Democracy//

Paving the way for an alternative coalition

Written by: David Clark et al on 10 January, 2013
Filed under Democracy

We are now closer to the date of the next election than the last and debate about the shape and composition of the next government is well under way. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have just set out their joint priorities for what remains of the current coalition’s term of office. But progressive politics will be the loser if a renewal of that arrangement comes to be seen as the natural outcome in the event of another hung parliament. An alternative coalition joining Labour and the Liberal Democrats also needs to be on the table for a proper debate about Britain’s future to take place. The British people deserve no less.

We know from experience that creating that option will require courage, care and commitment. The failure of both our parties to prepare the ground before the last election became painfully apparent during the coalition negotiations that took place three years ago. The realities of parliamentary arithmetic made a Lib-Lab coalition difficult in any event, but the climate of mutual suspicion showed how estranged the two parties had become since tentative efforts at co-operation were abandoned in the first term of the Blair government. It would be a tragedy for Britain if the centre-left failed to enter the next election better prepared for the aftermath and the negotiations that may follow.

This is not a pipedream but a real political necessity. All political parties would naturally prefer to win a parliamentary majority and govern on their own, and will rightly campaign hard towards that end. But as our electoral system creates more safe seats, and therefore reduces the potential for big swings between the two largest parties, the likelihood of coalition politics grows. To be ready for 2015 means work must start now on building the relationships, ideas and policy positions needed to make co-operation a realistic possibility.

The task of initiating that dialogue has been made harder by the fact that Britain’s first proper experience of coalition government since the war has, if anything, heightened the tribal instincts that exist in all parties. The robust political competition that defines a healthy democracy means that members of different political parties will always find reasons to feel aggrieved with each other. But a mature politics should look beyond short-term partisanship and keep in mind the common goals that are often shared across party boundaries. Viewed in these terms, a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition should not only be seen as a viable alternative to the current government, but as a natural and principled one as well.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was a product of circumstance rather than a deep ideological affinity between the two parties as a whole. That is why relations have become more strained and it has been increasingly difficult to honour the trade-offs written into the coalition agreement. A Lib-Lab partnership has the potential to give Britain a reforming government that is stable and coherent because it would be based on strong foundations of shared history and values. The modern welfare state was the joint creation of Liberal and Labour governments and reflected their common belief that individual freedom has to be built on material security and social justice. Keynes was and is the ideas motor for growth. Our parties share a positive view about Europe and a great concern about the environment. We believe in a local and relational state and want to see far reaching constitutional reform that redistributes power and influence for the many and not just the few. Inequality is a concern for all of us and we want to see wealth and income redistributed and capabilities for all extended. These principles continue to be reflected in the aims and values of both parties today.

Putting together a joint programme for government would require a lot of detailed work, but there is every reason to see it as an achievable goal. After all, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have already governed successfully together in Scotland. An economic policy that combined deficit reduction with fairer taxes and a more active industrial policy to stimulate growth would be an obvious focus of agreement. Both parties reject the Conservative preference for a deregulatory assault on employment rights as a route to recovery along with the “skivers” rhetoric that seeks to divide society and demonise the victims of poverty. The overlap between British Liberalism’s longstanding interest in economic democracy and Labour’s emerging agenda for a responsible capitalism creates the potential for a far-reaching package of reforms that could transform the British economy for the better.

The changes Ed Miliband has made as Labour leader have reduced the scope for disagreement in areas like foreign policy, civil liberties and the role of the state. Labour is becoming more sceptical about bureaucratic centralism as the answer to all social problems and rediscovering traditions that emphasise local democracy and the need to disperse power. A Lib-Lab coalition really could become the “greenest government ever” with a serious effort to make green investment part of the recovery and accelerate the shift to a post-carbon future. There would be no more efforts to roll back the Human Rights Act and equalities legislation. Creating an elected second chamber to replace the Lords would become a joint priority. Both parties would be prepared to look honestly at all the options on Trident replacement. Britain’s policy on Europe would be based on engagement and reform, not hostility and the drift towards isolation.

Looking across the main areas of policy, it is easier to find points of agreement than disagreement. But laying the ground for an alternative coalition requires more than policy agreement. It calls for a change of attitudes and working methods. A genuine progressive consensus cannot be built with the kind of trophy pluralism often practised in the past by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Securing the endorsement of leading politicians from other parties for things you were planning to do anyway is no substitute for meaningful engagement and compromise. What we therefore propose is that figures in both parties should begin an exploratory dialogue, without preconditions, in a spirit of openness and mutual respect.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will continue to compete robustly and fight the next election aiming to win on their own terms. That’s as it should be. But both should also prepare for the possibility that the British people once again decline to give a majority to any single party. In that eventuality there will be a number of options to consider and nothing we propose can prejudge what either party may decide. But if we want a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition to be one of those options, the ground will have to be prepared in advance and that process should start soon. The decision about the next government of Britain is too important to be taken by default.

David Clark | Editor, Shifting Grounds
Linda Jack | Chair, Liberal Left
Richard Grayson | Vice-chair, Liberal Left
Ruth Lister | Chair, Compass management committee
Andrew Harrop | General secretary, Fabian Society
Roger Liddle | Chair, Policy Network
Patrick Diamond | Senior research fellow, Policy Network
Olaf Cramme | Director, Policy Network
Neal Lawson | Chair, Compass