Yesterday the BBC reported that Labour is contemplating a Lib Dem coalition, to build a government with more votes and legitimacy than the Tory alternative. Many in the party’s ranks will shudder at the thought. The feeling seems to be mutual, at least if you’re Nick Clegg. But there are some good reasons for wanting a deal to work, and for believing it can.
1. Stability and a working majority
Pundits are fixated on ‘323’, the number of MPs needed to secure a majority of one in a vote of confidence. But since when was that enough for stable government? Just ask John Major. The Tories may claim they can muster more legitimacy, but they certainly can’t offer stability.
Even if David Cameron does better than the polls are suggesting, he can only really expect to cobble together support in the mid-320s and that would always be vulnerable to ambush. On the same numbers, if the Lib Dems were in the anti-Tory column, the left would have a majority in the 340s. And if the result reflects the deadlocked polls today, this broad alliance could reach the 360s.
2. England and Wales
Labour has ruled out a deal with the SNP. But a deal was never likely to stretch to the bulk of English legislation anyway. So securing a majority in England and Wales matters. If Labour achieve a result that is sufficient to lock out the Tories in a UK-wide vote of confidence, they should also have the numbers to pass England and Wales legislation, as long as they have Lib Dem support.
Even if the Tories are 20 seats ahead, a pact with the Lib Dems would give the new government a majority outside Scotland. The SNP could sit on its hands, except for votes on confidence and supply. In those, Miliband would dare the Nationalists to back the Tories.
3. Labour and the Lib Dems agree on a lot
A lot of the time, the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships don’t get on. But they share a huge amount in policy. In a paper published in February the Fabian Society and the liberal think tank CentreForum identified around 100 shared policies in the parties’ pre-manifesto programmes. Despite five years of arguing, it would be pretty straightforward to agree a shared agenda, once negotiations began.
The parties could go for a ‘minimal’ pact, where they would agree to work together only where they had overlapping policies. But with a bit of give-and-take, Labour and the Lib Dems could go a lot further, because each party has huge swathes of policy to which the other would be unlikely to object strongly.
4. It can still be a ‘Labour’ Queen’s Speech
Ed Miliband has said he will be putting forward his own Queen’s Speech and will not negotiate with other parties. This formula is mainly targeted at the SNP but it’s still a potential obstacle to a Labour/Lib Dem deal. But the extent of the two parties’ policy overlaps means it’s quite easy to imagine a negotiation leading to a programme which could be thought of as ‘Labour plus’, with all the party’s key commitments intact.
If a watered-down ‘Labour minus’ deal can be avoided, Miliband would be in a position to argue that they he was putting forward a fully-formed Labour programme. He would present the deal as a means for the smaller party to progress some of its own priorities as well.
5. It doesn’t need to be a full coalition
Both sides might conclude that the perceived security and legitimacy of coalition is desirable. But there are lots of other options for alliance that lie between full coalition and vote-by-vote horse-trading.
In a fascinating article on the Fabian Review website, the former New Zealand politician Darren Hughes describes the myriad of ways in which Helen Clark’s minority Labour government worked with minor parties in the 2000s. One option to consider is appointing ministers from a smaller party, who are charged with particular responsibilities but not bound by collective responsibility. Clark observed at the time: ‘this is an arrangement which might not work in theory, but certainly works in practice’.
Keep all the options in play
It is one of the most unpredictable elections ever and there is no reason to think that the arithmetic of the result will make things any clearer on May 8. In particular there is nothing inevitable or desirable about conjuring two opposing blocs: Labour/SNP verses Tory/Lib Dems. For both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the advantage lies in keeping options open.