How Labour is preparing for a coalition with the Lib Dems

Shadow ministers have been encouraged to look for "points of agreement" with the party and to consider constitutional reforms that would appeal.

To win a majority at the next election, both Labour and the Conservatives will need to defy recent history. No governing party has increased its share of the vote since 1974; no opposition has achieved an overall victory at the first attempt for more than 80 years. Faced with these odds, it is unsurprising that many on both sides consider another hung parliament the likeliest outcome in 2015. 

Earlier this week, the Telegraph reported that David Cameron is preparing for a second coalition with the Lib Dems by discussing new rules to allow Tory MPs to vote on a new power-sharing agreement. Impressed by the discipline of Nick Clegg’s backbenchers compared with that of his truculent troops, Cameron wants his party’s hands "dipped in blood".

But what of Labour? In my politics column in this week's NS, I reveal that the party is making its own preparations for another hung parliament. One shadow minister recently told me that he had been encouraged to look for "points of agreement" with the Lib Dems and to consider constitutional reforms that would appeal to the party, citing the example of proportional representation for local elections. One of the concessions made by Labour when it entered coalition with the Lib Dems in Scotland in 1999 was the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote for local council elections and many Lib Dem activists now believe the party should have pushed for similar reform for England during the coalition negotiations in 2010. 

Labour MPs have also been struck by the increasing degree of policy overlap between the two sides and improved personal relations. In recent months, Labour has called for the introduction of a mansion tax on property values above £2m, a 2030 decarbonisation target for electricity, the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners and higher capital investment (in preference to a temporary VAT cut) funded by a rise in borrowing. Earlier this week, it committed to a reduction in the voting age to 16. What all of these policies have in common is that they have all either been proposed or championed by the Lib Dems. This is far from the only motive for their adoption but Miliband and Balls are too astute not to know that this shift will greatly enhance their chances of striking a deal with the third party in 2015. One of the most popular reads among Labour MPs this summer is Andrew Adonis's 5 Days in May in which the Labour peer and former transport secretary laments the party's failure to prepare for the 2010 hung parliament and urges it to not to repeat this error. His advice has not been ignored. 

In response to the voting age pledge, Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams remarked: "If we can bank that as an agreement then if the next parliament does result in an inconclusive election, which I think is quite likely, the more issues that we know in advance that we're likely to agree on will make the negotiations swifter." His parliamentary colleagues are saying much the same thing. If the Tories want the Lib Dems to gift them the majority they will surely fall short of in 2015 (the party needs a seven point lead over Labour on a uniform swing), they should start to think just what baubles they could offer Cable and co. 

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser