The coming months will see an orgy of speculation about the prospects for Lib-Lab co-operation in another hung parliament. Labour insists it is on course for a working majority, but most commentators agree that there is a high probability that neither main party will win the general election outright and that despite their abysmal poll ratings, the Lib Dems will hold onto a significant block of 30 or possibly more seats.
Yet there is no clarity about what would happen then. David Cameron is under enormous backbench and party pressure not to contemplate another coalition with the Lib Dems. If the Conservatives emerge as the largest party, they would prefer he governed as a minority, as Labour did after February 1974.
The Lib Dems could offer a minority tory government ‘confidence and supply’. For a party deeply bruised by coalition, this may seem a temptingly easy way out. But is backing the Tories from the outside much better for Lib Dems electorally than having influence and jobs inside? It’s not at all clear, and do divisions between Lib Dems and Tories over Europe make this at all realistic?
Europe goes to the heart of Nick Clegg’s political beliefs. Will he really back the Cameron policy of renegotiation and referendum? It becomes clearer by the day that the outcome will be decided not by what is best in the national interest, but by the internal manoeuvrings of the Conservative party for the Cameron leadership succession.
Nonetheless, Cameron may be able to cobble together a Commons majority for his European policy without the Lib Dems, made up of Democratic Unionists and possibly – though I doubt it – a handful of new UKIP MPs. But if that fails, an Ed Milband attempt to form a government, even if Labour is not the largest party, is a distinct possibility.
Labour could quite easily draw up a Queen’s speech that the Lib Dems and other smaller parties would find difficult to vote against. Of course there would be some tensions, as on the balance between national security and civil liberties. But a Labour programme would contain many points of mutual agreement: a social housing programme; abolition of the ‘bedroom tax’; cuts in public spending mitigated by higher taxes on the better off, including a ‘mansion’ tax; a reinforcement of Vince Cable/Peter Mandelson style industrial strategy; a commitment to a green agenda; party funding reform; proposals for a new constitutional settlement following the Scottish referendum; a set of EU reform proposals.
On this basis Labour could attempt to govern alone and then, subject to its ability to manipulate the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, make a dash for the polls a year or so later. But even if Labour has emerged as the largest party, it may have as little as 33 per cent of the popular vote. Frankly this would be a weak government, unlikely to have the staying power to make the harsh choices on public spending and tax facing any incoming administration for all of the 2015 parliament. Labour would have squeaked back into power by hanging on to what remains of its ‘core vote’ and winning over disillusioned Lib Dems.
In my view the only sensible long term strategy for labour would be to attempt to build a broad progressive alliance, not just with the Lib Dems who will have hung on to some kind of base in the commons, but to voters who have backed the greens and nationalists. This new alliance should also reach out to pro-European Conservatives, who may not be strongly represented in the Commons, but remain a powerful interest among voters and in the business community. Their future political position is bleak. If David Cameron fails to hang on to power, the Conservatives are certain to elect a harder-line Eurosceptic as his successor.
Of course there are formidable emotional and ideological barriers to be overcome for this progressive alliance to become possible. Labour tribalists would have to accept the reality of the structural weaknesses in Labour’s position in an age of fragmented politics when the old two party dominance is no more. The party would have to de ne itself as occupying the radical centre ground, not try to prove it can win elections by being more ‘left wing’ than Tony Blair.
And Labour would have to acknowledge, in part, the legitimacy of how the Lib Dems acted in the past. Personally, I was amongst those who were desperately keen for a post-election Lib-Lab deal in 2010. But one has to acknowledge that the parliamentary numbers did not offer the prospect of stable government. Many in our party were totally opposed to the concep
t of hanging on in coalition, and any incoming government would have faced very difficult and painful economic decisions. Instead of remaining in power, Labour preferred a leadership contest for the soul of the party. In these circumstances it is a bit rich to judge the Lib Dem decision to form a coalition with the Conservatives as an act of baseless treachery.
But the Lib Dems, badly bruised by the painful experience of coalition with the Tories, would also have to take difficult steps down the path of truth and reconciliation. this means admitting that they bought far too much of a right wing agenda on economic and social policy in return for a promise of electoral reform on which they were then betrayed by the Tories. This parliament has shown that the only way meaningful constitutional reform can be achieved is in a Labour-Lib Dem partnership, as in Blair’s first term. Also the post-Clegg Liberal Democrats need to ditch the more neoliberal parts of the Orange Book and recover the commitment to the vibrant social liberal tradition of which Steel, Ashdown and Kennedy all saw themselves as committed upholders.
None of this will be easy and it may take time. But the cement for the next stage of progressive politics is Europe, where Ed Miliband has already demonstrated the makings of clear leadership. Britain’s membership of the European Union is of fundamental importance in itself. But once again the European question moves centre stage in determining the future shape of British politics.