Five days in May


David Laws

By Nick Pearce

I was interested, if a little bemused, to read David Laws’ account of the coalition negotiations, serialised from his forthcoming book 22 Days in May.

His account makes abundantly clear what everyone now knows: that forming a coalition with the Conservatives was the primary objective of the Liberal Democrat leadership during those five momentous days in May. I was a party to those negotiations, as an official on the Labour side, and it was very clear to me and others at the time that the real action was taking place elsewhere, in discussions between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

But on some important points, Laws’ account of the Labour-Liberal Democrat talks jars with my own recollections.

Take electoral reform: Laws says that the Labour side offered a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) but that Ed Balls said it would be hard to guarantee that it could get through the House of Commons, given Labour’s divisions on the issue. This gives a false impression in three critical respects. First, Andrew Adonis offered to make the referendum an issue of confidence, so that Labour MPs would have to support it. Second, he said it would be agreed that Labour would actively campaign for the change in a referendum. Third, he promised to consider putting full proportional representation (PR) on the ballot.

These were very important offers, of which Laws makes no mention. Nor does Laws – in the serialised version at least – acknowledge that the Liberal Democrats wanted to legislate immediately for AV without a referendum, so that it would become the default electoral system if a by-election were to be held. They proposed that only later would a full referendum on changing the electoral system take place. (If this appears incoherent, it is because it was incoherent.)

On other issues, Laws’ account seems more concerned with political point-scoring – such as his sideswipes at Ed Miliband – than offering a true recollection of the negotiations. For example, there were lengthy and substantive exchanges about nuclear and renewable energy policy between Chris Huhne and Ed Miliband, which were constructive and serious. Labour also offered legislation early in the parliament to elect the House of Lords, by regional open list PR, but Laws doesn’t mention this either.

Where his account does ring true is on the issue of fiscal policy, which clearly divided the parties. Labour did not want to cut spending in 2010-11; the Liberal Democrats said they had been shown a Treasury paper by the Conservatives showing how £6 billion could be cut and consequently wanted to shift their position. Ironically, however, the really big issue that didn’t get substantively debated in the negotiations (or in the general election, for that matter) was the commitment in the Liberal Democrats’ position paper – which the coalition has subsequently enacted – to eradicate the so-called structural deficit over the term of the parliament. This represented a decisive shift away from the position that both they and Labour had taken in their manifestos of halving the deficit in four years.

None of this is to say that Labour negotiated with anything like the purposeful resolve shown by the Conservatives. Labour was too tribal for too long. It didn’t start preparing for coalition talks until very late in the day, long after the other parties had given it a great deal of thought and preparation. The arithmetic was against a Lib-Lab deal and there were simply too many Labour people openly saying they didn’t want the talks to succeed.

Why does any of this matter? Coalition government is likely to become the norm in Britain, even if the AV referendum next year is lost. That means that political leaders need to get used to negotiating in good faith about forming governments, a process which is not helped by the surfacing of clearly partisan accounts of such negotiations. In particular, if Labour and the Liberal Democrats are ever to form a coalition government in the future, the bitterness that has marked their relations since those five days in May will have to subside.

Most importantly, we need to devise clear and structured mechanisms for coalition negotiations that allow them to take place in a measured and transparent way. As a result of the events in May, parties are likely in future to come under greater pressure to say in advance who their preferred coalition partners are and which of their manifesto positions are issues of non-negotiable principle. But a parliamentary democracy also needs proper rules of engagement for such moments, and insofar as these are rules for parliament itself they need to be enshrined in a democratically supported written constitution, rather than just a cabinet manual drafted behind closed doors by mandarins.

Andrew Adonis has a review of David Laws’ book in this week’s New Statesman. It will be well worth reading.

Nick Pearce was the Head of the No. 10 policy unit – he also blogs here.

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