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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.