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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14 Responses to “The lessons Labour should learn for any future coalition negotiations”

  1. Jamie Graham

    RT @leftfootfwd: The lessons Labour should learn for any future coalition negotiations:

  2. Hugh

    Brown may have been poorly prepared, but who could blame him for not risking any pre-election leaks given the response of all manner of nutjobs (Hoey, Abbott), Brown-haters (Reid, Blunkett) and opportunists (Burnham) to the Lib-Lab coalition when finally proposed?

  3. Deborah Segalini

    RT @leftfootfwd: The lessons Labour should learn for any future coalition negotiations:

  4. Éoin Clarke

    The very concept of ever doing a deal with yellows is an anethema. Let us hope that it does not ocme to pass in the near future. Talk of a hung parliament exacerabtes its likliehood, so perhpas we should say nothing about it. Not only that, a red manifesto cannot be diluted, or pomises broken, to the extent that has ocurred this time around.

    If there is to be future coalition negotiations I think that it is epsecially important that it is not based on freindhsip, shared values but instead cold hard bargaining… wanting a coalition to survive for surivival sake makes parties and leaders appear power hungry.

    In short, there is much that can be learned from the SNP’s minority government in Holyrood.

  5. Alan W

    Matthew – Your suggestions all seem pretty sensible, but I’m not sure how much difference they would have made to the negotiations last May.

    The most important single factor back then was simply that the parliamentary arithmetic meant any deal between Labour, the Lib-Dems and assorted others, would have been a complete nightmare. I doubt if it would have held together to Christmas.

    It’s also quite clear that Clegg and the Orange Book clique at the top of the Lib-Dems were always going to be pre-disposed towards working with the Tories. However, had the numbers been different, and a straight Labour – Lib-Dem tie-up been capable of producing a working majority, I think Clegg et al would have had much more difficulty selling a deal with the Tories to their party.

  6. william

    ‘Manners maketh man’.Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown come from a less than civil background,cf. Tony Blair.Nobody would negotiate a coalition with Labour , led by these sort of people.Ask Nic Clegg.

  7. paul barker

    Surely the vital point is that Milliband must never go crawling to The Sun, claiming to be “Tougher” on Crime or Drugs or Immigration. That would close off any openings to The Libdems forever.

  8. Stephen May

    Interesting analysis. It would be worth the current Lib Dem leadership noting your points. If the electoral changes do succeed it’s possible that the next government will be a Lib/Lab coalition. However, the current behaviour of a number of senior Lib Dems is going to make that difficult. It’s very hard to see how Milliband could form a government with the Lib Dems unless Clegg, Alexander, Huhne, Laws and a few others are removed from the senior positions in the Lib Dem party that they currently occupy.

    The extent to which the senior Lib Dems have taken to criticising Labour is extraordinary given who they might have to work with in a few years.

    It’s not just Labour that needs to approach the Lib Dems differently, the Lib Dems need to wind their necks in a hell of a long way before they could position themselves as future governmental partners for Labour.

  9. Simon Landau

    The biggest difficulty that Labour had in May was that the voters had voted against the government (not just Brown).
    A similar problem may occur next time – a perception that the voters have voted against the coalition government. That makes it imperative that any Labour coalition preparations on are on the basis of:-
    a) Lib-Dem policies shared with Labour that the coalition government have deprioritised
    b) relationships with Lib-Dems who have a track record of not supporting the coalition.

    Of course there will be nuances in the above but a) is easier to achieve than b). That makes it all the more important to get private disquiet at the top of the Lib-Dems translated to public dissent. On the current track record it will be more difficult to forge relationships with Alexander, Clegg and Laws than Cable or Huhne. Equally council leaders like Paul Scriven at Sheffield is doomed on his current record to sit outside the tent while the 91 letter signatories may be difficult but not impossible.

    The great unknown is where the future leaders like Tim Farron want to be ?

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