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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder