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Henry G Manson asks: “Is the Labour Party capable of Coalition?”

December 7th, 2012

What if they fall short of a majority?

It’s that time of the year again when Labour MPs wonder out loud how to approach the Liberal Democrats. What might seem irrelevant internal machinations can be revealing and have implications for 2015 in the case of a hung parliament.

This week there has been a new grouping created, oddly called Labour for Democracy. It has little to directly do with democracy other than encourage the party to work with other ‘progressive’ parties more, including Liberal Democrats and the Greens. It’s initially comprised of electoral reformers in the party and the inclusion of John Denham, Ed Miliband’s PPS is seen as a sign the Labour leader is relaxed about its creation. Denham argues in the New Statesman:

    ‘Tribal differences have obstructed progressive change in the past. Voter allegiances to the major parties are declining as fast as the icecaps are melting. There are even signs that the ‘progressive majority’ that split its vote in the 1980s is itself shrinking in the face of recession and insecurity. If we want to change Britain in a progressive direction, Labour must show it is willing to work with, not just lead, everyone who will support all or part of that change.’

In typical hyperventilating fashion, the old right Labour First pressure group respond that they describe this is a ‘slap in the face for grassroots campaigners who are working flat out to beat all our political opponents’. They add ‘it is completely premature and defeatist to start flirting with the Lib Dems when all the opinion polls and by-elections show we have a realistic chance of a majority Labour government.

I’m not at all sure about the defeatist argument, preparing for all eventualities is sensible. But the reality is that Labour First speaks for a clear majority Labour MPs and overwhelming number of Labour activists on this issue.

Labour for Democracy is not talking about forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats or pre-election arrangments, something which Michael Fabricant was able to do as Conservative Party Vice Chairman with UKIP and retain his post. Instead it’ll likely be a few meetings between the usual suspects, perhaps a conference and almost certainly a pamphlet. Harmless stuff, however the reaction to this all is revealing.

It’s not just that there is a deep-seated sense of ‘betrayal’ among many Labour people that the Liberal Democrats have joined a coalition with the Conservatives, but that the nature of this Coalition government has made this even worse. The sense that the weakest in society are being hit the hardest by austerity measures is a crime many in the party will simply not forgive. The anger and outrage is deepseated.

Which leads us to ask if the party is upset at such minor political developments from Labour for Democracy, what would the atmosphere be like if there were a hung parliament in 2015? Mike has already highlighted how the betting markets make this outcome just as likely as a Labour outright win. Labour for Democracy is right to highlight the declining tribalism of voters, but unfortunately for them the Labour Party has not been as tribal for thirty years.

    Ed Miliband simply will not be able to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2015. The party won’t stomach it.

Instead a confidence and supply arrangement would be much more plausible and I imagine would suit Liberal Democrats too whose remaining band of MPs will want to have some scope to redefine their identity as well as access Short money.

The Labour leader’s instincts are against tribal politics. He was determined to play a prominent role in the AV referendum campaign despite advice to the contrary from half his Shadow Cabinet. The betting markets show a hung parliament is quite possible. Yet despite all of this the relentless logic and pressure from his party will be to aggressively attack Liberal Democrats and show absolutely no sign of reconciliation whatsoever, either before or after the election.

Henry G Manson

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