William Wallace writes: The next coalition?

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Rather than beating ourselves up about the record of the 2010 Coalition, we should be thinking about how we would handle the next one.  In the 2019 election campaign our leader promoted the fantasy that we could sweep into government, in spite of our structurally-hostile electoral system, on our own.  Look forward to the 2022-4 general election, and contemplate its possible outcomes: a Labour landslide, overcoming their 124-seat deficit to gain a clear majority on their own (a huge mountain to climb); a continuing Conservative majority, smaller than now; or a no-majority parliament, in which we and other ‘minority parties’ would have to decide how to negotiate for stable government to continue.

If no party won a majority of seats, most of our current members would instinctively prefer to support or join with the Labour Party in constructing an alternative to near-permanent Conservative government.  But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this would be significantly easier than working with the Conservatives.

We’ve tried Lib/Lab cooperation three times in my political lifetime. After the 1964 election, when Harold Wilson’s majority was marginal and support for Labour shaky, Jo Grimond offered outside support. Wilson responded with warm words.  But when opinion polls turned up for Labour, Wilson famously mocked the Liberals in his speech to the Labour conference, campaigned for a decisive majority, and in the 1966 election ended Grimond’s hopes for a ‘realignment of the left.’

The second 1974 election gave Labour a narrow majority.  By 1977 it had shrunk further.  Callaghan, who had now taken over from Wilson as PM, needed Liberal support, and David Steel agreed to provide it in return for regular consultations between Liberal spokesmen and Labour ministers and – of course – moves towards electoral reform.  We kept our side of the bargain, but the Cabinet majority turned down the proposal that direct elections to the European Parliament, when introduced, should be proportional.  The Liberals withdrew from the arrangement, Labour struggled on, and Margaret Thatcher won a majority in 1979.

Our third attempt was better prepared.  Paddy Ashdown’s ‘project’, like Grimond’s, was to achieve a reshaping of the centre left.  The shock to Labour of failing to win the 1992 election left its leaders open to dialogue; it seemed quite possible that they might not win a majority on their own in 1997. Formal negotiations took place, leading to the Cook-McLennan Pact on constitutional reform, with extensive conversations on other policy areas, and informal consultations with officials on how to form a coalition government.

When Blair swept into office with a large majority, however, the parallel increase in LibDem seats didn’t bring us leverage.  Consultations on policy continued for some time. Devolution for Scotland and Wales was carried through.  Roy Jenkins chaired an official enquiry into electoral reform; but the more tribal members of the Labour Cabinet resisted changes that might threaten their own majority, and we ended only with a more proportional system in Scotland and Wales, and Jack Straw’s half-baked concession of a second choice – but only that – in mayoral elections in London.

Liberals are natural optimists, and reasonable.  Too many of those who went into office in 2010 assumed that the Conservatives would treat us as partners in a genuine joint government.  Some ministers did, some of the time.  But behind them the hard men of the Tory Party were briefing the right-wing press negatively from the outset, claiming government successes as their own and blaming unpopular decisions and failures on us.  And in the 2015 election Cameron talked about renewing the coalition while his campaign team was pouring money into LibDem-held seats to get us out.

Would Labour be any different, in 2 to 4 years time?  The dynamics of two-party politics suggest not.  Alongside those Labour MPs and councillors with whom we already work and share values there are many deeply tribal people who see Liberal Democrats as trespassing on ground that Labour rightly owns, weakening their existential conflict with the Tories.  Let’s be open to cooperation with them, nevertheless; but let’s keep our eyes open, recognise how hard a game it will be, and how entrenched the Labour Party is in the existing two-party structure of British politics.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Paul Barker 15th May '20 - 2:18pm

    We should be thinking about The Next Coalition, perhaps in only 4 Years, but only to reject the idea outright.

    The Rules of Coalition seem to be fairly simple, the Junior Partner gets all the blame while the Senior Partner gets any credit. Most Voters arent interested in which Partner came up with what, they just dont have that level of involvement in Politics.

    There is every reason to believe that joining another Coalition would do the same to our support as the last one, what could either Labour or Tories offer us that would be worth that ?

    Some of us might say ” What if we were offered Electoral Reform ” ? I would want to see all the details including evidence that The Offer can actually be delivered – theres nothing to stop a Party Leadership signing up to Reform only for Backbench Rebels to vote it down.

    Lets drop all this nonsense about “Stable Government”. If no Party gets a “Majority” at the next Election then the largest Party can form a Minority Government & we can Vote on each issue on its own merits.

  • Paul Pettinger 15th May '20 - 2:59pm

    Am a longstanding advocate of a progressive alliance and am pleased at the growing enthusiasm for one in Lib Dem circles. I believe it offers the best route for liberals to sustain influence over the long term and achieve PR. However, I worry that some are looking for quick wins, when an alliance may have to be a long-term project that requires dedication (e.g. repositioning ourselves again as a reliable progressive party; empowering those in Lab who want to work with us and curtail progressive tribalism; cooperating with the Greens and perhaps others to bring pressure to bear on Labour; offering compelling narratives, including presenting electoral reform/ equal votes as a fundamental equality issue). It is important not to mismanage expectations about the challenge and I welcome William’s look back at the past and caution about how hard the task may be.

  • @ Paul Barker “We should be thinking about The Next Coalition, perhaps in only 4 Years, but only to reject the idea outright”.

    I’m amazed at the naivety of this comment. What is the point of the Lib Dems if they adopt a three wise monkey stance ?

    It’s not the principle of coalition that is wrong – it’s inevitable under PR – but what the Coalition does that is the point. They got it wrong last time because they voted for the wrong policies and did more harm than good…… not least to their own reputation for integrity.

    That’s why it’s correct to discuss matters privately now – particularly with the Starmer Labour Party, but also with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens – so as to avoid any last minute panic should the electoral roll of the dice produce a hung parliament in four years time.

    That’s what went wrong the last time……. it was make it up as you go along, hope for the best, and not be clear on what your priorities are. It was a Clegg pale blue Orange vacuum with right wing tendencies….. it didn’t know where it was going or what it wanted except it didn’t like Labour.

  • Before we settled for a December General Election and in the days of Johnson’s minority, I was amazed at the discipline of the opposition parties leading to a number of government defeats. People were obviously having quiet conversations without blow by blow accounts in the newspapers etc. How we square that with a desire for transparency is a matter of political (perhaps philosophical) judgement.
    If William Wallace is looking for quiet conversations amongst ourselves about scenarios and options that’s fine. But do not lose sight of his warning that negotiating with Labour will/would always be hard graft. From its foundation Labour has always struggled with its deep seated internal dissections. Part of the love affair with First Past the Post is the recognition that under PR a number of sects would split off and rob the dominant tendency of the chance, likely or otherwise, to go for unfettered power. Having lived all my life alongside northern manifestations of Labour, I have harboured the suspicion that many of our southern activists see their local Labour Parties as rather more reasonable, more attractive potential partners. It’s not so much about left and right as different approaches to power, coercion and control.

  • William Wallace 15th May '20 - 6:37pm

    Expats: I don’t recognise the scenario you paint of 1964-6. I was in the USA until summer 1965, but after that I was in and out of party HQ, and worked full-time in the press office during the 1966 election campaign. I’m not aware that anyone in the Labour Party offered anything resembling a coalition; that sounds fanciful. Yes, Jo’s views were ‘radical’, but Labour’s definition of ‘left’ was very different from that. Much of their Parliamentary Party were very ‘conservative’ old Labou in their politics!

  • William Wallace 15th May '20 - 6:46pm

    Geoff: I strongly agree that cooperation with Labour looks different if you are an activist in a safe Conservative seat from those of us who’ve spent our lives campaigning in Labour-dominated areas. Maybe enough Labour members will realise soon that they can’t beat the Tories on their own, and need allies; but our voting system offers them the hope that if voters get fed up with the Tories they have little option except to vote Labour, so they can push other parties out of the way. In places like Bradford Labour are territorial, and as you say factional.

  • I agree with David Raw on this one. The purpose of any political party is to gain power otherwise it is pointless.

    The Lib Dems are understandably obsessed about electoral reform but the electorate and other parties are not. Clegg had the opportunity and failed. Give it a rest for a while, hung parliaments o happen with the current system. Craving electoral reform is scorned as a weakness.

  • MOyra Forrest 16th May '20 - 9:42am

    Our party has a lot of good experiences in coalition government. Many councils have worked well.
    Notably, the first two terms (1999-2007) of the Scottish Parliament saw a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Jim Wallace (now Lord Wallace of Tankerness) was Deputy First Minister for most of that time, and indeed became Acting First Minister on no less than three occasions. He remains one of the most respected and liked Scottish politicians – by the public, other parties, academic commentators, and even the third estate.

  • Richard Underhill 16th May '20 - 10:01am

    MOyra Forrest 16th May ’20 – 9:42am
    Jim Wallace has confirmed that he deputised twice.
    It was also the case that Labour in Scotland agreed to STV, which is still in place.
    Charles Kennedy commented on the negotiations.

  • Richard Underhill 16th May '20 - 10:24am

    Peter 15th May ’20 – 8:36pm
    “Craving electoral reform is scorned as a weakness.”
    Did that happen in 1832 when the rotten boroughs were abolished? & Manchester got an MP?
    Did that happen when the secret ballot was introduced?
    Did that happen when Votes for women was introduced?
    Did that happen when the secret ballot was introduced?
    Did that happen at Catholic emancipation?
    These are things to be proud of.
    At an Alliance conference in Northern Ireland I learned from a Fianna Fail TD that my friend Enid Lakeman had led a team to defend the STV electoral system in the Republic
    which was being challenged in a referendum. He was impressed with her, because she won. Please also consider the election of Senator Mary Robinson as the first female President of Ireland. Her memoirs show that in order to win there needed to be three candidates, which there were. She defeated the Irish Defence Minister, who was a close friend of Charles Haughey

  • Moyra Forrest 16th May '20 - 12:11pm

    Alas, no STV for the Scottish Parliament; it’s FPTP + party lists. There is STV for council elections, which arguably let the SNP in – they had never learned to target at council elections despite gaining a fair percentage of votes.
    And from memory, Labour’s first ministers suffered illness, death and disgrace …

  • Nigel Jones 16th May '20 - 1:34pm

    I agree that Labour are difficult to work with, but Tories are just as bad in undermining us, even though they often do it more subtly and less transparently. However, there is another dimension here and that is the way the other parties work when in government.
    In our local council, we formed a coalition with the Tories and it worked for 6 years until Labour got back in. Two main reasons were these. The Tories were less dogmatic and more sensible about the management of finances and the prioritising of expenditure as each occasion demanded; so we were able to convince them in private cabinet discussions to do the right thing in this regard. The other is that we had a written agreement that was subject to annual review by both parties; on one occasion we actually threatened to pull out because of a new demand they were making and after a very long meeting in which we kept saying no, they gave in to us.
    However, i am not inclined towards any national coalition again, but a written agreement to support on particular issues only.

  • Paul Barker 16th May '20 - 1:39pm

    The point of Parties is to gain Power & make changes but theres no point doing that unless those changes are part of something bigger & seen to flow from the Partys Values.

    Lets look at the price We paid for the last Coalition & the Gains Our Country got from it.

    Was it worth losing three-quarters of Our Vote & four-fifths of Our MPs just to get Gay Marriage ?

    Our primary objective must be to grow enough to force Electoral Reform on the other Parties, that will probably take Two General Elections, maybe Three.
    Once we have a Fair Voting system then all Governments will be Coalitions & the whole dynamic of Politics may well change.

    We need to learn to Walk before we try Running a Marathon.

  • David Garlick 16th May '20 - 2:15pm

    Do Not Enter in to Coalition with either the Tories or Labour.
    Neither can be trusted as no one in their ranks is sufficiently powerful to make any agreement stick for very long. As has been pointed out, as soon as the political landscape changes in their favour the agreement will mean nothing and you wont see them for dust.

  • John Littler 16th May '20 - 4:36pm

    Stephen Howse
    “No coalition without guaranteed electoral reform, simple as that. And no “progressive” alliance of any kind beforehand – it might make some members feel good about themselves because they hate the Tories but quite a lot of the people we need to win over happen to be Tory voters who, while needing a non terrifying Labour leader to consider voting for us, won’t actually vote Labour or for a party wedded to it.

    Only an effective Progressive Alliance would offer a realistic way of overturning the worst effects of FPTP to get a big increase in MP’s.

    The 2019 effect of Corbyn terrifying voters back to the Tories who would otherwise have voted LibDem is no longer valid. Starmer is a good man and an effective and moderate leader of the opposition. Of course nothing is guaranteed but a Progressive Alliance is the best chance. It would have to involve proper PR and not the vegan ham “get out” version of AV and it would need to run for some time to minim use the Labour “yellow tories” chants and tribalism

  • Paul Barker 16th May '20 - 6:36pm

    I have no problem with joining a “Progressive Alliance” including with Labour if they could be persuaded to back Electoral Reform but I see no sign of Labour shifting on this.

    I am all in favour of getting our hands dirty in Local, Regional & Scottish/.Welsh Government but if we join another Westminster Coalition as a Junior Partner we will get the same result as last time, setting us back another Decade or two. Nothing short of a Firm offer of PR would justify that.

    We need to put The Country first & The Country needs a Liberal Democrat Government ASAP.

  • Peter Hirst 17th May '20 - 4:13pm

    An alternative to coalition as a pathway to power is significant change in the present party system. We did not achieve significant increases to our MPs with the breakaways from the other parties recently. This does not mean it will not happen. We should work to make our Party attractive to members of other Parties. Splitting of one or both of the two other main Parties remains an attractive if not easy route back to government.

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