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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.