“It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.” – Joseph Fouché.
Well, it turns out my last post was unduly pessimistic: the Tories came in below the 310-330 range I had predicted, and five days later we still have a Labour government. Technically.
When it was announced yesterday that Labour and the Lib Dems had launched formal coalition negotiations, my first assumption was that this was about Nick Clegg raising the stakes with the Tories – calling their bluff by actually going ahead with negotiations with Labour, but only in order to strengthen his hands in any “ConDem” deal.
However, on hearing about the difficulties the Lib Dem leadership were facing with their backbenchers, the horrible feeling creeps over me that Labour and the Lib Dems might actually be serious. I still think it’s unlikely, but a Lab/Lib/Nationalist/Green/”room for one more on top!” coalition cannot be ruled out.
And I think it should be. At least until the Conservatives have had a proper opportunity to form a government.
Because let’s be honest: Labour lost the election. The Conservatives didn’t win it – even if they seem to regard that as an oversight by the electorate which it is the other parties’ patriotic duty to correct – but Labour certainly lost it. Which is painful to admit, but that’s what happened.
Now, left to myself I’d rather see a “progressive coalition” than a Conservative government of any type. Even a Tory government leavened by concessions to the Lib Dems or constrained by its minority status will cause real damage to the country and to people’s lives, especially the lives of the most vulnerable.
But if Labour forms a “rainbow coalition” with the Liberals and the various nationalist parties, we will have a fissile and ill-disciplined coalition facing a Tory opposition reunited and reinvigorated by its fury at having been cheated of its opportunity at government. The result would be a second election within a year, with the Conservatives winning a thumping victory against a collapsed and bickering coalition, and probably staying in power for a decade or more.
A Lab/Lib/Nats coalition would not be a constitutional crime – after all, we live in a parliamentary democracy – but it would be a monumental political blunder. A tactical victory (maybe) but a strategic calamity.
A progressive coalition may be a possibility if the Tories fail to form a government that can get its Queen’s Speech through the Commons. The narrative then would be the “progressive” parties saying, “the Tories have failed, therefore the rest of us – representing the majority of voters – must unite for the national interest”, rather than the Tories saying, with some justice: “we wuz robbed”. The key is for the Tories to be clearly seen to have failed. That will not be the case if a “shabby deal” is stitched together between Labour and the Liberals by Friday.
So I hope that what Labour is doing with the Lib Dems is an act of “politics in the raw” (to use the media’s favoured cliché of the day) that has the effect of strengthening the Lib Dems’ hand with the Conservatives. But above all I hope that Labour will now take the opportunity to rebuild from what is really not too low a base: a respectable number of MPs compared with many recent oppositions; to elect a new leader; to harry any Conservative or ConDem government mercilessly; and to prepare for another election that is likely to come sooner rather than later.
In other words: don’t fantasise (about “rainbow coalitions” and the like); organise.