded that Brown was `knackered’.

    The homework and reality study performed by the Liberal Democrats on the contrary owed so much, in my view, to its excellent pre-`Coalition Agreement’ preparedness by the key negotiator David Laws aka `22 Days in May’.

    The key element in the `Hung Parliament’ hurdle was a clear sighted, rational,balanced and propoportionate `Coalition Agreement’ in terms of L/D Manifesto ambition predicated on a personal trust between 2 Leaders.

    Clegg and Cameron met and were able to bury some old hatchets in the interests of controlling the biggest `National Deficit’ in modern history.

    Their singular ability to dig deeper into their not inconsiderable Leadership talents and resources to establish `public trust’ and more importantly a confident,workable and stable `Coalition Government’ and the beginning of `New Politics’ had resulted in progressive Liberal legislation predicated on `Fairness’ `Freedom and `Liberty’ and underpinned by `Civil Liberties’.All of which has had a birthright in Liberal Politicas and core beliefs over 200 years.

    It is speculative at this early point in a 5 year Parliament, to predict those events that will form the basis of the next GE in 2015.

    But suffice it to say that strength and credit rating of the Economy will be writ large and how it is set to compete in world trade with the new roaring lions, namely India and China, now recording double digits, yearly growth figures and rising prosperity by the day.

    There is every reason for Labour to begin a lengthy process of coming back to the table on the topic of what do they offer in the event of future `Hung Parliaments’?

    `Hung Parliaments’ are predicted in the Wales/Scotland May 5th 2011 Elections.

    The passage of the AV on May 5th couldl bode well for Labour.They will in all likelihood in their best expectation have their mettle tested on `Public Trust’ between respective Party Leaders on a future day and it for them to determine their lines of negotiation. It is for others to judge the credibility in those new lines and chiefly the voter.

    But I predict that in the longer term Nick Clegg`s star will be ascendant and that the Labour naysayers should be prepared to fight a resurgent Liberal Democrat Party set of epoch making game changing progressive reform for the betterment of the people .

    And it will not be the vestigial situation that some today predict.

  • Quite a significant piece of work by Sowemimo. However I suspect he does not give enough weight to two factors:
    – Lib Dems in the South may not realize how deeply loathed Clegg has become amongst several voter groups. It will be hard for him to overcome this. If he does there is still a related issue of whether he will ever have sufficient credibility again as a coalition builder or simply become a joke politician whose sole purpose is seen as power via coalition.
    – the Coalition policies which have been enthusiastically embraced by the group of MPs around Clegg make common ground with Labour much more difficult. The list of ideologically driven policies on the NHS, education, universities, housing have cut away much of the basis for co-operation. Clegg’s group are seeking to set up camp on the ‘soft’ right of the political spectrum – the natural habitat for Clegg and Laws but not for much of the party. Quite why they feel there are enough non Tory voters there is a mystery but there is clearly a serious and quite rapid recasting of the Lib Dems political positioning.

  • mark Wilson 22nd Feb '11 - 7:41am

    Tabman cannot disagree with you but both the possibility and the mind set argued by the No campaign is that it will be more likely with AV. Lets not forget telling something enough times how often has that got in the way of the truth in some debates I would take issue with the idea of a Lab/Con Alliance. I think Labour is currently so ideologically bankrupt that they could not possibly go into an Alliance with the Tories as it would expose them as the Pro Middle Class, opportunist, cripto Tory party centrist party they are at the moment.
    It is precisely because of Labour’s lack of ideology we need other political ideas to populate the political process. The reason we need AV.
    Can I please make a plea. Can we have a debate about the political mistake Lib Dems are making by not putting all their eggs in the AV basket instead of the Local Elections. The loss of the AV vote could be a democratic disaster for the UK for decades to come?

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