Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour and the Lib Dems have much in common – but will tribalism prevent a coalition?

The significant policy overlap between the two parties represents a rich programme for government. 

In 8 May 2015, parliament will be hung again. For the first time since 1910, the electorate will almost certainly deny any party a majority for a second successive election. Until the end of last year, Labour could plausibly hope to achieve an overall victory. But Scotland – a word that produces exquisite grimaces when mentioned to shadow cabinet ministers – changed the game. The likely loss of half or more of its 40 Scottish MPs to the SNP means Labour needs to make net gains of 88 in England and Wales to win a majority: an unachievable feat.

The task for Labour or the Conservatives will be to reconstitute the asphyxiated parliament as a functioning organ of the body politic. While publicly insisting that they are remorselessly focused on achieving a majority, both sides are preparing for the likelihood that they will fall short. The Tories have been careful not to say anything that would jeopardise a second coalition with the Lib Dems, while also taking an unusually high interest in the political priorities of the Democratic Unionist Party. Labour has left open the possibility of a confidence and supply agreement with the SNP even as it faces an existential struggle against the party.

The most fruitful partnership could be one that has attracted little discussion in recent months: Labour and the Liberal Democrats. A new study by the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society and the liberal Centre­Forum, Common Ground, charts the large degree of policy crossover between the two parties, including a mansion tax, borrowing for infrastructure investment, a 2030 decarbonisation target, greater oversight of free schools and academies, an elected House of Lords, the reduction of the voting age to 16 and political funding reform, part of 100 measures in total. The report, both organisations emphasise, was not commissioned by the parties but is intended to serve as “a resource” for them. As such, it represents the closest document we have to the first draft of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition agreement.

Nick Clegg and his allies have long privately indicated their preference for a renewal of vows with the Conservatives. They fear, as one tells me, that a coalition with Labour would leave them as “the nasty party” (demanding greater austerity, rather than higher public spending), that it would threaten their Tory-facing southern seats and that the opposition’s “tribalists” would prove even more Machiavellian than their current partners. But the report is a reminder to the right of the party (which the Centre­Forum is close to) that, in policy terms, it has far more in common with Labour than the Conservatives. As it concludes, however: “It will be politics, rather than the policies of the two parties, that will decide whether a partnership is possible.”

Mindful that they may need to work together after the election, the two parties have maintained lines of communication. Ed Miliband’s chief of staff, Tim Livesey, and his Lib Dem equivalent, Jonny Oates, are among those who speak regularly. Over the parliament, the parties have combined forces to support press regulation, thwart the proposed constituency boundary changes and defeat the Tories’ EU Referendum Bill. One shadow cabinet minister says of a potential coalition: “My view is you do whatever’s required to make Ed Miliband prime minister.”

But the obstacles to a deal remain forbidding. Some in Labour, including shadow cabinet members, will not contemplate any agreement with the “yellow bastards”. For them, the Tories are enemies but the Lib Dems are something worse: traitors. Among those who subscribe to this view is Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, Labour’s largest donor. He has publicly warned of a cut in funding and even of disaffiliation should Labour form a coalition with Clegg’s party.

For many, the defenestration of the Lib Dem leader is a prerequisite to any deal. But Labour could yet be spared the need to administer the death blow. The working assumption among most in Clegg’s party is that the Deputy Prime Minister, who has seemed increasingly demob happy in recent months, will depart after the election (assuming the voters of Sheffield Hallam don't oust him first). One senior Lib Dem MP told me: “Clegg will almost certainly go. The only scenario under which I can see him staying is another coalition with the Conservatives.” Even then, the scale of the Lib Dems’ losses may force a human sacrifice. Clegg’s replacement would almost certainly be Tim Farron, the party’s former president and the darling of the grass roots. But Farron has been notably cooler towards the possibility of another coalition with either party than other senior Lib Dems, leading some to conclude that he aspires to rebuild the party from opposition.

The complexion of the government that emerges from May’s election (minority, minority coalition, or majority coalition) will be dictated by the arithmetic. The salient question is no longer whether parliament will be hung but how hung it will be. Yet even before any votes are counted, Labour and the Lib Dems may need to co-operate tacitly. In the past fortnight, three shadow cabinet ministers have told me of their fear that a collapse in Clegg’s party’s vote could allow the Tories to win upwards of a dozen seats in which they currently lie in second place (of the Lib Dems’ 56 seats, the Conservatives were runners-up in 37 in 2010). Tactical voting, the means by which the centre left has historically sought to secure a "progressive" parliament, will matter more than ever. Whether Labour and the Lib Dems are capable of creating an informal pre-election coalition could determine whether they have the chance to form one afterwards.

The artificial majority provided by Clegg’s party has enabled the Tories to pass all of their major legislation and to govern uninterrupted for five years. If the numbers align on 8 May, Labour would be remiss not to learn from this example.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser