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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.