Monday 2 February 2009

Lab-Lib coalition responses (and some historic pedantry)

This is a round-up of some of the responses to my New Statesman piece this week arguing for a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Peter Hoskin of The Spectator says "there's plenty to be sceptical about. For starters, I think the chances of a Lib-Lab coalition are near-zero, and there have to be doubts over whether it would actually attract voters. But it's still striking how much the idea is popping up 'round Westminster".

John Rentoul chief political correspondent of the Independent on Sunday says "Coalition? Not yet" though thinks. He agrees that the LibDems and Tories are uncoalitionable, but can't see a pre-election Lab-Lib deal. After the election could be different, he argues, but only with change of Labour leadership.

IainDale kindly included the piece in his daley round-up with the caustic comment "Sunder Katwala puts the case for a Lib-Lab coalition. Worked really well last time, didn't it?". A pedant would point out that there has, of course, never been a Lib-Lab coalition. I take Dale to be referring to the parliamentary "Lib-Lab pact" of the 1970s, though he could alternatively mean the MacDonald-Gladstone electoral pact of 1903, or perhaps Labour's support of what became a minority Liberal government in the constitutional crisis of 1910, to successfully face down the Tory party's attempt to defend its hereditary privileges prevent the emergence of British democracy. Which did, in fact, work pretty well that time around.

There was a scathing response from Mike Smithson on politicalbetting, who would storm out of the LibDems were this to come to pass, and who offered the headline 'How daft an idea is this?' (though I am not sure his objection about LibDem national second preferences is centrally relevant to the scenario set out). While the thread was very sceptical, one or two may have been given pause for thought by the response from Nick Palmer, Labour MP for Broxtowe and a regular politicalbetting commenter:

“For what it’s worth, I’d have few problems with the idea - the Lib-Lab coalition works well in Broxtowe most of the time ... As for how the LibDems would feel, I wonder if it’s an issue where some MPs and some activists might part company - if you’re a LD MPs in a marginal seat, the idea of Labour stepping down in your favour is quite attractive; if you’re an activist fighting Labour in Sheffield, less so.

I’d give 10-1 against it happening, but not 100-1″.

Richard Huzzey at LibDemVoice explains why he would have been for a deal in 1997, but now believes "it would be adverse to principle and pragmatism for us to enter a coalition with Labour - or the Tories - before or after an election" and argues the LibDems should take an issue-by-issue approach to a hung parliament.

There have been a few comments about the local difficulties this would cause on the ground. It would never be popular with either party in Islington, Rochdale or Sheffield. (Emily Thornberry, Islington South MP made a very successful bid from the floor to lower the tone of the Manchester Lab-Lib fringe, though she combines her animosity to the LibDems with being a liberal voice in Labour's debates on several of the issues mentioned in my piece). This point is made, in a highly moderate and considered tone, from an Islington Labour perspective by Captain Jako on frankowenspaintbrush.

Obviously I do not want to see the Conservative Party victorious at the next general election and any strategy which claims to make that event less likely to happen should be fairly considered. However, I would hope that it should be possible for Labour to rejuvenate itself without the assistance of the Liberal Democrats. That way lies (potential) madness!.

Tom Griffin on OurKingdom offers a short overview, and offers his own take:

Katwala is on the right track with ideas such as scrapping ID cards, reassessing Labour's stance on civil liberties and holding an Iraq inquiry. However, if Labour is to start winning over the doubters, it needs to take the initiative on these things, rather than indulge in wishful thinking about a front-loaded political deal. This is not 1997 and Labour is not negotiating from a position of strength. The task now is to ensure that this is not a re-run of 1979 in which progressive politics is eclipsed for a generation.

A similar view was expressed by James Graham, in the discussion kicked off by Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy. Graham, whose Quaequam blog is among the most respected and engaging in the LibDem blogosphere, wrote that "I feel Sunder’s pain, but the problem with this idea is that it could only happen if Labour was not Labour".

He went on to say "Absolutely, the LDs would be mad to pass up such an offer. And such an offer would be in Labour’s long term interests too. The question is, then, what is stopping it from being offered and how do we change it? Fundamentally, is it even possible to change?"

Well, is it?

1 comment:

Robert Alcock said...


Good to see an important debate has been re-invigorated.

Agreement on the scale of the obstacles seems pretty clear, although I think there may be a much more hopeful outlook for enhanced progressive co-operation after the next election. Nick Clegg, interviewed in yesterday’s Indy, firmly played down the prospect of LD coalition with either party, but I’d question how sustainable the following approach would be in the medium/long term…

Andy Grice wrote:

“If no party wins outright, Mr Clegg won't not pick up the phone. He believes one of the big two will enjoy a "moral mandate", so its leader will have to make the first move – either to go-it-alone or seek the support of smaller parties. An understanding under which the Liberal Democrats would not vote down a Queen's Speech is much more likely than a formal coalition. Unlike his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, in 1997, Mr Clegg insists: "I am not interested in blunting our zeal for change because of the prospect of a bum or two on the back of ministerial limousines."”

On another point, a longer list of places where local political factors mitigate strongly against support for a coalition would have to include Liverpool. Liverpool City Council has no Tories on it (although a few councillors belong to the Liberal Party – home to the faction that refused merger in the late 80s) and remains in LD control after a decade, albeit now by a wafer-thin margin. Nevertheless, describing the terms of Labour/ LD engagement as ‘robust’ would be a euphemism. A good blog covering Liverpudlian politics is written by David Bartlett of the Liverpool Daily Post.

Nick Palmer’s insight is interesting (Waltham Forest in London is another e.g. of Lab-Lib coalition at local level). But there are places where these mindsets won’t apply. My neighbouring constituency of Southport has a left-leaning LD MP, John Pugh, defending a 3,838 majority in a town with a strong Tory tradition and invariably low vote shares for Labour. Even if LD activists there were to swallow a coalition – and most certainly wouldn’t – shacking up with Labour would undoubtedly help strip away a body of soft LD support that is probably already highly susceptible to Cameronism.