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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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