Want to know what the silliest thing in modern politics is?
Preparing for coalition by identifying what you’d be prepared to give up to get into government after not winning a General Election, when by giving up much less than that before the election you’d significantly increase your chances of winning power.
What do I mean? Well, ignore the things that Labour and the LibDems agree on already, more or less: Votes at 16, green energy, european policy, skilled immigration in HE, industrial banks etc. They don’t present a problem and won’t shift many votes in any case.
Consider instead the probable stumbling blocks for any Labour-Lib-Dem coalition. The biggest would be something like:
1. Nature of continued deficit reduction, and whether on a slightly slower path (or more tax-biased) than current.
2. Extent of acceptance of the public sector reforms the current government has put in place, and details of revision of some areas – like admissions policy in schools, commissioning in the NHS.
3. Increased focus on tax cuts for low-earners, and details of mechanism for increasing wages.
4. Constitutional changes – possibly PR, whether for Lords reform or local councils.
5. Something around Civil Liberties/Freedom of information/Privacy/legal rights1
You could produce a similar list of tensions between the LibDems and Tories. It wold probably involve Europe, skilled immigration, higher and corporation rate tax, civil liberties and extent of public cuts. With a side order of stuff like wind farms, PR, votes at sixteen and so on.
On each of these, a Lib-Lab or Lib-Con coalition would have to find a path through issues that involve painful concessions for key parts of the Labour and Tory parties. To be in government, the price would be willingly paid.
Here’s what’s odd to me: If I were advising the Tory party how to win the next election, I’d tell them to embrace a stance similar to that they’d offer the Lib Dems on the biggest issues if they didn’t win: Slightly slower deficit reduction, slightly more pragmatic on Europe, less keen on tax and public service cuts.
In a hung parliament, they’d clearly be prepared to accept that strategy anyway to get into government, but if they adopted that stance voluntarily in the election campaign (rather than reluctantly in the Cabinet office after the election) it would be a popular and surprising campaigning position. They would vastly increase their chances of winning an overall majority in the first place. What’s more, they’d avoid the need to give up any more on the “little” stuff.
Same goes for Labour. If Labour took a political position not far off what we’d be prepared to adopt anyway to secure a stable coalition with the LibDems, it would probably mean we did not have to seek a stable coalition with the LibDems.
So the question keeps poking at me: If you’re prepared to negotiate with the LibDems on this agenda after an election just to make sure you get into office, why wouldn’t you instead give that up to the electorate before the election?2
To me, this all smacks of the idiotic and impossible pursuit of the Toynbee zone and its Tory mirror, the Montgomerie Boundary.3 Since the precise electoral location of the Toynbee zone is uncertain, attempting to occupy it creates a requirement for a back up plan if it turns out you’ve missed the Toynbee zone by being a little to the left.
My question is the reverse: If you’re prepared to accept a policy agenda to get into power, why not aim for electoral hegemony instead by embracing those positions? It’s not as if it reduces your ability to secure coalition. Even if you still fail to win, after all, the very act of voluntarily taking stances closer to your opponent increases your chance of coalition. Further, if you do win, you’ve dictated the ‘concessions’ you’ve made, rather than your opponents doing so.
In a first past the post system, it’s surely always smarter to maximise the probability of majority, than anticipate the consequences of minority. Why compromise with Nick Clegg, when you could compromise with the electorate?
- Though it feels to me that being in government has cooled the Liberal Democrat ardour here, while Labour is less focused on things Liberal Democrat MPs find extremely unpleasant, so I’m not quite sure where, the actual rather than perceived, tension will be [↩]
- There’s another aspect too: I sometimes say to fellow ‘Labour liberals’ that the worst thing that could happen to Labour centrists would be a coalition with the Libdems, as we’d be constantly regarded as ‘unLabour’, much as the poor band of genuine Tory moderates are constantly flayed by their colleagues for seeming to enjoy being in coalitio). Much better to win the argument inside Labour, rather than rely on suspect external help! [↩]
- Remember: The Toynbee Zone is defined as the leftmost point of the Overton Window, the Montgomerie Boundary is on the opposite side. [↩]