Worse than a crime

“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.

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9 thoughts on “Worse than a crime”

  1. Who are you, and what have you done with John H? 😉

    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.

    I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, especially given the major concessions that the Tories are offering to the Lib Dems.

    I think the real danger with a Lib-Lab coalition is that it ends up as the worst of all worlds. It’s got all the instability of a coalition and none of the strength of a majority. And Labour has to have a leadership contest over the summer. I stick to my view that it is a Bad Idea to be anywhere near the machinery of government while that happens.

  2. Phil: in fairness I’ve been saying since Friday that a Lab/Lib coalition would only have traction in the country if put together in response to a clear Tory failure to form a government. (Queen’s Speech voted down, unable to pass its budget, that sort of thing.)

    And yeah, the Tories have made some significant concessions – especially since Nick called their bluff by starting to talk to Labour – but overall their attitude since Friday has been one of entitlement.

    Not that Labour is exactly free from that attitude. As I commented on Twitter the other day, the Conservatives tend to think they have a “natural” right to govern, and Labour tend to think they have a “moral” right to govern. It comes as a shock to both of them to find that the electorate doesn’t always agree…

  3. I don’t know that the left *only* thinks it has a moral right to govern (if you mean ‘nice people deserve to be in government; we are nice people; therefore we deserve to be in government’). There is an attempt by the Toynbee tendency to argue that the left, very broadly defined, has a democratic right (I’d say that’s a natural right) to govern. So you get appeals to two different facts, both of which are essentially meaningless:

    1. More than half the country didn’t vote Tory. The last time this wasn’t true was, I think, in 1935. But equally, more than half didn’t vote for Labour, so by that logic you wouldn’t have either the Tories or Labour in power.

    Related to this, some people point out that Labour + Lib Dem votes were 15mn, while the Tories got 10mn. But then, Tory + Lib Dem was 17mn to Labour’s 9mn, so this still doesn’t get us very far unless you can somehow argue that Lib + Lab is more legitimate or something than Lib + Con. And so we get…

    2. The notion of a ‘progressive alliance’, by which the Lib Dems are tentatively co-opted, presumably through the SDP link, as a renegade faction of the Labour party. The idea of Lib-Con government is, in this view, quite unnatural. The arguments about combined votes etc. then make some sense, but at the cost of revealing the speaker’s true preference, which is a two-party system in which they can stitch up the Tories good and proper, by gerrymandering the political fallout to suit their own preference.

  4. Phil: what I meant by a “moral right to govern” is slightly sharper than simply “we are nice people”. It’s the view that the Tories govern for the privileged few, while Labour represent the many; that Tory governments are irredeemably nasty, while Labour governments at least have their hearts in the right place even when they do “nasty” things.

    [Look, I know what you’re thinking, but don’t shoot the messenger here, alright? 😉 ]

    See, for example, Tony Blair’s description of New Labour as “the political wing of the British people as a whole”.

    But yes, the notion that there is a “progressive majority” in this country – a notion about which I am extremely sceptical – certainly feeds into that sense of moral entitlement.

  5. I think the point is that Polly Toynbee et al forget that there are very good reasons why Labour and the Lib Dems are separate parties – that it’s not just some terrible failure of our political system that we have a united “conservative” minority and a divided “progressive” majority. The last few days have been something of a wake-up call for them!

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