Progressives should welcome not fear the prospect of a Lib-Lab coalition
While all eyes are averted to Scotland, something strange emerged in London last week. An old alliance was made anew in Westminster, as Liberal Democrat MPs walked shoulder to shoulder with their Labour colleagues through the voting lobbies. Progressive politics is officially back in business.
Ever since Clegg jumped into bed with the Conservatives, there has been little love lost between Lib Dems and Labour. Indeed, last week’s collaboration in Westminster to strike down a policy the Lib Dems introduced would have been unthinkable just two months ago, before Danny Alexander performed a spectacular 360 degree turn on the ‘Bedroom Tax’, wooing Labourites by writing in the Daily Mirror. But now that the Lib Dems are embracing progressive politics once again, Labour should readily reengage with their old allies. Here’s why:
Think tactically: After five years of a Tory-led government, the idea of David Cameron as our Prime Minister for another five is not a pleasant prospect. Yet, our continuous acrimony against the Lib Dems could engender exactly that.Take Solihull as an example. It is the smallest Lib Dem majority in the country, where the incumbent Lorely Burt survived by the skin of her teeth in 2010 (with a majority of 175, 0.3% of votes cast). If Labour voters refuse to lend Ms Burt their support, the Tory candidate will seal the seat effortlessly. Now imagine this phenomenon occurring in all Lib Dem-Tory marginal constituencies where the Lib Dems enjoyed less than 10% majorities.This will amount to approximately 19 Lib Dem seats to the Tories, hindering the impact of prospective Labour gains. The logic is simple: we need to vote tactically in a First Past The Post system to have any meaningful influence. In Ed Balls’ words, we need to ‘bite our tongue’ to evict the Tories from Downing Street.
The travesty of betrayal: Many Labourites refuse to distinguish between Lib Dems and the Tories, and quite understandably so. At the last election, Lib Dems campaigned on a manifesto that was more left-wing than Labour, and then governed on the right of Labour. From the hypocrisy of Tuition Fees to the calamity that is the Bedroom Tax, the Liberal Democrats’ record in government amounted to one big betrayal. However, if we cast our mind back to the last general election, Labour was not in a position to offer the Lib Dems a deal for government; neither with its remaining number of MPs, nor the will to govern after 13 years in power. As Paddy Ashdown told Nick Robinson in Five Days that Changed Britain, “Our hearts went one way but the mathematics went another.” In the end, the Lib Dems opted for the difficult but practical solution of coalition, which in all fairness, is set to complete a full term in office against sceptical predictions. The Liberal Democrats may have compromised in certain policy areas, but they are not traitors of progressive values.
Coalition of centrists: Precisely because the Lib Dems have moved firmly into the centre (as this YouGov poll in July confirmed), the ground for a Lib-Lab deal is more fertile than ever. As David Miliband’s failed leadership bid demonstrated; the majority of Labour grassroots and MPs preferred a centrist alternative to his union-backed brother. The current Labour Party is therefore an uneasy coalition between centrist and left-leaning Labourites. This is why Ed Miliband is a proud advocate of heavy handed regulations in the energy market and the rent sector on the one hand and proponent of punitive measures on unemployed youths on the other. It is a complex mess of paradox that defies political gravity.
Conversely, in the parallel universe of a Lib-Lab coalition, Labour’s centrist majority will be able to tame the party’s left in the same way David Cameron attenuated the Conservative right over Same Sex Marriage. Even with just 40 Lib Dem MPs, Labour will have 40 more reasons to pursue sensible economic policies, such as keeping the top rate of tax at 45p and sticking to its commitment of running a surplus by the end of the next parliament. Labour will have 40 more reasons to reshape the state, but not according the left’s simplistic script of big government. It will establish an education programme that encourages competition and support for social mobility. It will begin a radical reallocation of welfare spending to those most in need; a redefinition of the welfare state that will save it from its contradictions. Labour will roll back the troublesome top-down reorganisation of the NHS, but increase the number of Foundation Hospitals, the success of which we hear so little from the frontbench today.
Notwithstanding Labour’s first and foremost commitment to a majority, if the electorate decide to deal Labour a bad hand next May (as it did with the Tories in 2010), it will be pointless to complain about the scarcity of Lib Dem MPs when we willingly surrendered their seats to the enemy. Besides, unlike the current coalition, there is nothing unholy about a Lib-Lab alliance. It will be a composed of conviction not convenience, and deliver both social justice as well as economic recovery. It is a cause worth fighting for. And if that involves voting with my head rather than my heart, let it be done.