Sunday 14 November 2010

What we still don't know about the Coalition talks - and what Labour should learn from the LibDems

David Laws is both well placed and ill placed to reveal what happened during the five days in May, six months ago, which are the subject of his new book.

He was right there in the Cabinet Office room for the Coalition negotiations - but he has his sights set on an imminent return to the Cabinet room.

Ambition may have trumped candour. If the opening Mail on Sunday extract contains Laws' best revelations, it suggests that the LibDem MP is willing to add a little colour to what is already in the public domain, but is less likely to reveal anything substantial that is not.

Conservative MP Rob Wilson was a more distant as an observer-participant as a Tory whip. His account - again from an extract, this one in the Guardian, is naturally polite towards his own leadership, but his method of conducting 60 interviews has enabled him to go further than Laws in revealing something new, outlining how little weight the LibDem negotiating position gave to the party's policy on tuition fees. (This can be overstated as a smoking gun: the negotiating position, bound to be about give and take, is perhaps rather less damning than the evidence, very candidly set out by Stephen Williams in an extraordinary blog-post, that the leadership had worked so hard to ditch this as LibDem policy long before their vocal election campaign on a policy they had ceased to believe in).

Laws is the one and only LibDem MP willing to publicly hint at favouring a longer-term Lib-Con Coalition. I suspect there is a element of instrumentalism in his account in, for example, portraying Ed Miliband as left-wing and pro-trade union.

Laws' extract sticks closely to the long-estabished LibDem narrative, that the Labour party did not negotiate to succeed. (Though he does quote Gordon Brown telling Nick Clegg that "'whatever the Conservatives are offering on policy, I am sure we could match them immediately"). Laws often cites body language as evidence but his account appears to downplay those details of the negotiations which would complicate this narrative. (We shall have to await the full book to see whether these are omitted entirely). This creates a striking contrast with Wilson's account of quite how much Labour was willing to concede.

• Gordon Brown was so keen to form a coalition with the Lib Dems that on Monday 10 May, the day before his resignation, he offered to form "a completely new sort of government" in which Clegg would run EU policy. The Lib Dems understood they would take half of the seats in cabinet.

The Mail on Sunday leads on the angle that Labour negotiations were primarily a LibDem negotiating tactic to get a better price from the Tories, a view articulated most explicitly in the first LibDem strategy team meeting by Chris Hunhe.

'It's vital to strengthen our bargaining position by making the rainbow coalition a real possibility. If we can do this, we might even persuade David Cameron to accept a referendum on voting reform.'

The Lib-Lab blame game over the Coalition history may continue. A balanced account would acknowledge some truth in both partial perspectives, as John Denham argued on the first weekend, back in May.

The issue was not simply about how much the LibDems could extract from the Tories. The LibDem leadership was nervous about the willingness of the party to endorse any Coalition, and a Tory deal in particular. Trying and failing - and pinning the failure on Labour intransigence - was absolutely core to a political strategy for successfully avoiding a party split. There were certainly senior LibDems who genuinely wanted a Labour deal - but they were former leaders, not current ones. Labour had strong "last generation" links with the LibDems, but these were much weaker (Vince Cable excepted) with the key decision-makers and influencers around Nick Clegg and his negotiating team.


There has been much more discussion of an offer that Labour did not make in the Coalition negotiations - (but which it suited Cameron and Clegg to pretend, or somehow misunderstand, that they had) - than what was offered.

So very few accounts mention Labour's offer to the LibDems of a referendum on full proportional representation - including on STV - though this has been reported in the impeccably sourced Cowley and Kavanagh 'The British General Election of 2010':

Yet at no point, in any of the formal meetings they held did Labour ever offer the Liberal Democrats electoral reform without a referendum. They had discussed different options for electoral reform, including a referendum on proportional representation (either alone, or as part of a multi-question referendum, or to follow the introduction of AV), but insisted at the very first meeting that a referendum had to be part of the deal. On the authority of Nick Brown, the chief whip, they made it clear that could not carry an AV Bill without a referendum through the Parliamentary Labour Party ...

Whether this could have been delivered can be debated. The LibDem team were sceptical. So it is easy to understand why the LibDem team wanted to keep that offer out of their party's immediate discussion of the negotiations. (The line to take was that "Labour were unwilling to make significant compromises in our direction on matters of real importance to us", with Simon Hughes even telling the party that ID cards had been a Labour red line).

This again strengthens the evidence that the LibDem priority - for understandable reasons, including both Parliamentary arithmetic and perceived political legitimacy - was always to get the Tories to an offer they could take (the agreeement to differ referendum on the halfway house system) than to negotiate for the better deal from either side.

Laws is probably among those best placed to explain how the misunderstanding arose, whereby David Cameron told Tory MPs, pretty categorically, that Labour had made an offer to the LibDems which they had not. Either Cameron deliberately misled his MPs, or Clegg deliberately misled Cameron, or there is some mysterious alternative explanation for the misunderstanding. My guess is that Laws is not about to clear this one up.

Another of the smaller things we still don't yet know after six months is which LibDem MPs didn't vote for the Coalition. What is known is that it was 50-0 among MPs, with three active abstentions. (Charles Kennedy, John Leech outed himself as an abstainer at a Fabian event in September, and the third remains publicly unidentified). The only active "against" vote from a Federal Policy Commission member was ex-MP David Rendell. Four other LibDem MPs did attend the meeting (though this may have been by circumstance, not design). Laws presumably knows the answer: another interesting small test of the candour of his book will be whether it tells the rest of us.


What Labour should learn from the LibDems

It is interesting that Laws was uncomfortable about the LibDem internal democratic processes, instinctively believing they would make any difficult decisions impossible, perhaps ruling out the party being able to work in Coalition without splitting. In this, Laws represents the conventional Parliamentary and (especially) media wisdom about the impossibility of democracy within parties.

From the Mail on Sunday extract:

'We sincerely want this to work,' he [Hague] said, 'and we think each side needs to understand the other's internal processes.' I hardly dared say that I had been a Lib Dem for 25 years and was still struggling to understand our party's internal processes.

woke with a sense of impending gloom - a day of 'consultation' within the Lib Dems. During the negotiations, Hague joked that the Conservative Party is 'like an absolute monarchy, moderated by regicide'. Well, the Lib Dems can be rather like an absolute democracy, moderated by very little.

I expected a sizeable minority of our party to completely oppose a coalition option. The rest I expected to be split between those favouring Labour and those favouring the Conservatives.

However, at the meeting of the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet, and then the subsequent meeting of the parliamentary party, there was much more unity than I expected. People seemed very pragmatic.

Critics of the LibDems attack them for a lack of principle of backbone; supporters defend the politics of compromise. But what has been little understood, outside the party at least, is how the party's internal decision-making procedure has been an important source of its cohesion since the Coalition was formed.

The other parties might pay more attention to this, as I argued when talking to the Fabian Society AGM yesterday about some of the lessons of the last year.

After the election, Labour was easily the worst prepared of the three parties, despite a hung Parliament being the best result we could realistically have hoped for. I don’t think that was just about circumstances of being in government, or the exhaustion of the Parliamentary Party after 13 years. It told us something too about the culture and instincts of our party.

We can often be the party which is instinctively least comfortable of all with multi-party politics, cooperation and pluralism. That is a strand among Conservatives too. If David Cameron surprised people in how quickly he pursued a Coalition, he was operating on enduring Conservative instincts: to pragmatically work out what they needed to do for power, and to do it. 

Whatever criticisms people will want to make of the choice the Liberal Democrats made, one thing is clear: it helped the LibDems that they had a democratic culture and structure in their party when they made it. The conventional media and Parliamentary wisdom is that internal democracy divides parties and make leadership impossible. The LibDems have remained more united than anybody expected – despite the scale and substance of some of their policy u-turns in Coalition – because the party’s internal democracy meant its members felt they shared the ownership for the decision that was made in May. That is an important lessons for Labour as it seeks to rebuild a culture of democracy and debate.

Labour is now the one main party of opposition. But the future of our politics is likely to be more plural, not less. Multi-party politics is the reality in Scotland, Wales and London, because of Labour’s constitutional reforms, and often in local government too. At Westminster too, even if we keep the current electoral system, all of the evidence about long-term electoral geography makes it unlikely that the 2010 Parliament will prove a once-in-a-century occurrence.

The LibDemVoice survey this weekend shows how increased dissatisfaction with the Coalition's policy decisions and performance has not translated into opposition to the Coalition itself.

Whatever the pain and possible political costs of party democracy, its benefits even from the perspective of a self-interested party leadership are perhaps rather underrated.


MatGB said...

Aye, there were several in the Tory-favouring wing (Laws and supporters) who were absolutely convinced that coalition would be completely impossible because of the party rules.

I knew it wouldn't be that hard (and was pretty sure contingency plans would be in place for a special conference reducing delays).

Because I attended the conference, listened to the debate and weighed up the agreement, including the negatives and drawbacks, I support the coalition. I voted for it, explicitly, knowing the likely drawbacks.

IF it'd been foisted on us by the leadership, or even just the leadership and FE, I suspect I'd be a lot less happy with it existing, even though it was what I expected to happen post election, and had expected it for a few years.

Strangely, Labour does seem to respond poorly to mutli-party plurality, despite itself being a coalition including a formally registered different party (one which, annoyingly, I'd be very happy to be a member of if it didn't require Labour membership at the moment).

Re the AV offer--I suspect Clegg allowed Cameron to think it was a possibility, and I also suspect Cameron didn't want to enquire too closely about how possible it would be. Without AV, I don't think the party would've voted for any deal with the Tories, and I suspect both Cameron and Clegg both knew it.

So not so much deliberate misleading, more, well, plausibly deniable possibility?

Anonymous said...

why can't I blog on your next post?

Sunder Katwala said...


Do you mean last post? There are several other comments on that post.

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