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2 December 2010

David Laws on why the Lib Dems rejected Labour in the May 2010 coalition negotiations

The Lib Dem MP and author of 22 Days in May responds to 5 Days in May author Andrew Adonis' review of his book with a behind-the-scenes account of why the Lib Dem/Labour coalition negotiations failed.

By David Lawday

I am one of those many politicians across all parties who admire Andrew Adonis. If I didn’t, I would not feel the need to respond to his review of my account of the formation of the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition in last week’s New Statesman. Andrew suggested that I have written a “highly informative [but] highly partisan” account, before plunging into a highly partisan review of my book. Indeed, he has produced not so much a review as a conspiracy theory, propped up by a few selective quotes.

Andrew’s review asks one central question – why did the Liberal Democrats choose the Conservatives rather than Labour as coalition partners in May 2010? His theory is as follows. First, under Nick Clegg’s leadership, the Liberal Democrats became very right-wing. Second, unreasonable opposition to Labour propelled the Lib Dems into the arms of the Conservatives. Third, without this “neoliberal context”, it is hard to explain why the Lib Dems made the choice they did. Fourth, the Lib Dems were never serious in their negotiations with Labour. And fifth, Labour deserves no criticism for the outcome of the Lib-Lab talks.

No right-wing agenda

Let us take each of these points in turn. First, I hope Andrew will at least allow me a raised eyebrow over the claims that, under Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems had somehow “lurched to the right”. I can’t be the only one who thinks “tuition fees” and “academies” when I hear these criticisms coming from a man widely regarded as a leading supporter of reforms that moved Labour sharply to the “right”.

Let us now look at the “right-wing agenda” on which Nick Clegg fought the 2010 election: a huge shift in taxation to take those on low pay out of tax, paid for by higher capital gains tax and a mansions tax (prompting Peter Mandelson to ask in our negotiations, “Have the rich not suffered enough?”); a pupil premium targeting extra money at the most disadvantaged children; and radical action on constitutional reform and the environment. This is hardly a right-wing manifesto. Yes, the party had become more liberal and reformist on public services, but that is surely something that Andrew, of all “progressives”, should have welcomed.

The second claim is that the Liberal Democrats became unreasonably confrontational towards Labour. But that is to take my argument out of context. The claim I make is that Labour’s record in office on Iraq, civil liberties, centralisation and lack of social mobility meant that the Liberal Democrats became increasingly critical of Labour – and even-handed in our attitude to both other parties.

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The third, fourth and fifth points can be grouped together. Quite simply, Andrew cannot understand how we could have chosen the Conservatives rather than Labour, and he accuses the Lib Dems of not being serious in negotiations, while claiming that he and his colleagues were.

One rather important fact – never mentioned by Andrew in his review, but referred to in ­Peter Mandelson’s account of the negotiations and mentioned by many Labour senior figures – was that the electoral arithmetic meant that there would be no Lib Dem-Labour majority in the House of Commons. So any Lib-Lab coalition would have had to rely on the other parties – the DUP and the other Irish parties, a Green, and possibly the Nationalists – in order to stay in power. That would be challenging at the best of times, but having to hold together such a government while taking tough decisions on deficit reduction (necessary under any gov­ernment) would have been extraordinarily difficult. That was a crucial consideration for us, as it was for many within the Labour Party. Yet, in spite of that, the Lib Dems negotiated in good faith, and not just to strengthen our bargaining position with the Conservatives.

Stark staring mad

It is important to understand what my book describes but Andrew finds hard to accept – that the Lib Dems (yes, including that alleged right-winger, Nick Clegg) went into the election thinking that a coalition with Labour was more likely than one with the Conservatives, assuming that both were possible. The reason? We wrongly thought that it would be easier to agree with Labour on policy.

Instead, we found that the Conservatives made major policy concessions, and quickly; while, after three days of talking, Labour was too disorganised or divided even to table clear positions on tax, education spending, pensions or the deficit. And, on voting reform, Ed Balls was bluntly warning us that Labour MPs might not vote for their own manifesto pledge to support a referendum on the Alternative Vote.

Under those circumstances, our decision wasn’t difficult, and it does not need conspiracy theories to understand it. What Labour was offering us was a weak coalition with a divided Labour Party; a coalition with no majority in the House of Commons, no clear policy platform, and no guarantee of a referendum on voting reform. We would have been stark staring mad to accept such a proposition. So, by the time Gordon Brown realised that only a Lib Dem-Labour coalition could keep Labour in power, it was, in effect, one minute past midnight, and too late for such a deal to succeed.

The more interesting question, on which Andrew and others need to reflect, is why Labour did not seize the opportunities to create such a partnership with the Liberal Democrats over the previous 15 years, when partnership was both possible and workable. That is the historic opportunity missed. But I would gently suggest that it is Labour, rather than the Liberal Democrats, which bears the main responsibility for that legacy.

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