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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.

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.

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