Over and out: the 2015 election could spend the end of coalition for Nick Clegg, even if parliament is hung. Photo: Getty
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Forget coalition with the Lib Dems – Labour is tempted by minority government

A solo Labour government might in fact benefit the Lib Dems, who would be seeking to rebuild credibility after their much-anticipated election wipeout.

Minority governments in Britain don’t have the best of reputations. Think Jim Callaghan, economic decline and the Winter of Discontent. Think John Major, Euro-revolts and dodgy deals with Ulster Unionists.

Nevertheless, with the polls showing a narrowing of the Labour lead – and two even suggesting a slight lead for the Tories – a hung parliament beckons and the public may have to start preparing not for a coalition, but for a Labour minority government.

“Under no circumstances would we want the Liberal Democrats in a formal coalition with us,” an influential member of the shadow cabinet tells me. “It would be incredibly damaging to us.” “It would be difficult to form a coalition with the Lib Dems,” says another shadow minister, pointing to his party’s relentless attacks on Nick “the Un-Credible Shrinking Man” Clegg.

Labour, their thinking goes, could form a government after agreeing to a “confidence-and-supply” deal, in which the Lib Dems support Lab only on votes of confidence and any Budget (or “supply”) measures, leaving them free to consider other legislative issues case by case. “We would give them House of Lords reform or some other constitutional reform in exchange,” says the first shadow minister, dismissively.

To listen to senior Lib Dems, however, a minority government would herald the start of the Apocalypse. Such a government would be “undemocratic”, claimed Clegg in March. It wouldn’t be in “the British national interest”, argued Danny Alexander in April. The Lib Dems are bent on portraying minority governments as inherently weak, indecisive and unstable.

This is “desperation” on their part, counters a senior Labour frontbencher. Power-hungry Lib Dems, he tells me, don’t want to hand over the keys to their ministerial cars and offices. The reality is “we could form a minority government and we could know we’d be in power for five years”.

Complacent? Perhaps. But he has a point, says Professor Robert Hazell, the director of UCL’s Constitution Unit and co-author of a 2009 study of minority governments. “Such governments can govern very successfully so long as they don’t try and govern in a majoritarian way. For every legislative measure, they have to build a separate coalition of support.”

Hazell points to the example of Scotland, where the Scottish National Party governed between 2007 and 2011 though it was 18 seats short of a majority. “Its effectiveness and success was demonstrated in the 2011 elections when the SNP won a majority.”

Then there is the evidence from abroad. In Canada, Stephen Harper came to office as the leader of a Conservative minority government in 2006, was re-elected as leader of a Conservative minority government in 2008 and finally won a majority, at the third attempt, in 2011. New Zealand, where the electoral system has delivered minority governments several times since 1996, ranks higher than the UK in global league tables for good governance. So, too, for that matter, does minority-run Denmark.

 

 

So what stops opposition parties from coming together to bring down a minority government? Fear of the consequences, argues Hazell. “During the four years of SNP government in Scotland, none of the opposition parties wished to topple that government because they knew they would do badly if fresh elections were held.”

Could the Lib Dems, pulverised at the polls and reduced to 20 or 30 seats in the Commons, really threaten to bring down a minority government led by the largest single party in parliament and trigger a second election? “Topple us if you dare” could be Labour’s position in 2015, a senior party strategist suggests. “The Lib Dems would be left stamping their tiny feet,” says another.

A Labour minority government, in fact, might benefit the Lib Dems, who would be seeking to rebuild credibility after their (much-anticipated) general election wipeout. “I don’t think you should take it as read there would be a stampede to join a coalition again,” the former Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey told the Huffington Post UK in November.

For Labour, too, there are clear advantages: the party would avoid having to work with the tainted and toxic Lib Dems; the spats and deadlocks that plague the current coalition would be neatly sidestepped; the new government wouldn’t include ministers whose reputations depended on them defending the previous government’s record – especially on the economy. “The Lib Dems would negotiate [for ministerial jobs and party policies] much harder with us in 2015 than they did in 2010,” a close adviser to Ed Miliband points out.

Miliband hasn’t yet formed a view on whether or not to go solo come May 2015. Yet a growing number of senior Labour figures are now of the opinion that if (when?) the election produces another hung parliament, their party shouldn’t have to, and – more importantly – doesn’t have to, start wooing the Lib Dems. “Sitting in government for five years with a bunch of bloody timid compromisers is not what we should be about,” says a Labour frontbencher who backed a Lib-Lab coalition in 2010.

For far too long, the talk in Westminster has been only of the possibility of a majority government, against that of a coalition. Minority government is the elephant in the negotiating room. “All options are on the table,” says one of the Labour leader’s closest shadow cabinet allies. “We won’t be bounced into a coalition.” 

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.