If the Lib Dems want a coalition with Labour, they need to start work now

In 2010, the centre–left failed the people of this country. It must never do so again.

Dear Liberal Democrats,

As your party gathers in Brighton, the end game of your amazing governing odyssey, and whatever life takes place after it, can no longer be avoided. And the question is this, given it's impossible to imagine you are going to govern alone, who would you rather form a coalition with in less than two and half years' time: the Conservatives, Labour or simply the biggest party?

The electorate will help you make the actual decision, of course. If the numbers say it has to be the Tories again, then you must decide how to deal with that – coalition or confidence and supply? But I ask again - not what you think might happen but what do you want to happen and, therefore, what will you do to make it happen?

As someone who has long argued and worked for a progressive alliance in British politics, I can understand the maths and electoral reality. Being the third party means hoping no one has overall control and therefore a share of power for you. I can also understand how difficult it is to be a junior partner in a coalition. You have helped show that coalitions can work. People may not like the policies, just like any single party government, but they cannot say it's been weak. But it's not strong government, whether single party or coalition, that we ultimately want, but governments with the right sense of purpose and direction.

You can’t be blamed for the electoral outcome, but what you can't be forgiven for is not trying to achieve the best possible result.  If you genuinely don’t care which party you deal with, or if you would rather stick with the devil you know - then fine. But if you would rather see a progressive centre-left coalition then A) good and B) how are you going to help create the conditions in which you get one?

Now, I know your first reaction will be "but what about bloody Labour". What indeed? I’ve written endlessly about the party's problems and will continue to do so, but for all of Labour's faults, most of its hearts beat to the same rhythm as yours. It is on the side of poor and the dispossessed.

Of course, my party, which I'll turn to next week, has to grow up and decide whether it wants to stay in the wilderness or govern in partnership in the event of a hung parliament.  It’s a huge test. In a recent survey, 57 per cent of Labour List readers said they didn't want to talk to the Lib Dems. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis has said he will halt a pact. If Labour doesn’t secure a majority, one can only presume that they would rather have another centre-right coalition. So it won't be easy. Labour has a cultural revolution to go through to be part of the modern world.

It's likely that the test is coming. The pollster John Curtice has long predicted a hung parliament at the next election. He recently wrote, "the hung parliament brought about by the 2010 election was no accident. It was a consequence of long-term changes in pattern of party support that mean it is now persistently more difficult for either Labour or the Conservatives to win an overall majority". Bookmakers, too, think the next parliament will be hung.

In 2010, the centre–left collectively failed the people of this country. It must never do so again. It was a dereliction of duty that no one had done the policy work or built the relationships required for a progressive coalition. The numbers made it tough, but we weren’t even ready before the polls closed. Shall we leave it to Michael Gove and David Laws to stitch it up again?

That’s why we have to build relationships now – through policy, ideas debates and campaigns. We might find we have more in common than we think. Everything good about liberalism is social – it was New Liberalism that founded the welfare state and Beveridge who gave it its post-war form. It was Keynes who helped rebuild the post war economy and it is a Keynes we need today. On Europe, constitutional reform, climate change, civil liberties, a Plan B or Plan C, the best of both parties would provide a half-decent programme for government. Labour needs to be more liberal. The Liberals needs to be more social. So can we start to sketch out the outlines of a new coalition agreement to rebuild Britain? This doesn’t mean either party losing its identity or distinctiveness, it does mean preparing for the best feasible outcome.

So tell Vince Cable to keep texting Ed Miliband and Labour’s leader to keep texting back. Ed Balls should continue to find ways to agree with St. Vince and vice versa. Peter Hain should keep stating the obvious: that Labour should prepare for coalition with the Lib Dems because it will struggle to win an overall majority at the next election.

As the Tories shift right and Labour tries to refashion itself under Miliband, who do you really want to work with next time? Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Tim Farron, Ming Campbell, Paddy Ashdown, Simon Hughes – what do you want given you won't win alone? And if you want it, what are you prepared to do about it?  

The political crime would not be to react as best you can to the verdict of the people – it would be to have failed to even try and build something different and better before the people speak and in, so doing, influence what they might say.  For that, we all have a responsibility.

Enjoy your seaside break – and I look forward to your answers on a postcard.


Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Which way will social liberals like Vince Cable turn if there's another hung parliament? Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation