The lessons Labour should learn for any future coalition negotiations

Labour is well ahead in the opinion polls but the spade work has to be done now so the party is well-positioned for the possibility that the next election will result in another hung parliament.

By Matthew Sowemimo

Labour is well ahead in the opinion polls but the spade work has to be done now so the party is well-positioned for the possibility that the next election will result in another hung parliament. As Professor John Curtice has argued, electoral trends, such as the shrinking number of marginal seats, greatly increase the chances that Labour may need to form a coalition to govern again.

And even if Labour does win a parliamentary majority, it needs to marshal a wider social coalition to be able to achieve progressive goals in power.

My recent Compass pamphlet, ‘The Next Hung Parliament’, highlights key lessons for Labour that emerge from the negotiations during the five days last May that led to the formation of the current coalition government. The voting patterns of the Oldham East by-election could be a harbinger of the tactical voting in Tory-Labour marginals at the next general election.

This threat will remain regardless of the outcome of the Alternative Vote referendum. Exploring common ground with progressive Lib Dems could help solidify the advances Labour has made with disaffected Liberal Democrat voters. The government could be destabilised greatly in the coming year, particularly if the economy does not return to sustained levels of growth.

As things stand, however, Labour does not have the relationship with the Liberal Democrats to be in a position to fully capitalise on these developments.

Labour has much to learn from the history of past efforts to engage the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron was able to outmanoeuvre Labour in the intense ‘five days in May’ period that led to the formation of the coalition. The Tory leader shrewdly recognised Liberal Democrat vulnerabilities and fashioned the appeals that would connect with Liberal Democrat backbenchers; by contrast Gordon Brown was poorly prepared.

No attempts had been made to understand Liberal Democrat policy positions, analyse leadership negotiators or prepare the ground within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Most of all Mr Brown had no prior relationships or understandings that could be built upon.

Had Labour emerged as the largest party in the election, these errors would probably still have resulted in the Conservatives stealing a march on Mr Brown. Senior Labour figures could learn much from Tony Blair’s pre-1997 engagement with Paddy Ashdown; the two leaders invested the time in building their relationship.

This resulted in the Liberal Democrats abandoning their previous equidistant stance between the Tories and Labour, something that greatly spurred the level of Labour-Liberal Democrat tactical voting in 1997 and 2001. The advance work done before 1997 would have provided a strong foundation for any coalition if Labour had fallen short of a majority at this time.

The party’s prospects of returning to power and reversing the damage done to the social fabric done by this government may depend on Labour’s readiness in this area.

• Download Matthew’s pamphlet, ‘The Next Hung Parliament’, here.

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