A Lib-Lab coalition should not be dismissed out of hand

The most likely scenario in 2015 is a hung-parliament. Policymakers should be considering how they deal with that reality.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University

Should Labour be sweet-talking the Lib Dems?

That’s the question at the heart of recent comments from Ed Balls, Andrew Adonis and others. Mark Ferguson is not a fan. And Ed Miliband has shot it down this morning.

And yet there are three important factors here we should not lightly dismiss.

Firstly, there are 18 Lib Dem seats where a swing of 2,000 votes or under will turn them blue. This would give the Conservatives 322 seats in the new Commons, tantalisingly close to a majority.

Of course, blue seats will turn red too, thus reducing the nominal Tory total. But it puts Labour in the position of needing to take almost forty Tory seats to win a threadbare majority (assuming they hold all current 257 seats).

This is entirely possible. But it does suggest that the maximum the next Labour administration can garner is a John Major 1992 style majority.

To talk of ‘agreeing with Nick’ is not to throw away some sweeping Attlee, Wilson or Blair landslide. As the economy picks up, it is more likely Labour will have to deal with the scenario faced by Cameron in 2010 than Major eighteen years earlier. Let’s at least talk in practicalities.

Secondly, most interventions so far rather assume that doing a deal (pre – or post-election) with the Lib Dems alone is the only game in town, and go on to suggest that the voters would frown on any agreement with an unpopular deputy prime minister.

Again, a pre-election Clegg-Miliband agreement might indeed look odd (though historians would point to the 1903 pact), but there is a way Miliband’s One Nation umbrella can help him here.

Supposing Miliband offered local Lib Dem, Green, Plaid Cymru, and SNP associations the option of standing down his candidate in selected seats where Labour have always polled badly in exchange for their voting for a series of ‘One Nation’ policies in the next parliament – such as shifting deficit reduction to (wealth) tax increases rather than cuts, increased capital spending, increased powers for Scotland and Wales within the union, greater subsidiarity generally and, crucially, being willing to back Labour in a hung parliament.

This may indeed involve jettisoning one or two winnable seats (Caroline Lucas’ for one), but it would allot Miliband a truly ‘national appeal’ and provide the natural end-point of Labour’s rhetorical shift from bashing Clegg to highlighting the ‘Tory-led’ nature of the present coalition.

It is entirely reasonable and mature to assert that if the key goal is to remove the Tories from power, steps should be taken in that direction even if it costs Labour votes. This would be a targeted offer where Labour would set the terms, and would profit from the outcome.

I’m not sure it would have the effect Mark Ferguson alluded to this morning, that of turning Liberal voters with ‘buyer’s remorse’ off voting Labour in 2015. Some limited deal with individual Lib Dems would surely indicate a softening that would allow people to more comfortably, in many seats where the Lib Dems will have no chance, vote for Miliband.

Frankly, the deal could also be gerrymandered – offered to a relatively wide proportion of sitting Lib Dems, but tailored to those deemed most desirable from an electoral point of view.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Labour’s priority must be a prime minister Ed Miliband.

If the contention is that the Lib Dems are without principle, they are ideal coalition partners. If commentators believe that only Labour can introduce positive reforms, they need to read some history.

The most likely scenario in 2015 is a hung-parliament; policymakers should be – and realistically are – considering how they deal with that reality. The prospect of a foreign secretary Cable should not impede increasing the likelihood of a prime minister Miliband.

I do not pretend the above scenario is without compromises or difficulties. But it is not to be dismissed out of hand. It is difficult for the leader of the opposition to look ‘above party politics’, but this just might be one way around it.

There are clear merits to going all guns blazing against the Liberal Democrats, and indeed every other party. But the concept of a more nuanced approach is a conversation at least worth having.

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