5 Days In May by Andrew Adonis: A raw battle for power

Andrew Adonis, one of the five Labour figures present throughout the ill-fated talks with the Lib Dems, has written a West Wing-style thriller that recreates what he calls “a raw battle for power to decide who would govern and which big policies would win

5 Days In May
Andrew Adonis
Biteback, £12.99, 179pp

As the title of Andrew Adonis’s book reminds us, Britain is a country in which parliament spent the equivalent of a month debating whether or not to ban fox hunting but in which a handful of sleep-deprived men spent just five days forming a government. The haste with which the coalition was assembled may not have made for good administration but it has made for good journalism. Adonis, one of the five Labour figures present throughout the ill-fated talks with the Lib Dems, has written a West Wing-style thriller that recreates what he calls “a raw battle for power to decide who would govern and which big policies would win or lose”.

The book opens on the morning of the general election, with Gordon Brown, invigorated by the prospect of a hung parliament, declaring, “We’ve got to stop Cameron and the media simply calling it for the Tories . . . How do we get it out there that even if they are the largest party, but there’s no majority, they can’t just walk into Downing Street and demand the keys?” In the blow-by-blow account that follows, the most striking thing is the extent to which Labour assumed that the Lib Dems, as fellow “progressives”, would ultimately side with them over the Tories.

After the first, amiable conversation between Brown and Nick Clegg, Adonis is puzzled when Paddy Ashdown misleadingly briefs that Brown delivered “a diatribe, a rant” and “was threatening in his approach”. Aren’t these guys supposed to be our friends? It is only at the denouement of the talks that he realises that Clegg, committed to an ideological marriage with the Tories, has no intention of negotiating with Labour in good faith. The meetings between the two parties were a cynical attempt to extract better terms from the Tories and to fool the Lib Dem left into thinking that only Labour’s truculence prevented the formation of a centre-left alliance.

Despite campaigning on a platform of antiausterity, Clegg and his party reversed their stance even before commencing talks with the Conservatives. In a memorable tête-à-tête with Ed Balls, Chris Huhne asserts that immediate spending cuts are now justified since the depreciation of sterling has provided “a large, real, extra, stimulus to the economy”. It is not a judgement that has aged well. Adonis’s sardonic conclusion is that: “Clegg and [David] Laws did not lead their party into coalition with the Conservatives despite Osborne’s austerity but because of it.” In a notable act of self-criticism, he writes: “Social democrats – including ex-Liberal Democrats like me – failed to appreciate this at the time.” Not all on the left were so dewy-eyed about Clegg and his cohorts. As the New Statesman’s pre-election leader noted, “Members of the influential Orange Book faction inside the Lib Dems display a classical liberal suspicion of the state and have flirted with the idea of dismantling the National Health Service and reversing the increase in public spending seen under Labour.” It was those Orange Bookers who, in Charles Kennedy’s words, drove “a strategic coach and horses through the longnurtured ‘realignment of the centre-left’”.

As a long-standing believer in a “progressive coalition” and a Liberal Democrat member until 1995, Adonis felt this failure more keenly than most. In an important corrective to the received wisdom that “there was no alternative” to a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, he elegantly dismisses the alleged arithmetical and constitutional bars to a Lab-Lib pact. With the support of the nationalist parties (who would never allow themselves to be held responsible for the formation of a Tory government), he estimates that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have had a majority of around 30 and cites Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government as proof that secondplaced parties can legitimately assume power. He scorns those who argued that Labour needed to “renew itself” in opposition: “To give up power voluntarily, because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult, is a betrayal of the people you serve.”

Now back in the Labour fold as an adviser to the party on industrial policy, Adonis says that the experience of the past three years has led him to abandon his belief in the superiority of coalitions to single-party government. While he hopes and expects the party to win a majority, he advises Ed Miliband to “prepare properly” for another hung parliament, noting: “Only the Conservatives did so in 2010.” It is advice the Labour leader would be wise to take. If history is any guide, he will not be in a position to govern alone after 2015. At no point in the past 80 years has an opposition party won an overall majority at the first time of trying, nor has one gone on to win power without achieving a poll lead of at least 20 points in the preceding parliament (Labour’s peak poll lead is 16 points and its vote share has been as low as 3 points in some recent surveys).

Adonis is too modest to say so but if parliament is again “hung”, one of Miliband’s first calls should be to this shrewd and profoundly decent man.

In Adonis's blow-by-blow account, the most striking thing is the extent to which Labour assumed the Lib Dems, as fellow “progressives”, would ultimately side with them. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.