Is the Labour leadership preparing for a coalition?

Harriet Harman may hand over the DCMS brief if she takes a leading role in negotiations with the Lib Dems.

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It is the last Labour party conference before the general election. The party is therefore pushing more than ever its message about what it would do in government, and what Britain under Ed Miliband’s premiership would look like. However, the party can make as many policy announcements as it likes, but there’s one key thing it can’t publicly plan for: coalition with the Lib Dems.

The shadow cabinet’s line on a potential political alliance come May 2015 is a fuzzy one. Leading Labour politicians are not outright ruling out coalition, preferring to use lines about the importance of fighting for a Labour majority, and it being ultimately up to the voters to decide which party (or parties) they would like in power.

Recent research released by the Institute for Government – which appears in its ‘Programme for Effective Government’ – points out a “trend towards a multi-party system”, with the two main parties’ share of the vote declining from a peak of 97 per cent in 1951 to 65 per cent in 2010. The chances of a need for a Lib-Lab alliance in May 2015 are considerable.

I interviewed Harriet Harman a couple of weeks ago, and she was very vocal in her contempt for the coalition the Tories formed with Nick Clegg, and also for how the latter’s party has conducted itself in government. In fact, she said people’s disappointment in the Lib Dems would be a “theme” of this week’s conference.

She told me:

Actually you have to govern for every part of the country, not just cobble together a majority or scrabble together to make a coalition like they [the Conservatives] have done with the Lib Dems. . .

The other thing which is very much going to be a theme at [Labour party] conference is the real contempt that people hold the Lib Dems in. Because they've seen them, before 2010, they were arguing that we [Labour] weren't radical enough. And yet, when they got in, they voted for tax cuts for millionaires, they voted for the NHS re-organisation, they voted for the bedroom tax, they voted for trebling tuition fees.

But now, they're saying they don't agree with the government on welfare, they don't agree with what the government's done. And I think people feel this is a new low in British politics.

Her argument is that it’s the way the junior coalition party compromised its principles and promises, and is now U-turning on its support for some Tory-led government policy, which has led to the “disenchantment” of the public with Westminster politics.

However, I’ve picked up from a Labour source that there is talk in the party that Harman could sacrifice her Culture, Media and Sport brief in the event of a coalition. At the moment, she serves both as the party’s deputy leader and shadow culture secretary, but may hand over her potential future role as Secretary of State at DCMS to a more junior politician (I’m hearing Luciana Berger’s name, who is currently in the shadow health team). This would be in order to take a front seat, as Miliband's deputy, in a Labour-led coalition – both in negotiations, and once it’s established. So in spite of any anti-Lib Dem “theme” you may hear this autumn, it seems there are plans being formulated behind the scenes for next May’s potential marriage of convenience.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.