How Labour is preparing the ground for a coalition with the Lib Dems

Ed Miliband's PPS John Denham warns Labour not to assume it will be able to govern alone after the next election.

One reason why the Lib Dems are less despondent than their poll ratings would suggest is that the party could still hold the balance of power after the next election. The Conservatives will struggle to win the majority they failed to secure in 2010 - no governing party has increased its share of the vote since 1974 - but the party's existing support could prove sufficiently resilient to prevent Labour getting over the winning line of 326 seats. For this reason, the Lib Dems, who expect many of their sitting MPs to defy the national swing, believe that Ed Miliband's party could be forced to turn to them for assistance in another hung parliament.

There are now signs that Labour is acknowledging as much. Yesterday on The Staggers, former cabinet minister John Denham, previewing the launch of a new group called Labour for Democracy, wrote that "rather than Labour re-establishing itself as the sole party of choice for progressive voters, it's more likely that the progressive vote will be split as it has now been for decades." In other words, the Lib Dem vote will prove more durable than many in Labour currently assume. It is a message reinforced by Labour for Democracy, which states on its website: "All Labour members will work hard for every Labour vote.  But whether we win the outright Labour majority we all seek, or end up with a less conclusive result, the change Britain needs will require the support of all who share our values."

Though the words "tactical voting" do not appear in Denham's piece, his prediction that the progressive vote "will be split" is a reminder that it could play an important role at the next election. The Conservatives are in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats and half of those on its target list are held by Clegg's party. If Labour is to prevent the Tories from decapitating scores of Lib Dems, it will need to consider whether to advise its supporters to cast tactical votes (as Peter Hain and Ed Balls came close to doing at the last election).

Denham goes on to note that "despite the failures of the coalition, the public still generally want politicians to work together when they can, rather than exaggerate their differences." What makes his intervention particularly significant is that he is now PPS to Miliband (he was one of the Labour leader's early shadow cabinet supporters), suggesting that he is acting with the approval of the leadership. He concluded:

It is tempting to see pluralism as a sign of weakness, a lack of confidence; even an unwanted attempt to give Nick Clegg a permanent and undeserved place in government.

But we must be bigger than that. Tribal differences have obstructed progressive change in the past. Voter allegiances to the major parties are declining as fast as the icecaps are melting. There are even signs that the ‘progressive majority’ that split its vote in the 1980s is itself shrinking in the face of recession and insecurity.  If we want to change Britain in a progressive direction, Labour must show it is willing to work with, not just lead, everyone who will support all or part of that change.

So, while Clegg's head remains the price of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition (indeed, Denham was one of the first senior Labour figures to state as much), Labour is increasingly clear that it may not be possible for it govern alone after the next election. Expect Denham's article to mark the beginning of a prolonged rapprochement.

Labour leader Ed Miliband's PPS John Denham called for Labour to work with other progressive parties. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.