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30 March 2015

Why a Labour/Lib Dem coalition must still be an option – and Nick Clegg needn’t be the price

There has been almost no talk recently of a Lib/Lab pact following a hung parliament. It's time to start the conversation.

By Richard Grayson

During all the general election campaigns in my adult life (I was 18 in 1987) there has been much talk of a possible “realignment of the left” in a postelection deal between Labour and either the Alliance or the Liberal Democrats. It hardly needs saying that the Liberal Democrats’ behaviour over the past five years makes this less attractive to Labour than it ever has been.

Indeed, what has instead happened is, as Simon Jenkins so rightly said soon after the 2010 election, a “realignment of the centre-right” – a point that so many “under-factionalised” and unideological Lib Dems simply never grasped. That was all despite hopes from some of us that things could be different.

That has led to this current campaign being an unusual one in which there is almost no talk of a Lab-Lib coalition after it. Instead, “hung parliament” talk focuses on Labour working with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the SDLP. This is unsurprising as such parties already have 13 seats and all experts expect them to grow. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat vote is set to collapse.

There is commonly talk of the party falling to 20-30 seats, but it could be lower if hostility to the party leads to as disproportional results as it might, in the way that hostility to the Conservatives was in 1997. Indeed, I hope the Liberal Democrats do lose badly at this election – I believe they deserve to and that is why myself and thousands of others have left the party over the past few years, many of us joining Labour.

But what if there is a hung parliament in which Liberal Democrat numbers are potentially decisive, instead of the Labour majority which myself and other Labour members want? One Labour perspective will be, “Why put the Liberal Democrats in power again, when they can be put out for a generation, with Labour sweeping up what remains of their progressive vote?”

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There is much in that, if it means that political pluralism is furthered by working with other parties. However, there are reasons of both tactics and policy to be more positive (from a Labour perspective) about the prospect of governing with the Liberal Democrats. That even applies if there as few as, say, 15 elected, which might still make them the third party in the Commons.

One practical tactical factor is that it is more straightforward to reach and maintain an agreement with a party of 15 MPs than it is with a similar number from perhaps four different parties. The latter case involves a serious risk of mischief-making between the parties, both by the media and the parties themselves. The likelihood of such a multi-party coalition being unstable is far more pronounced than a bi-party one. Consequently, it is also far more likely to lead to very small parties wagging the dog’s tail by threatening stability.

Meanwhile, whatever can be said about the Liberal Democrats reneging on their 2010 election pledges (and much can be said), they have been extremely disciplined about doing so. Any deal which Labour could negotiate with them in May would be likely to be far more attractive to even the remnants of the party than was the 2010 Conservative deal, so discipline in maintaining the agreement is hardly likely to be a problem. Incidentally, for that reason, I would not make ditching Nick Clegg as leader any condition of a deal. There has been plenty of talk of alternatives who are apparently more in tune with the party’s grassroots.

However, some so-called “opposition” to the government has meant little when it comes to votes in the Commons, amounting to little more than opportunistic posturing, whether for a party or constituency audience. At least with Clegg as leader the party has someone who is experienced in government and seems to know how to persuade his party – of pretty much anything it seems. Why lose all that for an unknown quantity? Labour would be better off dealing with a known centre-right continental liberal, than someone who postures as being on the left but in fact has a proven five-year record in trooping off to vote for George Osborne’s assault on the state and the public good.

Beyond tactics, a Labour – Liberal Democrat coalition can rest on substantial potential for agreement on policy. Fundamentally, there can be an overall approach around tackling the deficit fairly. This is simply not something which the Conservatives believe is necessary. Yet both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have shown in different versions of their so-called “mansion tax” that they have a shared view on the direction to go.

The same also applies to a reshaping of the economy in the battle against against climate change. One party’s policy talks about “Introducing a legally-binding decarbonisation target and an indicative renewables target to green our electricity”. The other says, “We will unlock investment in clean energy by setting a firm 2030 decarbonisation target and giving the Green Investment Bank more powers”. Is it obvious which is from the Liberal Democrats and which from Labour? The two parties start from very similar places on this core issue, and have reached similar conclusions.

There are many other subjects on which common ground can be found, and on which Labour and the Liberal Democrats are far more likely to agree than the latter are with the Conservatives. This is not just about specific policy, but also about principles. The ideas on decentralisation which have been at the heart of thinking from Jon Cruddas in Labour’s policy review are entirely in the Liberal Democrat tradition. The basic case for Europe places the two parties close together, as does an instinct for not leaving the provision of decent housing to the private sector. On the constitution, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are clearly instinctive reformers, and someday that might be seen for the Lords even if there has been so much tension between the parties on precisely how to bring about change. Other similarities (if also surmountable differences) can be found on the NHS and education.

In the current election campaign it is already very tempting for Labour to taunt Liberal Democrats about the past five years. A lot of that can and must happen, especially where Labour can win Liberal Democrat seats or win back votes to build for future gains. However, post-election, the immediate issue for Labour will be how it can best represent the people whom only it represents, if the parliamentary mathematics mean a coalition is necessary to govern.  In that situation, it may well be that the Liberal Democrats will again throw in their lot with the Conservatives. Some Liberal Democrats might prefer that. But others may feel driven to it. For the sake of those who vote Labour, if it does not win a majority, Labour must not allow that to happen.

Richard Grayson is Professor of 20th-century history, Goldsmiths, University of London. He tweets @ProfRGrayson