Tuesday 6 January 2015

Is a Conservative/Labour Coalition Possible?

With the polls bouncing all over the place and only a few daft enough to make predictions about the general election, there's a lot of coalition talk doing the rounds. The SNP and Greens - wisely - have ruled out any arrangement with the Conservatives. And Farage has ruled out a deal with Labour (thanks for that, Nige: it makes it that bit easier for us to paint your lot as a Tory home from home). Dave hasn't said no to a kiss-in with UKIP, and Ed has said nothing at all. With a majority for either of the two main parties looking a big ask, the manoeuvrings between the major and the minor parties is set to be the stuff of soap operas. A dull and uninspired story line, yes, but the personal relationships between leading figures are about to be pored over like never before.

There is one possible coalition combination, however, that dare not speak its name. It is so unthinkable and electorally toxic that few if any politicians would dare ponder it. That would be a grand coalition of the left and the right, of the Conservatives and Labour sitting around the same cabinet table. Awful, but plausible? I'd been meaning to write about this for a couple of weeks since reading Miles's prediction last month, and then on Friday former Dave speechwriter Ian Birrell ventured the possibility too. A perspective each from the left and the right. Is there anything to them?

Miles's argument is quite short: there is more uniting the two main parties that divide them. On issue after issue there is a unanimity of opinion. Springing to mind is the unseemly gutter wallowing of immigrant bashing, feeding an irrational fear of crime in long-term decline and, you might add, scapegoating everyone who has to get by on social security in some way. They also share a diagnosis of deficit dementia, a supernatural belief in the power of markets, and an equally pious faith that the cold war holdover of Trident remains appropriate. Ian's piece suggests that the post-election alignment of forces might be too tricky for a coalition to be built, let alone held. The price UKIP would likely demand would be an EU referendum in short order, something Dave is unlikely to accept. The SNP, as argued by Atul Hatwal, would use their position to secure another referendum in the short term too - a price too high for a Labour-led administration. Whoever wins are possibly prisoners of their backbenchers too. Throughout this parliament, the Tory story has been one of Dave dealing with his revolting MPs. He might have had to treat with a few rebellious ones too, fnar. There's no reason to believe they would show discipline should he head up another coalition. And some backbench Labourites who, on the whole, have not been unseemly enough to manoeuvre openly so far might choose to be more conspicuous if Ed gets his feet under the Prime Minister's desk.

Looking at these circumstances first, are they insurmountable? In his excitement, Ian overlooks one possible coalition partner: the Liberal Democrats. In the worst case scenario, the coming LibDem wipeout might see them reduced by about half to between 20 and 30 seats. A well-deserved kicking to be sure, but still enough to be a going concern in future coalition building. Some in their parliamentary party would be quite happy to carry on with Dave, though I suspect another deal with the Tories would cause Dave even more bother with his back benchers than governing alone as a minority government would. As for the LibDems, it could well kill them. Their passage to rehabilitation requires a strict detox regimen. Either going alone in a pick 'n' choose arrangement with one of the main parties sitting as a minority or, weirdly, buddying up with Labour in a coalition could do both these things.

Secondly, there is the assumption that either of the two main parties would be unwilling to give minority government a try. The SNP managed it in Scotland, so why not at Westminster? In this, the alignment of forces would more likely favour a red than a blue government. Labour would have a hard time getting austerity-lite measures through the Commons, but its doubly unlikely the Tories could get their demented class war policies through against a chamber that would otherwise be majority centre left. It would be easier for Labour to arrange support on investment and other progressive policies with the SNP, Plaid, Green(s), Galloway (if he's still there) and the Northern Ireland parties, and more objectively viable than the alternative.

In the absence of either a Tory or Labour-led coalition, I cannot see how a period of minority government for either party would not be preferable to getting into bed with one another. But let's consider the pull factors. The main one, of course, is beyond the constipated braying of both sides of the House, there are many relationships criss-crossing the political divide. There are plenty of personal animosities - Dave/Ed, Osborne/Balls, Hunt/Burnham, Smith/Reeves, etc - but the use of junior ministers/shadows and other chamber underlings ensures that cooperation proceeds smoothly when deemed necessary. Most of the time. Plus there are various other warm relations that ignore the floor between. On the level of personality alone, it's not impossible.

And what about policy? As Miles notes, there is commonality between austerity and austerity-lite, trident, foreign policy, etc. I think this overstates the case. While superficially similar there are substantive differences, and these go beyond the obvious like the bedroom tax, the selling off the NHS piece by piece, and so on. It's about capital, or rather the relationship each party has to it. Since New Labour broke the hegemony the Tory party had over (big) British business the Tories have had a difficult time reasserting it. Despite the forest of legislation easing capital's obligation to employees, the threat to double down more on workers' rights and the tax giveaways of this Parliament, they still haven't got everyone on board. Just as significant slices of the electorate are exasperated with politics generally, so there's a phalanx of business dismayed and flabbergasted by Tory short-termism. The sections of capital that would benefit from the Tories now is the city and its legendary inability to see beyond a nose so inverted it has given them collective brain damage, and low skilled, labour intensive industry - a unity of ostensibly the most voluble and dynamic sector of British capital with the slowest and least competitive. Whereas the Tories are mounting a sectional appeal to business, Labour is trying to personify the wider, longer-term interests of capital as a whole. Its pledges on capital investment, housebuilding, taxation, and the rest seeks to bring more organisation to British capitalism where the state actively intervenes not just to create markets but stimulate them too. This is why the front bench have been at pains to deliver a fully costed raft of policy promises, and why they are so bullish about having it audited by the OBR. With this as their programme, the structural sickness of British capital - low productivity, short termism, infrastructure, training and education needs, lack of firm industrial policy direction - the antidote is what Labour is offering business. The price, however, is for capital to abandon Tory short-termism.

Here's the problem for a coalition government between the two parties. Prior to the 2010 general election, the LibDems offered a programme more suited to the medium and long range interests of capital. Joining with and accepting the Tories as a senior partner, this was completely buried as they subsequently positioned themselves as the narrowest most sectional government in British politics since the 1930s. The contradiction between the two policy orientations was resolved by relative weights of numbers and the abandonment of LibDem scruple for comfy chairs in ministerial cars. That cannot be the case with a Tory/Labour coalition, especially in the absence of a national crisis that may provide foil for such a coming together. That's why I am confident a German-style grand coalition will not get beyond speculation.

Though one should never say never in politics. Be sure of this, if it did come about a coalition would destroy the Tories and Labour as they are presently constituted. There's a ready made alternative to the right the former's MPs and activists can decamp to. And for Labour's part, a Ramsey MacDonald-style expulsion of those bits of the PLP going along with a coalition can reasonably be expected. The bulk of the members and all of the affiliates, and most MPs too (yes, including Progress ones) will fight tooth and nail to keep hold of the party name. The full time apparatus - yes, it is a thing - would not go along with such a lash up either. The ironic irony to end all ironies is after the dust has cleared, once UKIP is swollen and Labour has ditched the 1931'ers, in all likelihood any governing coalition left may well be a minority government.

This is the nuclear option for both sets of party leaders, but one that lobs the missile up only for it to land back on their own heads. Dave will not press the red button nor will Ed press the blue, regardless of the state Parliament is in after the election.


Alex Dawson said...

Ladbrokes are offering 50-1 on a Con/Lab coalition government following the next election. Don't tell the other half, but I've just put a substantial sum of money down on this happening.

I agree a "national crisis" could easily lead to this happening and I think the conditions for a "national crisis" are well advanced - oil price plummeting and NHS in freefall right now are two big indicators. The looming New Cold War conflagration with our slavish support for the fascists in Ukraine is also a factor, especially now the ruling classes have forced the Saudis and Iraqis to flood oil to destroy the Russian rouble. Add in a precarious monarchy, an angry population and the threat of a moderately social democratic Labour majority, and you can read the runes to see that the ruling classes are going to go all out to create the conditions to ensure nobody does anything to rock the boat further.

Also remember the media at the last election when the idea of a minority administration was floated - we were told in no uncertain terms on every channel that the "markets wouldn't accept" a minority government, as apparently they want "stability". This and this alone will be the factor that drives forward a national government of the two big parties, particularly when framed in the context of a "national crisis" and looming world war with Russia.

I think we in the Labour Party and trade unions continue to overestimate our importance to the PLP. They would happily jettison the bulk of difficult activists and embarrassing funders if they could get away with it - and what better way of doing it than by forcing us to walk away rather than expelling us?

The media narrative is clear - Labour will not be allowed to win a majority or lead a minority, despite the chances of the vote holding up well as in 2010.

The formation of a new party for union money may become more of a necessary task than a pipedream. The ruling classes would love nothing more than destroying the union political link for a generation.

This is the election it will occur.

asquith said...

My view is that if it didn't happen in 1974 it almost certainly won't be happening now.

The concept of some kind of Labour minority government isn't too hard to envisage. The SNP could, in return for making good on devo max, be talked into abstaining on many measures that won't be impacting Scotland, bringing in what is actually a kind of EVEL, albeit one I can't see the usual right-wing cheerleaders wanting. (if Labour get enough English seats, obvs)

Liberal Democrats, of whom I see quite a few remaining, would support some measures provided they didn't return to the authoritarianism of pre-2010 Labour.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Nigel Dodds and friends are generally of a leftward leaning on issues other than unionism/nationalism, which isn't really to do with British partisanship at all, therefore shouldn't have that much ire when it comes to supporting a centre-left government provided they found its approach to the province acceptable. At PMQs he generally airs the concerns of his working-class constituents in a way that is quite similar to Labour.

I don't really envisage other parties being forces to be reckoned with, and this is more down to the iniquities of our voting system, because the support they command is not concentrated. Hopefully, in acknowledgement as this, some kind of move to a fairer voting system will happen, though there are probably too many half-witted Labour and Tory tribalists for this.

Anonymous said...

Not a chance in hell of this happening. Short of a world war.

ejh said...

Policy has very little to do with it, and why having different relationships to capital would prevent a coalition is a mystery to me.

I don't think it'll happen because I don't think the numbers will be there, but there's nothing about the Labour front bench that makes me think this would be anathema to them.

Lidl Janus said...

I think it's unlikely but not entirely crazy. From what I'm able to discern (not much), there is a scenario in which minority government proves difficult and coalition options are all shit.


Vinyl Miner said...

Still going for a Labour Minority government with SNP tacit support. How long this will last is hard to say but with Brent Crude at under $50 tt might pay them to keep Labour in power as it would not be a good time for independence. Ed may ditch Trident(but not nukes) and that could allow Salmond to support him.

Curtly said...

May happen if Frank Field led Labour !

Phil said...

In this fantasy scenario, there is no way Labour will ditch Trident in the absence of a "convincing" alternative. Being seen to be "unserious" on national security is a sure fire way to lose an election - that is one New Labour insight not likely to be dumped any time soon. Besides, IIRC the margin between scrapping and renewing trident in Scotland isn't as wide as the SNP would have you believe.

Ejh, there is a fundamental drift between Labour and the Tories on economic policy. The two cannot be reconciled. Austerity vs austerity lite is the appearance of the difference, the real division is much much deeper.

Anonymous said...

Simpel fact is that Miliband has shown himself fully in favour of social justice, every policy so far announced, and every speech he has made shows that.

The reverse is also obviously true - Cameron has attacked social justice at every turn, every policy attacks the poorest, every speech blames the people.

The imagined 'coalition' stories simply feed teh they'reallthesame agenda, which we know is Tory propaganda.