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19 May 2023

Labour should treat coalitions as a strength, not a weakness

In a pluralistic age, Keir Starmer should declare that he will work with other parties if he falls short of a majority.

By Neal Lawson

Inconclusive local election results, a lower Labour poll lead and an opposition leader who refused 11 times in broadcast interviews to say whether he would do a deal with the Lib Dems mean that the C-word – coalition – is back in vogue and Labour is in a mess.

The party’s desire to monopolise opposition to the Tories is colliding with electoral reality. And the more Labour rejects the possibility of working with the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP, the more the supporters of these parties are incentivised to hold out and not vote tactically.

Labour’s leadership understandably wants a parliamentary majority – and one as big as possible – but it can’t ignore the projection of most pollsters: that it will be the largest party but without overall control. And to have any hope of a majority, Labour needs to encourage as much tactical voting as possible. So why rule out a deal categorically?

In part this is because Labour is haunted by the 2015 election when Ed Miliband was portrayed by the Tories as being in the pocket of Alex Salmond, the SNP leader. Polls show Keir Starmer is viewed as a stronger figure than Miliband, while the SNP is far weaker than eight years ago, but the image still terrifies Labour. 

Now let’s step back a bit. How has the term “coalition” acquired such negative connotations in UK politics? Forming a coalition is usually seen as virtuous, something that makes you stronger than working alone.

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Across Europe, from Spain and Germany to the Nordic states, progressive coalitions govern effectively. On our own island there are power-sharing agreements between the SNP and the Greens in Scotland and between Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales. Across England and Wales there are over 90 councils with no overall control, the majority of them run by some form of progressive alliance. And lest we forget, the most stable government since 2010 was the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. Then of course came the Tory-DUP deal from 2017 to 2019.

We may not agree with what they do, or even that they function effectively, but coalitions are becoming a common feature of politics. If the polls continue to narrow then, surely, it’s not beyond the wit of Labour to say, “We fight to win and expect a majority, but if we fall short then we will act in the best interests of the country and will govern with those who want to support us.” Yet even this common-sense line is incompatible with the Labour leadership’s insistence that there will be no deals. 

[See also: The National Conservatives are a glimpse of the Tories’ grim future]

In a recent New Statesman interview, the psephologist John Curtice observed that the Tories will be “stuffed” if they don’t win a majority because they “don’t have any friends inside the House of Commons”. But Labour’s old guard, who now run the party, are wedded to a tribal Labourism that means it’s them in charge or nothing. The leadership has even refused to form internal coalitions and has marginalised the hard and soft left through rigid candidate selections and shadow cabinet promotions and demotions.

Should the Lib Dems demand electoral reform and should the SNP demand a second independence referendum in the event of a hung parliament, they will be told the choice is to either back Labour or side with the Conservatives. Then they can be painted as Yellow and Tartan Tories and we will be back to the two-party world in which the Tories mostly win and Labour occasionally holds the fort while the right regroups.

Out in the real world, people’s political allegiances are much more fluid. Witness the level of tactical campaigning and voting at the recent local elections. The idea that everyone can be forced into one big tent defies the modern cultural experience of pluralism. The more relevant metaphor is a campsite of shared values but retained identities. If progressive politics is to have a future, then it will look like this. Only then can the complexity of the challenges the UK faces be matched by a deep and sustained new settlement.

Another reality will assert itself in time. Parliament simply cannot function for long under a minority government with no basic agreement between parties such as a confidence and supply arrangement. Of course, the Lib Dems and the SNP wouldn’t walk into Labour’s trap and vote a new minority government down – at least not for a while. But without an agreement between the whips, legislation will be hard, if not impossible, to get through. Everything will be a struggle when the country is expecting change. At some stage, Labour would either have to strike a deal or call another general election, a card it can only play once.

Such a moment feels much closer to 1975, when Labour stumbled at the end of the postwar Keynesian era, just as all parties stumble now at the end of the neoliberal era. It feels much less like 1964, when Labour won a narrow victory and then a much bigger one in 1966. Faced with multiple crises, a potentially close election and progressive parties that are  indistinguishable enough, Labour can learn from countries such as Germany and look confident in the process or it can look evasive and put partisan interests before the nation’s. The country is watching Labour – and waiting and expecting something that works.

[See also: The Tories aren’t even pretending to sell us aspiration]

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