Over and out: the 2015 election could spend the end of coalition for Nick Clegg, even if parliament is hung. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.