Who had lunch? Who cares. But when it comes to coalitions – members must decide

There was some excitement/dismay (delete as appropriate) overnight with Newsnight reporting that there had been a meeting between senior Labour and Lib Dem figures. Now to be honest I don’t base too much on who has lunch with who in Westminster to be honest. For example, I’ve been known to have lunch, dinner, coffee or even the occasional pint with Tories, and that doesn’t mean I’m off to work for ConHome any time soon. People in Westminster often have friends across political lines, and it’s only in the warped world of party politics where people are expected to pick their friends by dint of political persuasion.

No – it doesn’t worry me that Lords Wood and Adonis have been having lunch with senior Lib Dems, as long as we’re not seeing the party lowering their sights for 2015. The past few weeks have shown the size of the task that Labour faces to win next year – and the profound changes that need to be made to achieve a Labour win. But the party still insist that a Labour majority is their aim, as it should be. As it must be.

Clegg Miliband 2014-06-05 10-08-14

What does concern me though is the assumption from both the press – and many politicians – that coalition deals should be meetings or lunches between senior politicians. That phone calls or texts between leaders, or conversations between backroom boys, should be enough to bond two parties together in coalition. It simply wouldn’t be – ask Tory and Lib Dem members (or what’s left of them since 2010) and they’ll tell you that including your members in the debate about a coalition is essential. Especially if (like me) they’re intensely sceptical (to say the least) of doing a deal with a party they consider essentially untrustworthy and without scruples. When it comes to coalition deals, members must have the final say – and 71% of you agree. As I wrote back in April, there are three main benefits to such an approach:

– 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.

Such a position would not only be right for the party – but by strengthening his negotiating position, it’d be better for Miliband too…

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