One thing is clear - Nick Clegg is between a rock and a hard place. Having spent days in negotiations with the Tories, he knows he risks a blow up with his party should he clamber into bed with Cameron and his ghoulish henchmen. The LibDems might be no different to the Conservatives in local government and have an unenviable reputation as dirty campaigners, but a large proportion of their vote self-identifies with progressive values. As this post makes clear, 43% of LibDem voters locate themselves as on the left, and 39% perceived the party as a left/centre-left party. The equivalent figures for right identification were 9% and 5% respectively. Many LibDems I've met over the years loathe the Tories as much as any socialist and a coalition with them - even if it means ministerial positions for Clegg and St. Cable - would be like snorting razor blades. In short, Clegg's clutching a poisoned chalice. Commentators have drawn parallels with the situation Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe found himself in in 1974. An election after a period of Lib/Con coalition or a Conservative minority government with LibDem connivance could mean Clegg would get to know what it's like to have 14 seats too.
Nevertheless, I imagine some comrades are looking forward to the opportunities a Tory government can afford the left. As MarshaJane puts it:
Labour should now go into opposition and wait for the government to fall. We can then hopefully be fighting the next election with a new leader who will be campaigning against public sector cuts now next year or in the next 5 years or indeed ever and invest in the pubic sector.It could certainly give the labour movement a bit of an impetus. With Labour out of office union leaderships no longer have to worry about embarrassing the government (some may even rediscover their firebrand pasts) and layers of former activists might be inspired to become involved again. Labour - depending on who wins the leadership contest (which I'll no doubt write more on before the week is out) - is likely to rediscover some of the Labourist rhetoric Gordon Brown remembered in the dying days of the campaign as it positions itself to the left. And while there's little chance of returning to 1983 territory chances are policy will assume a more social democratic caste. But a period of glorious opposition would be at the price of "savage cuts" and moves by the government to eviscerate the public sector of trade union influence. Is this a price worth paying? I don't think so.
The alternative - a Lib/Lab/rainbow coalition - has its own opportunities, but comes with a more complex set of problems. In the first place the myriad links between Labour and the organised working class prevents it from launching an all-out assault on its base. This is more of a factor in a Labour-led rainbow coalition where, without a majority, a significant rebellion of backbench MPs could scupper the passing of cuts legislation and threaten to bring the government down. But also there would be massive pressure on union leaders from the Labour leadership to keep a lid on things, and as the record of the last 13 years show, most are happy to do so. Yet Labour-loyal union leaders will be faced with pressure to do something from below, which has been largely absent under the Blair/Brown administration. In other words, socialists in the unions and the Labour party are in a stronger position to derail attempts to make the working class pay for capital's crisis.
The window of opportunity for action - at least within Labour - would be short. In this country the party slumped to its lowest levels of support when wide layers of the working class (correctly) perceived the abolition of the 10p tax band as a kick in the teeth. Should a rainbow coalition be seen to unambiguously attack our class support could fall away quicker than a shower of bricks. In this scenario, the recent history of the SPD in Germany points to Labour's future.
Then of course there is the interminable struggle between the Blairites and the Brownites. I think Andy is right to say the difference between the camps is that one wants to dilute and jettison the trade unions, while the other wants to preserve Labour and the union link as is. For the Blairites a coalition offers an opportunity to heal the historic split between the Liberal Party and Labour - a retrograde step that would further weaken working class political representation. But for all their venality the Blairites aren't daft. They know the fate that befell the SDP could happen to them. The reason why Labour and the Tories have dominated politics for so long is because they more or less express the class relationships of British society. While this has undergone some fragmentation over the last 30 years, the sociological space does not exist for a third force to assume the mantle of progressive politics, nor is it likely to do so outside of some political catastrophe. As interesting the shenanigans and permutations of coalition building are for Westminster watchers, a realignment is not on the cards. If the Blairites are tempted to do a SDP or a Ramsay MacDonald, it will be the last thing they do as a significant political trend.
At the moment it's difficult to see which way mainstream politics are going to turn, but we can be sure Con/Lib and Lib/Lab/Rainbow presents the labour movement different challenges.