The Labour leadership must rule out a coalition with the Lib Dems, said Len McClusky on Newsnight last night. “Labour, I hope, win the next election outright, but if they are the biggest party then my view is Ed should have the courage of his convictions and govern on a minority government,” he said.
I hate to disagree with Len but this is bad politics and bad for the people of Britain.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see the strong temptation. If anything, someone like me – who voted Lib Dem in 2010 – should be among the first to denounce them and shout betrayal. But it’s not that simple.
There is an assumption among lefties and Labourites that the Lib Dems will be wiped out at the next election. This is entirely wrong for two reasons.
In a large proportion of their seats, Lib Dems will face Tory MPs at the next election, with Labour far behind. In such Lib Dem-Tory marginals, many left-leaning voters are likely to continue voting for the Yellows to keep the Blues out just to be safe. Labour knows this.
Secondly, in many places Lib Dems MPs are well entrenched with a strong activist base, so they are likely to survive even if their national share of the vote stays low. In fact, the total number of Lib Dems seats being targeted in lists published by Labour and Conservatives only total 25. Assuming they’re all won, that still leaves Lib Dems with 32 MPs. Even Lord Ashcroft admits they will do better than polling currently suggests.
So what if the Lib Dems have about 30 MPs left after the 2015 election? Should Labour rule out a coalition anyway? No.
It doesn’t matter if Labour is the largest party after the next election, if we rule out a coalition while the Tories don’t, what will stop them going into a coalition again and forming the government with a larger proportion of MPs?
In other words, does the party with the largest number of MPs get the right to veto other coalitions? Of course not. The Conservatives are power-hungry enough to stay in government at any cost, despite what some commentators at right-wing newspapers think. They won’t rule out a coalition out of straightforward pragmatism.
There is a tiny chance, but what if the Tories do rule out a coalition in 2015? Should Labour follow them? Again, no it shouldn’t.
The logic is simple. If Labour ends up being the largest party at the next election without a majority, it needs the support of other MPs to pass through legislation. It is more preferable having the Lib Dems inside the camp where they will be more persuadable, than outside where they won’t.
Without a majority, Labour will need the support of Lib Dem MPs to repeal the NHS Bill, the Bedroom Tax and a host of other measures. In return they may have to offer some goodies on constitutional reform or taxation but so what? It’s worth it.
If anything, in coalition the Lib Dems have shown to be flexible enough to ditch many of their own tightly held principles. If they continue that tradition with Labour then all the better.
I agree with Len McClusky on one point: Labour should define themselves clearly and differently enough from the other parties. It has to show a bold and radical vision of the future and try to convince them that a Labour government deserves to be elected.
But a hatred of the Lib Dems should not blind us to the imperative of having a Labour government in power to, at the very least, reverse the NHS Bill and Bedroom Tax. If that takes a coalition with the Lib Dems then so be it.