The paradox of coalition

25th August, 2013 5:43 pm

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?

  1. 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 []
  2. 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! []
  3. Remember: The Toynbee Zone is defined as the leftmost point of the Overton Window, the Montgomerie Boundary is on the opposite side. []

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  • The_Average_Joe_UK

    Perhaps the bigger paradox is the disparity between the war-ing factions that is the Labour Left, the Blairites, the Unions, the peoples assembly, brotherly love, Compass, Progress Chukka’s ego and dear old Tom Watson.

    Can this lot come together with a united policy vision? That is the bigger question.

  • Mike Homfray

    If all parties appear exactly the same then many people wouldn’t vote at all. That sort of programme would make it more sensible to vote Green as I’m not a liberal and don’t wish to vote for a liberal party

    • The_Average_Joe_UK

      Well you’re knackered then and won’t be voting Labour.

    • RAnjeh

      If you want to vote for a bunch of fake politicians pretending to be hippie protesters but then make wicked cuts once they get a grasp of power, go ahead. You’ve said you would before and no one is stopping you.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      You need to pick your Green. They are very diverse beyond their core policies, and as a national party make no sense at all to me, although at a local level it is different. You seem to me to be in no way liberal, but I don’t think many of the Greens are as authoritarian as you.

  • Redshift1

    There is a fairly massive assumption running through all of this that those areas that where we might be willing to compromise with the Lib Dems on policy, that the compromise position is more popular with the public than what our political stance would be anyway. Sometimes it will be true but to make that assumption is a kind of blind triangulation that I was hoping we’d be leaving behind.

  • Mike Homfray

    We wait in interest. I think there will need to be enough to distinguish us from the Coalition or there could very easily be a tendency to stay with the devil they know. There’s not a lot to excIte or motivate at the moment

  • Mike Homfray

    I can assure you that I’d never vote for you. Easier to vote for the real thing – the Tories – than the pretend Tories of New Labour!

    • RAnjeh

      Is that why you voted for Tony Blair in 2005? Have you signed your Green party membership from yet? I think I saw some Green people at Notting Hill this bank holiday, so I could have got you a form if you haven’t done it already.

    • $6215628

      Yet, you’re quite happy to blame the SDP for letting thatcher win, yet refuse to believe that your I’d sooner vote Tory comments are just as bad

  • rekrab

    Another area where labour took it’s foot off the gas, labour could have had a better mutual agreement with the democrats had they applied the proper pressure on the liberals,unfortunately Ed has backtracked on so many fronts his popularity has sunken to the lowest of lows, where Clegg might even pip Ed on votes come 2015.

    In times of such hardship, the difficult decision are the most courageous! Ed has failed to set out his stall in a manner akin to the 1945 spirit. We need to create jobs, build homes and protect the vulnerable, Ed hasn’t been convincing on any of those issues and now faces an internal dispute within the party rather than a collective response of decisive policies that enthuse the public to vote for an alternative.

    One of the most pressing issues is the forth coming Independent vote on the Scottish constitution, another area where labour has missed the boat and isn’t making the convincing reason why the UK should remain united.Ed has confused the issue further by changing his position on an in/out referendum vote on Europe, things are messy enough without Ed just playing follow the conservative lead on Europe and this indecisiveness will also be another thorn in Ed side as a potential future PM.

    Conference season has yet to come and what’s decided and agreed is yet to be known but for sure, many a bitter pill will be swallowed at conference and that after taste will leave a lingering bad taste and the media will be only to delighted to print relentlessly about the poor taste of the labour party’s situation.

  • RAnjeh

    I oppose PR, I oppose a directly-elected House of Lords, I
    don’t accept the Health and Social Care Act, I oppose an unbalance between
    civil liberties and national security (vice versa) and I don’t want Nick Clegg in
    power. So I don’t think I will be supporting a Lib-Lab Coalition.

  • Simon

    This article approaches everything from entirely the wrong perspective as it focuses entirely on the party’s success rather than the success of the party’s policies. Electoral success is unimportant. It is a means to an ends. What matters is getting the policies enacted. If a Tory government could be persuaded to implement our policies, we should all be happy. Standing up for our policies, for our views, even if they might be unpopular and might leave us out of government (or in a minority position) puts those policies to the fore and shifts the political debate and the political centre ground in our direction. If we, as a party, move to the right, the centre ground will do the same. And, if such a “strategy” resulted in a Labour government, we might end up enacting policies that are more akin to those of the Tories and we would all be the poorer for it. The real ‘success’ of this Tory government has been to shift the centre ground so far to the right. Tax cuts and austerity are the new normal. For me, the one thing that makes Ed Milliband stand out as a leader, is his refusal (to date) to concede yet more ground to the Tories by compromising on our values.


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