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Labour-Lib Dem coalition: not the way ahead

Ed Balls could not have made himself clearer when asked whether he would countenance a joint Labour-Liberal Democrat administration in 2015. As it happens, the shadow chancellor would like to see one in right this minute.

You could do it tomorrow,’ he told the Telegraph’s Mary Riddell in an interview for Fabian Review. ‘If you can form that consensus tomorrow, I’d be part of it like a shot.’

What is being entertained here is change of government by Westminster horse trading, a move that at the very least risks heightening the already extensive public disenchantment with the political process.

Nevertheless, Balls seems to consider this a viable perspective. Bear in mind, too, that his remarks came prior to Cameron’s eurozone rescue veto last Friday, a development widely touted as increasing the strains on the Coalition that have been growing since the referendum on the voting system earlier this year.

Riddell adds: ‘Lib Dems now envisage cross-party co‑operation, perhaps involving Lord Mandelson and Vince Cable on industrial policy. In the longer run, both parties are talking up a centre-Left coalition after the next election.’

Remember the weeks after New Labour’s defeat last year, when there was some discussion on the left about the prospects for the Cameron and Clegg show? Many argued that this was a government of seven stone weaklings; some small groups contended that it would be possible to bring it down by mass extra-parliamentary action.

Others – and they included me – insisted that there was no reason in principle that the Coalition should not last a full term, given fundamental unity around the austerity project. My own position, which not even the experience of N30 has changed, is that the labour movement remains simply too weak to mount any serious insurgency.

However, that does leave open the possibility that the Coalition will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. I would not bet on that myself; with the Liberal Democrats now trailing UKIP in some polls, my guess would be that Clegg will prefer to hang on to office rather than risk electoral obliteration at the hands of former supporters suckered into voting for him last time on the back of his frequent meretricious promises.

But a possibility I had not factored in was the German option of the centre party guaranteeing itself a permanent place in government by making itself available as a potential partner for the two formations that flank it, extracting the maximum possible price for its favours.

There are those in the Labour leadership who regard the emergence of a distinct labourism as something of a regrettable mistake that proved detrimental to progressive politics throughout the twentieth century, and who would be delighted to get into bed with Clegg.

There are many more who regard the Lib Dems as damaged goods, but who would consider some sort of deal if it was the only alternative to a minority Tory government. Never say never, I guess.

But there is a big political difference between accepting such an outcome as a last resort and positively advocating such a lash up. Apart from anything else, it is an expression of a staggering lack of confidence in Labour’s ability to win on its own terms. I for one would not have said what Ed Balls has just gone and said.

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