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.
Getty
Show Hide image

What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage