In those Five Days in May, the LibDems made the wrong choice

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clegg cameron debateBy Brian Barder / @brianlb

The LibDems made the wrong choice in May, not in going into coalition with the Tories instead of with Labour, but in going into coalition at all. With the experience of 100 days of coalition government, and with hindsight, we can now see that the LibDems were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives: they could and should have let David Cameron form a minority government, promising to support it, perhaps for a year, in votes of confidence and on the budget, but keeping their options open on everything else. This would have maximised LibDem influence on Tory government policies: the government would have faced the discipline of needing LibDem votes to get its policies through parliament, issue by issue, instead of having the whip hand over a junior coalition partner which can if necessary be ignored on all but the greatest issues.

From outside the government, LibDem deputy leader Simon Hughes has been plaintively but implausibly pleading for a LibDem veto over every Tory policy not sanctioned in the coalition’s founding agreement. With LibDem freedom of manoeuvre outside any coalition, LibDem MPs would have had precisely such a veto. This would have been good for the LibDems, who would not have been tarnished by such close association with illiberal partners and illiberal policies, nor subjected to such strains on party unity; and good for the country, because parliamentary control over government would have been re-established at last, with the Tories forced to curb their right-wing excesses in order to get their legislation through.

The only losers would have been the Tories, whose freedom of manoeuvre would have been much more limited and who would have been forced into a more consensual and less divisive mode of governing: and the current crop of LibDem ministers and their advisers, who would not have enjoyed the perks and baubles of government office or the opportunity to demonstrate that they were after all leading a party capable of governing. Yet in those five crucial days after the election on May 6th, coalition seemed to most of us inevitable, the only question seemingly whether it would be coalition with the Tories or with Labour. How could we have been so wrong?

Coalition so far remains popular with the public. But the Guardian’s ICM poll, reported on 18 August, was startling. It showed the Tories and Labour level pegging at 37 per cent each, and the LibDems trailing at 18 (compared with their percentage scores at the general election of: Conservatives 36.1%, Labour 29% and LibDems 23%). Tom Clark’s Guardian article drew a conclusion from Labour’s drawing level with the Tories which was at best counter-intuitive, at worst absurd:

“The Conservatives have mislaid their lead but it is Labour, and more especially the Liberal Democrats, that ought to worry. That is the paradoxical message of today’s Guardian/ICM poll, which shows a leaderless Labour Party drawing level with the Tories for the first time since Gordon Brown’s disastrous dalliance with a snap poll in the autumn of 2007. Buoyed by strong personal ratings, David Cameron need not be fazed by news that the two main parties are each on 37%, with the Lib Dems on 18%. In the novel settings of coalition, the opposition party can catch up with the principal party of government without threatening the Prime Minister. And after 100 days at the helm, he remains secure – in charge of a government that most voters believe is doing a good job. Consequently, Labour should draw little comfort from the results.”

But isn’t it rather striking that with weeks still to go before Labour elects its new leader, with the five candidates locked in an introspective debate about the party’s future, with little or no coherent opposition assault on an increasingly vulnerable government, with the LibDems increasingly obviously split between critics and supporters of the coalition, and above all with nobody yet feeling any pain from the threatened swingeing cuts in basic public services or from the concentration of government fire on the poorest and most vulnerable – despite all these handicaps for the Labour opposition, Labour has already drawn level with the Tories in at least one reputable opinion poll? Yet according to Mr Clark, it’s Labour that ought to worry – because the Tories have a secure parliamentary majority due to their coalition with the LibDems. This seems to confuse the fluctuating results of the opinion polls, which can never in themselves “threaten the prime minister”, with the parliamentary arithmetic, which remains more or less static between elections, give or take a few by-election losses and the odd defection. And the parliamentary arithmetic is plain: Tories plus LibDems equals an overall majority; Labour plus LibDems does not: a centre-left coalition would have had to rely on the support of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish left-of-centre nationalists and the single Green for a majority. It will take a mass defection from support for the coalition of around a half of the 57 LibDems to deprive Cameron, or Cameron-Clegg, of his or their secure overall majority. And since the LibDems overwhelmingly supported their leaders’ proposal to enter the coalition and the joint programme on which they proposed to enter it, a defection on that scale seems unlikely, at any rate for a time. Mr Cameron is safe, but those poll figures ought to keep him awake at night. If Labour is already neck and neck, what will the poll figures look like in a year’s time, with the savage cuts biting hard, the recovery in obvious peril, and a new, young, confident Labour leader exposing Tory recklessness daily across the despatch boxes and in the media?

Thus it’s not the case that the LibDems took the only viable decision open to them after the end of polling on May 6th, as it seemed at the time. Often what actually happened seems in retrospect to have been inevitable. But what happened on the afternoon of Tuesday May 11th was not inevitable. The usually reliable Jonathan Freedland made a remarkable claim in his verdict on the first 100 days in the Guardian on 18 August 2010:

“Indeed in those first evening hours Cameron’s fate lay in the hands of Liberal Democrat MPs and peers: without their votes he could not become prime minister.”

But on the contrary: Cameron was in fact going to become Prime Minister regardless of which decision the LibDems were about to take. Supposing that the LibDem MPs and peers had voted down Clegg’s proposed programme for coalition with the Tories, produced after those feverish days of negotiation between the LibDems on the one hand and both the Tories and Labour on the other: Gordon Brown’s patience had run out and he had driven to the palace to resign, to Nick Clegg’s consternation (he was by no means ready to sign up with Cameron because his coalition plan still had to be put to the votes of the parliamentary LibDems). Brown had already recommended to the Queen, however, that Cameron should be invited to try to form a government. By constitutional convention, this is one of the few occasions on which the monarch is not bound to act on the advice of the outgoing Prime Minister: but that advice is bound to carry great weight, and indeed the Queen predictably acted on it at once, inviting Cameron to the Palace, whereupon, equally predictably, he accepted the commission to try to form a government, even though he could not have been sure at the time that his gamble on a coalition with the LibDems would come off.

If Clegg had at that point been prevented from going into a coalition with the Tories through lack of support for the coalition in his own party, Cameron would have had two alternatives: he could have formed a minority government, with or without an understanding with the LibDems that they would not vote against the government in a vote of confidence or in votes on the budget, remaining however free to vote either way on everything else; or he could have returned to the palace to tell the Queen that he had been unable to form a government which would enjoy the confidence of a majority in the house of commons, and recommended accordingly that the Queen should dissolve parliament forthwith to enable another election to be held within a few weeks.

Given that a fresh election so soon after the previous one would not necessarily have delivered an overall majority to any one party this time, either, and anyway would have been extremely unpopular, this was hardly an option, especially in the depths of a major economic and financial crisis. It’s clear that Cameron would if necessary have formed a minority Conservative government, presented the house of commons when it assembled with a moderate programme clearly designed to make it difficult for the LibDems to oppose it, and dared the LibDems to defeat him in a vote of confidence. Cameron, Clegg and the Cleggmen (and Cleggwomen) would all have known that to bring down a fledgling Tory government on a vote of confidence only days after the election could only result in fresh elections: and that these would have been dangerous to the nation’s financial health at a time of fiscal crisis and international market mistrust, and hugely unpopular with the voters, who might well have held the LibDems responsible for the deadlock and punished them accordingly at the polls.

The LibDems would not have dared to take such a risk. A Cameron minority government would have survived that first key vote of confidence and proceeded with the business of government, although severely constrained by its lack of a majority in parliament – a constraint that it has avoided by successfully luring the LibDems into coalition.

What is the lesson of all this for Labour? First, Labour’s new leader must have in mind at all times the real possibility that the coalition may come a cropper well before its vaunted ‘fixed’ five-year term is up, with another general election the almost certain consequence. The increased unemployment likely to result from the almost unprecedented reductions in government spending to which Osborne has committed the government will both add to the unemployment and other benefits bill to be paid by the exchequer and reduce its tax receipts, thus widening the budget deficit yet further. There is no obvious indication that the private sector will move in to fill the public sector gap, as Tory ideology recklessly assumes. Even if the dreaded double dip recession can somehow be avoided, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the recovery from recession will be drastically slowed down, perhaps to a stagnant halt.

Meanwhile the dire effects of the cuts on the unemployed, the poor and the vulnerable will increase back-bench LibDem restiveness: further damage to the LibDems’ standing in the polls may further frighten them. If Labour moves convincingly into the lead in the opinion polls, the attraction for the LibDems of a switch from support for the Tories to a loose – or formal – alliance with Labour might well prove irresistible. The consequence might be a split in the Liberal Democratic party, the loss of the coalition’s majority in parliament, and fresh elections in a year or 18 months. Labour had better be prepared for that, and be ready to encourage, not maul, those LibDems whose defection alone could bring it about: not by overtly trying to exploit dissension within the government or among the LibDems, but by patiently developing policies which are both right on their own merits, but also likely to appeal to the socially liberal wing of the LibDems and patently preferable to the ideology-driven axe-swinging excesses of the Tories. Labour can afford to be progressive again, and can’t afford not to be.

The formation of the Con-LibDem coalition has another lesson for Labour. If a fresh election within the next two years or so produces another hung parliament, but with Labour this time the largest party in the house of commons, Labour would actually benefit from forming a formal coalition with the LibDems (or with their left-leaning faction), exactly as Cameron has benefited from his coalition. A minority Labour government dependent on ad hoc LibDem (and other small parties’) support, issue by issue, would create great difficulties for Labour and damaging uncertainties for the country.

It follows that (as I argued in an earlier post about the lessons of the five days in May) Labour should already be wooing the LibDems, not succumbing to a natural temptation to assail them as traitors to the left who have been suckered by the wily Tories (even though some of them are, and have been). Jack Straw’s recent expression of relief that negotiations after the election for a Labour-LibDem coalition failed, because it would have been so tedious to have to consult the LibDems on government policy all the time, was absolutely contrary to both the Labour Party’s and the country’s interests. Similarly, John Reid’s and David Blunkett’s interventions immediately after the election with denunciations of any kind of Lab-Lib pact were spectacularly wrong-headed. Such a pact or coalition was not in fact on the cards, for several reasons which I shall discuss shortly in the third and last of these reflections on the lessons of the ‘Five Days in May’. But open hostility to the idea of a centre-left deal, however formal or informal, was and still is seriously mistaken. In the new era of hung parliaments (which will become even more likely if AV is approved at the forthcoming referendum and introduced before the next election), it behoves Labour to treat the LibDems as a possible fiançée, not as a former partner whose former affections have been alienated in a bitter quarrel. Like it or hate it, we’re going to need them sooner or later; and we might yet be surprised to find that an engagement is actually beneficial to them, to us, and to the country.

Update, 21 Aug 2010: According to a report in today’s Guardian, Ed Miliband, one of the two serious contenders for the Labour leadership, has (a) threatened to make the LibDems an extinct species if he wins the Labour leadership, and (b) stipulated that if Labour has to negotiate a pact with the LibDems in a hung parliament after the next election, a condition of any agreement would be that Nick Clegg should no longer be the LibDem leader. Does Ed Miliband, who’s not stupid, not see any contradiction between those two propositions?

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