Could Nick Clegg be the price for a Lib/Lab coalition? Photo: Getty
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Could Nick Clegg be the price for a Lib Dem coalition with Labour?

Would the Lib Dems manage to keep Nick Clegg as leader during coalition negotiations with Labour?

There’s an adage in business that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money. The political equivalent is red lines – and a red line isn’t a red line, until it costs you government.

When it comes to the possibility of coalition negotiations after the election, the Lib Dems have several red lines but these are being kept firmly under the proverbial hat (ostensibly to strengthen our hand in discussions, although it does also suggest that some of those red lines may have a certain pinkish hue about them). There seems to be just one publicly stated red line, other than the party's mental health care promises unveiled at their conference last year, a no-go area that’s not for discussion or open for debate – the leadership of the party. Or as David Laws put it last Friday on Radio 4’s PM programme:

We’re willing to negotiate if we end up in hung parliament scenarios on policy substance but it’s not for somebody else to dictate to us who our leader is.

Which is admirable. But a bit of a problem. Because it’s not a principle the party was willing to extend to its political opponents. Here’s Laws again, describing events on 10 May 2010 in the midst of the last coalition negotiations in his book, 22 Days in May:

The messages seemed finally to be getting through, because at our Cowley Street HQ, a morning phone call between Peter Mandelson and Danny Alexander finally confirmed agreement by Labour to the Lib Dem requirement for Gordon Brown to announce his resignation if serious Lib-Lab discussions were to start.

Now – of course it’s admirable that the party would be willing to forgo government rather than allow decisions about its leadership to be dictated by a political opponent. But Labour hasn’t forgotten that 2010 ultimatum (and probably feel it rather let itself down by acquiescing back then anyway) – and that suddenly explains quite a lot of their recent actions.

For example, why they devoted a party political broadcast during last year's European elections attempting to belittle a domestic political opponent. Why they are ploughing huge resources into winning a seat that doesn’t figure in their top 106 targets when they supposedly pursuing a "core votes" (or 35 per cent) strategy. And why, when asked, Ed Miliband said he’d be willing to come and campaign personally against Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam.

Should Labour end up as the largest party but needing Lib Dem votes to form a majority government, it will create an interesting dilemma for both parties. Labour refusing to form a government in which Nick Clegg features – and the Westminster Lib Dems refusing to join a Labour coalition if a requirement is changing their leader.

And imagine how the huge swathe of Lib Dem activists who favour a deal with Labour over the Tories will feel if they know the reason this won’t get delivered is the presence of Nick. Especially if this results in doing a deal once again with the Tories.

Those 2010 late night phone calls to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson to get Brown to resign make the three days of coalition negotiations sound like an episode of House of Cards. Back then it seems Labour were willing to sacrifice their leader in order to find a way of clinging on to office. In 2015, the calls are more likely to be going the other way, senior Labour figures making late night calls to the great and the good in the party to persuade Nick to stand down "for the good of the country". I imagine Gordon Brown has got his speech mapped out already.

And then we’ll see just how thick that red line is likely to be.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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