Britain does not love coalitions

8th May 2013 Articles

This article first appeared on Progress Online on 8 May 2013 and is based on the final chapters of ’5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond’ which can be bought at the special price of £10 by visiting www.politicos.co.uk/promotions and entering the code: PROGRESS.

Few short periods in politics have mattered more in Britain than the ‘five days in May’ which followed the 2010 general election. Secret meetings day and night; helicopters whirring overhead; television cameras swarming back and forth across Westminster and Whitehall. It was West Wing, Borgen, the lot: a raw battle for power to decide who would govern and which big policies would win or lose. How does it look in hindsight, three years on?

Reflecting back, it is striking that a fair proportion of the Labour cabinet were resigned to losing the election and handing power to David Cameron. Gordon Brown never gave up. Had he resigned the Labour leadership immediately on the Friday morning, and announced that he intended to take no role in a Labour-Liberal Democrat government apart from negotiating its birth, it might have been harder for Nick Clegg to lead the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Tories. It would have blunted  Cameron’s ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to the Liberal Democrats, which instead became the key power play immediately after the election. It would also have removed one ostensible reason Clegg gave for favouring the Tories – namely, Brown’s continuation.

No one suggested that the former prime minister do this, which reflects a deeper problem. In May 2010 Labour was exhausted, demoralised, almost leaderless. Thirteen years in government had drained many MPs and ministers dry. Labour should have fought with every sinew in 2010 to retain power. To give up power voluntarily, because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult, is a betrayal of the people you serve.

It was claimed at the time, and has since become conventional wisdom, that ‘the numbers didn’t add up’ for a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. In truth, the numbers were there, provided the Liberal Democrats went left rather than right and Labour was disciplined. The key numbers were these: Labour combined with the Liberal Democrats had 315 seats; the Tories held 307; and other parties – almost all of them far more anti-Tory than anti-Labour – had 28. A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition would have had a majority of about 30. The closest approach to such a coalition vote in the present parliament, when the Liberal Democrats voted with Labour this January to delay the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries, saw the Conservatives lose by 334 to 292, a majority of 42.

What of the future? I used to think coalition government was preferable to single-party government. But I have changed my mind in light of experience over the last 30 years. The last three years have shown that is possible to make coalitions work in modern Britain. But they have also convinced me that, for progressives, coalition is not superior to single-party majority government.

For a progressive social democrat, coalition between parties of the centre-left and the centre is superficially attractive. Believers in a social market economy and an open, liberal society are spread across all three major parties, particularly Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Coalitions might therefore promote consensus behind mainstream social market policies, and make governments stronger and better. This view was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming of political age, because of the extremist drift of both the Labour and the Conservative parties and the formation of the Social Democratic party, intended by one of its founding members, Roy Jenkins, to strengthen what he called the ‘radical centre’. Reflecting the depth of divisions within Labour and the Conservatives at the time, Jenkins argued that ‘big tent’ parties of left and right ‘make the moderates too much the prisoner of the extremists’. He ended one speech with Yeats’ lament: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’

However, the SDP-Liberal Alliance failed to make an electoral breakthrough in 1983 and the concept of a ‘centre party’ proved problematic, as the Liberal Democrats are still demonstrating. The spectrum of views, even among the party’s MPs, ranges from the left of the Labour party to the right of the Conservative party, with plenty in each camp, as witnessed by the debate on The Orange Book since 2004.

Furthermore, the extremist drift of the Labour party turned out to be a passing phase. By the advent of the Blair government, Labour’s extremists had become the prisoner of the moderates, not the other way around. So much so that  Jenkins himself became a close confidant and adviser to Tony Blair while the Liberal Democrats remained on the opposition benches after New Labour’s landslide in 1997. To paraphrase Yeats, it was the best, not the worst, who acquired all conviction and passionate intensity. (Ironically, Jenkins came to fear that  Blair possessed rather too much of both by the time of the Iraq invasion).

In reality, the best way to advance mainstream progressive politics is to organise, lead and win from inside the major parties. It is a chimera to regard coalition as a means of securing ‘external’ victory after ‘internal’ defeat. So Labour needs to win outright as a broad-based progressive party, informed by the best thinking in other parties and beyond, but not reliant on coalition with other parties to assemble a majority in the Commons. This is the challenge for One Nation Labour.

The Conservatives did not win in 2010. They secured a smaller proportion of seats than any ‘winning’ party since Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour party in the hung parliament of 1929. This was not just the product of the electoral system. At 36.1 per cent, the Tory vote in 2010 was the lowest for a ‘winning’ party since Britain became a recognisable democracy in 1918, with one important exception: Labour in 2005, at 35.2 per cent.

The root of the Tory problem is that they are no longer a national party. For a generation now, they have barely existed in Scotland and in most of the conurbations of the Midlands and the north. They clearly have big problems. But Labour’s are equally big in southern England. In 2010, out of 218 seats south of Birmingham excluding London, Labour won only 10. In the 25 counties of southern England, Labour won no seats at all in 19.

In 2010, Labour’s national share of the vote fell to 29 per cent.  Blair won in 1997 with 43.2 per cent and with 40.7 per cent in 2001. So Labour lost about a third of its support over the following decade. The necessity for Labour to become a party of southern England becomes still greater when the parliamentary boundaries are finally redrawn for the election after 2015, and the balance of seats shifts decisively south.

Ed Miliband is therefore right to advance One Nation Labour. It not only seizes the ‘One Nation’ mantle from the Conservatives at the point where their credibility as a One Nation party is shot through. It also concentrates Labour’s mind on the imperative to become, as in the early Blair years, a One Nation party in social appeal and geographical reach. This requires Labour’s philosophy and programme to be avowedly national, not sectarian.

One Nation Labour is a party of aspiration, enterprise and responsibility as well as social justice. It is proudly liberal as well as Labour. It is the party of modernisation not the status quo; of responsibility – personal responsibility, social responsibility, economic responsibility – as well as equality, rights and freedoms.

One Nation Labour speaks the language of middle England – middle class and working class – which wants to see more and better jobs, more choice and higher standards in the public services, more and better opportunities for their children to get on, greater responsibility as well as rights in welfare and criminal justice, and which also wants greater security, both physical security in their neighbourhoods and greater security in facing the challenges of modern life.

One Nation Labour does not mean recycling New Labour policies in an unthinking way. Some, like the quest for greater choice and higher standards in education and health, are still appropriate. Others, particularly Labour’s approach to financial regulation, growth, infrastructure, welfare and devolution within England – need to change radically in the light of new circumstances and challenges.

Labour’s 1945 manifesto – written amid the break-up of Winston Churchill’s great wartime coalition – seized the One Nation modernisation theme under the inspired title ‘Let us face the future’. Its final chapter was entitled ‘Labour’s call to all progressives’, and it warned: ‘It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through.’

That is our challenge in the run-up to 2015. To set out not just a list of aims – one nation, responsible capitalism, more and better jobs – but a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional interests and carried through.

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