Why a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would be the best outcome in 2015

Left-wing policies stand a far greater chance of reaching the statute book when agreed across negotiation tables than when promised in manifestos.

I know that the question above is leaving myself wide open to rib-tickling one word comments like 'yes' and 'yep', along with more exotic insults, but hear me out. 

I’m well aware that the Lib Dems have acquired a reputation as left-wing traitors during their government and that the recent talk of Labour gearing up for a coalition with the yellows has been met with both derision and anger. Reading the comments on Guardian articles entertaining the possibility is a pretty eye-opening experience, with the common wisdom being that the Lib Dems are finished (doubtful, thanks to the broken voting system they campaigned against) and that they're lying Tories in disguise who should be blanked by Labour at all costs.

The thing is, as a left-liberal myself, I’m hoping for a Lab-Lib coalition as the best of a bad bunch of likely outcomes in 2015. And not just because I treat all pledges made from the plush seating of the opposition benches with extreme scepticism (from the Lib Dems’ tuition fees snafu, via the Tory’s £2,000 - yes, just three zeros - cap on banker bonuses to Labour’s 1997 electoral reform promise), although that’s clearly part of it. I don’t like all of what Labour’s saying in opposition, and worse I don’t believe half of it will happen in a majority Labour administration.

For all the coalition misery we’ve felt over the last few years, a handful of core Lib Dem aims have been met. You may not think they were the right goals to prioritise (few would have an Alternative Vote referendum in their 'fantasy manifesto', not even Lib Dems) or that it was worth the high price, but they clearly got some of what they wanted: an income tax threshold of £10,000, the pupil premium and an AV referendum. These are big concessions that must have been hard for the Tories to swallow. I’m certain the dramatic tax threshold increase wouldn’t have happened with a Labour or Conservative majority and I’m dubious the AV referendum would have either, even though it was in Labour’s 2010 manifesto (it wasn’t in the Tories’, nor that ofthe Lib Dems, who both voted for it, but was in Labour’s, who opposed it. Isn’t politics wonderful?)

I have never believed that the colour of a politician’s tie is a reliable indicator of honesty, integrity or principles. In the face of the hostile internet comment culture, I also don’t believe any Lib Dem MP is more or less likely to be ideologically pure in the face of political circumstance than any Conservative or Labour MP. But even if you do believe Liberal Democrats bend to the whim of whoever they’re working with, isn't that exactly the sort of party you want working with Labour? One prepared to vote alongside any ideology to stay in power? And if not, well, there’s an awful lot of common ground between the Lib Dems and Labour, as you’d expect for a couple of parties with a connected history: Labour has recently 'borrowed' Vince Cable's mansion tax, backed lowering the voting age, helped push through equal marriage, flirted with a wealth tax, supported higher capital investment and backed a graduate tax. You could probably throw in some kind of political reform, too, an elected House of Lords or a recently mooted form of PR for local elections: exactly the kind of modification to the comfortable status quo that majority parties won’t entertain unless absolutely forced to. Crucially, all of these policies are also toxic to the Tories.

But the ultimate grubby truth? I’m more trusting of politicians to enact coalition agreement policies than manifesto pledges. In a direct bird flip to democracy, coalition parties in government are more accountable to each other than they are to the electorate, so if something’s in a coalition agreement, it’s far more likely to get done. You only have to deal with your constituents every five years, but if you screw up the coalition agreement, well…that date with destiny may come a little bit earlier. It’s sad to say, but my absolutely cynical view is that slightly leftish policies stand a far greater chance of reaching the statute book when agreed across negotiation tables than when promised in manifestos because they become harder to renege on.

All the left-friendly policies mentioned earlier could quite conceivably be in Labour’s 2015 manifesto but without the Lib Dems' veto they’re also pretty easy to jettison once comfortably in government and unaccountable. Let’s not forget that Labour has its own history of breaking manifesto pledges - and without the handy excuse of being a minority party either. It goes both ways as well: if Labour makes repealing the NHS reforms a priority, then the Lib Dems will have to eat humble pie and work to dismantle the policy they helped to assemble, which will be fun to watch for tribal Labour voters.

It’s not that I’m a die-hard Lib Dem or openly hostile to Labour - in fact, I’m almost certain to vote for neither come polling day. But there are six likely outcomes in 2015: Labour majority, Labour minority, Labour-Lib Dem coalition, Tory majority, Tory minority and Tory-Lib Dem coalition. As a voter who finds none of the above a utopian vision of Britain, the Labour-Lib Dem option is the most palatable even if it’s for the most unpalatable of reasons: that politicians have to be accountable to someone, and if it can’t be us, then other centre-left politicians will just have to do. 

Alan Martin (@alan_p_martin) is a freelance politics, science and technology writer

Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband share a joke during a reception at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.