The little coalition that couldn’t

Now that David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s ConDem coalition is in office, a slightly dispiriting meme is taking hold in some sections of the left: the progressive Lib/Lab coalition that never was.

The argument is that there was a real prospect for such a coalition to be put together, and now we have been cruelly deprived of this epochal opportunity to transform British politics forever. Sorry, did I say “epochal opportunity”? That’s putting it a bit too mildly:

Shimmering on the horizon for an evanescent moment was the chance of a progressive alliance, a rocket about to take off, shooting for the moon. The mission would end the old dysfunctional split between two centre-left parties and bring together a social democratic majority of voters in a country that is essentially not Conservative.

So argues Polly Toynbee, before going on to analyse the “blame game”: whose fault was it that this bright vision receded?

Toynbee’s own rhetorical rocket is shot down by the very first comment on the linked article:

Let it go Polly.

It was never going to happen.

Who’s to blame for the rocket crashing? Was it those duplicitous ‘Dems, or those tribal Labour dinosaurs like Tom Harris? Well, I agree with that commenter: no-one. Because not only did the rocket never leave the launchpad – there was never any rocket.

I can understand why the Guardian was so keen to promote a Lab/Lib/Nats/Green/etc. “progressive coalition”, as it would have got them off the hook for their disastrous and humiliating endorsement of the Lib Dems.

However, the simple fact is that the numbers weren’t there: too few MPs in too many parties to negotiate and agree a coalition that would have had any prospect of survival. More importantly, as I argued before, a “stop the Tories” coalition would have lacked all credibility – to put it at its mildest – and would have led very quickly to a thumping Conservative majority, a decade or more of Tory rule, and quite possibly the self-destruction of the Labour party.

I suspect both Labour and the Lib Dems knew this full well. For the Lib Dems, talking to Labour gave them leverage with the Tories and meant they could placate their left-leaning MPs and activists by claiming they’d at least tried to do a deal with Labour instead. Labour’s aim was probably to disrupt and unsettle the Tory and Lib Dem negotiations, undermining personal trust and confidence between the coalition partners, and encouraging Tory concessions that I suspect will come back to bite the leadership once the right-wing absorbs what has occurred.

So let’s “let it go”. One day, perhaps, a “progressive coalition” will be possible, and in many ways I think it would be a good thing. Had this election been fought on the AV system, producing a narrower outcome, then it might well have resulted in a “traffic light coalition”.

But it was never a realistic prospect this time around, on this system. Time to move on.


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