A coalition deal with the Lib Dems? The members should decide

Should Labour go into coalition with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung Parliament? And if so, who should decide?

Late last year German SPD went into coalition with the German right for the second time in recent history. That was a difficult decision for Germany’s biggest party of the left, and being tied to Markel for another Parliament was not something into which they entered lightly. So a postal vote of all party members was conducted which gave the members the final say on the coalition deal. 76% of them voted in favour.

clegg miliband

So with the possibility of a Lab/Lib coalition rearing it’s head again – especially with Labour’s poll lead looking fragile – we asked in our weekly survey if you thought Labour should commit to following the SPD model if necessary. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have seen the result revealed in The Times(£) this morning –  a huge 71% of you said that members should have the final say on any coalition deal, 20% said members shouldn’t.

So what are the advantages of putting a coalition deal to a members vote? There are three main ones:

– It stops a rush to make quick (bad) decisions: Because Britain isn’t used to coalitions, political parties tend to think that a coalition must be put together in days if not hours to avoid Britain tumbling into the abyss. That isn’t the case – our government is stable enough to allow a few weeks worth of negotiations to get five years worth of government right. This government ended up ignoring large chunks of the coalition agreement and running out of legislation half way through the parliament. That was in part because they only spent five days planning it.

– Members can hold their parties to an agreement worth signing: Having a vote of members means that the leadership has to convince the party that they’ve got a good deal from coalition negotiations. That means maintaining popular policies from the manifesto, and maintaining a sense of radicalism to enthuse the base. It also means that party leaders can’t be seen to roll over and accept too many demands from their coalition partners/opponents without something significant in return.

– It binds the party to the decision: If the Labour leadership imposed a coalition agreement with the Lib Dems on the party in a top-down manner, there would be no reason to expect that party members would back it. The antipathy towards the Lib Dems from party members and supporters alike is palpable, and such a deal could damage the party long term. However, if party members are forced to decide between an uncomfortable coalition deal and a Tory government, they may be more open to the compromises that might be necessary. By giving the ultimate choice to their party members, the SPD ensured that any dissent about their coalition deal would be minimised. For the party leadership, that’s not to be sniffed at.

There’s nothing to suggest that the Labour leadership have decided on their plan in the event of a hung parliament. The official line is that Labour is aiming for a majority and isn’t considering coalition. But if a hung parliament comes to pass, Miliband should give the members the final say over any coalition deal. It’s not only the clear will of the grassroots – it’d also be good for him too…

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