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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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain