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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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.