The real lessons for Labour and the Lib Dems from the 2010 talks

It wasn't ideology that led the Lib Dems to reject coalition with Labour, but the reds' near-complete lack of preparation.

I've just finished reading Andrew Adonis’s 5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond and it has given me food for thought both about how the 2010 coalition negotiations proceeded and what lessons we might learn for any potential future coalition discussions.

Having already read David Laws’s 22 Days in May and Rob Wilson’s 5 Days to Power and having watched various radio and TV programmes about the 2010 negotiations, I already had a reasonable idea about how they went. But it was interesting to get a Labour perspective on the talks.

The fairly settled view from Lib Dems is that Labour were unprepared for discussions and some members of their negotiating team and parliamentary party seemed to be mentally ready for opposition, rather than seriously trying to make the necessary compromises to stay in power.

One figure, however, in all the accounts that I have seen, heard and read, who clearly did want to try and make the negotiations work was Gordon Brown. There is no doubt in my mind that he really did want to see a Lab-Lib coalition. Unfortunately, because he had not properly prepared the ground for any such discussions, having been so used both as Chancellor and PM to working majorities, he was destined to fail. The passion with which Brown tried to make the discussions with the Lib Dems work comes across in Adonis’s book as almost tragic, but given how much we already know about what a tribalist was, he cuts a contradictory figure, desperately trying to convince Nick Clegg of how a radical Labour-Lib Dem coalition could deliver.

A telling vignette from 5 Days in May is how Peter Mandelson, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls all discussed with Adonis how they had never come across Andrew Stunnell before and did not know who he was. He had been Lib Dem MP for Hazel Grove since 1997 and a frontbench spokesperson for almost all of that time. This demonstrates a shocking level of engagement by Labour with the party that they were supposedly attempting, in good faith, to form a government with.

An important theme from the Adonis book is that of how the question of 'the numbers' seemed to be eminently solvable in the view of Brown and some other senior Labour people. Despite the fact that Labour only had 258 seats and the Lib Dems 57 (so a total of 315 vs the Tories' 306, with a majority requiring 326) Brown was convinced that most of the minor parties would fall into line. I’m not sure if I would describe this as wishful thinking or self-delusion but the idea that a 'rainbow coalition' or even a minority coalition that took the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Caroline Lucas, the SDLP and the DUP all pretty much for granted would have been plain sailing, and was somehow an obvious and equal choice to the stability of a solid working majority with the Conservatives, is optimistic in the extreme.

It also suggested to me a level of arrogance, perhaps fostered by 13 years in government, within senior Labour ranks that the minor parties would come to heel. The Lib Dems were doing the responsible thing in not assuming that all these smaller parties would stay in line and instead considering that any deal with Labour would be on the basis of a minority government which would have been very difficult to control. This was not least because a number of Labour MPs spent the five days of the coalition negotiations making it clear that there were things they would not agree to or vote for. So far from Brown being sure of being able to deliver his 258 MPs, it was far more likely that the total would regularly fall short of that depending on which issue the vote was on.

A good example of this is how during the first formal discussion with the Labour team, Adonis highlighted how Labour was open to a proportional representation option being on the AV ballot paper. But I know from my own personal discussions at the time that Labour MP Tom Harris would never have voted for a bill that included a PR option in the referendum. He told me categorically. It was also clear to me that he was not alone in this respect and there were a number of Labour MPs who would also have defied party whips to defeat this. Labour was negotiating on something it would never have been able to deliver on.

So what lessons can we draw from the various accounts of the 2010 coalition negotiations? I would say the most important thing is preparation. Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives wargamed a number of scenarios before the 2010 election. They approached coalition negotiations professionally and with the clear purpose of forming a stable government that could last for a whole parliament. Contrast this with Labour, which didn't even start seriously planning for coalition until after the result was announced. And it made a big difference. The Lib Dems did not take Labour as seriously as the Conservatives as potential partners, not for ideological reasons (as Adonis seems convinced of), but primarily because the reds had not done the basic groundwork. So the key lesson from 2010 for Labour is to be open to the possibility that there will be a hung parliament in 2015, long before it actually happens, and to plan, war-game and prepare in advance for this outcome. Even just making sure the basics, such as having enough backchannel communication between key players. Happily, there are signs that Ed Miliband gets this now and is preparing the ground for just such an eventuality.

Another important factor is to be realistic about what can be achieved. Brown's offer of PR on the AV referendum ballot simply could not have been delivered by him in the circumstances he found himself in. Indeed the numbers made any alliance at all very tricky. If the maths makes things difficult, parties should be open about this. That is the only way that good faith can be maintained.

The final lesson to draw for now is more related to how the current coalition has played out. The Lib Dems have been reasonably disciplined in keeping their troops in line and ensuring that most items from the coalition agreement have gone through, even when, as in the case of tuition fees, they have gone directly against what the party wanted. Whatever you may think of the individual policies, this has been done in the name of coalition cohesion. By contrast, the Conservative backbenches have been much more restive and have forced defeats on measures such as Lords reform in defiance of their party leadership.

The various processes that the Lib Dems had (and have) in place to facilitate buy-in from the parliamentary and wider membership were seen by both Labour and Conservatives in 2010 as somewhat eccentric. Indeed, one of the reasons Brown found it so hard to get hold of Clegg on several occasions during the five days is because the Lib Dem leader was in one meeting or another keeping colleagues closely informed of what was happening and consulting them. But it is hard to argue that the legitimacy those processes conferred on the coalition from a Lib Dem perspective is anything other than a very good thing. I was one of the party members who voted in the special conference convened towards the end of May 2010 and it certainly gave me a feeling of ownership which has been sorely tested over the last three years. It is not a panacea and we enter a grey area when measures that were never in the coalition agreement are legislated on, sometimes to the chagrin of myself and my fellow party members. But a complete lack of any such process within the Conservative Party has led to a widespread feeling amongs its members, both in parliament and more widely, of a lack of legitimacy in the current coalition.

There was no modern precedent on which the parties could draw three years ago and they were, to an extent, flying blind. But in 2015, should such discussions become necessary, that will not be the case. All parties should learn the lessons from those five heady days in May 2010.

Mark Thompson is a political blogger and commentator who edits the award-winning Mark Thompson's Blog and is on Twitter @MarkReckons.

He is also co-host of the House of Commons podcast, which this week discussed the 2010 coalition negotiations 

 

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle