Most people within Labour who advocate working with the Lib Dems focus on 2015. Neal Lawson, for example, in the New Statesman last week, asks Lib Dems “who would you rather form a coalition with in less than two and half years’ time?” Most of the Left are not so keen on working with those who’ve championed austerity outside the party – we’ve got our work cut out to persuade Labour to adopt a bold investment & growth strategy.
But what about this side of the election? So far, their criticism of austerity is woefully inadequate. It may have excited the Observer, but the denunciation by Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former Director of Strategy, was feeble in the extreme:
For what it is worth, I think the coalition tightened a little more than necessary in the first two years; relied a bit too much on spending cuts rather than tax rises to fill the hole; and above all has taken a myopically conservative approach to borrowing for investment.”
But Lib Dem MPs do want to avoid annihilation. Would they be willing to save their skins by voting down the government putting Ed Miliband into No 10? It is quite possibly the only viable strategy for most of them.
Many media pundits seem to beieve that Clegg and his crew are trapped in the coalition. Take Simon Jenkins at the Guardian:
The coalition will soldier on. By appointing half the Lib Dem MPs to ministerial jobs, Cameron gave himself a payroll vote with a promise of five years in office. For all this week’s spluttering and expostulation from the Vince Cable tendency, few seem inclined to surrender their cars and salaries. Even Lib Dem backbenchers, however disgruntled, cannot relish a probable massacre at the polls. Power is an astonishing glue. Lib Dems may be angry at the coalition, but so what? They are trapped.”
But it’s not true. There can’t be a snap election. An election before 2015 can only be called if there is a two-thirds majority in the House voting for a dissolution of parliament, or if an existing administration is defeated on a no-confidence vote and a new one can’t be cobbled together within 14 days. If the Lib Dems to break with the Tories and votes with Labour to defeat them in a confidence vote, Cameron would have to resign and the Queen would have to send for Ed Miliband. Only if our Ed were unable to form a government would there be a general election.
The arithmetic could work: Labour and the Lib Dems would have 312 votes between them (even after the resignations of Tony Lloyd and Alun Michael), the Tories 305. Even without the SNP and DUP, a new coalition could survive a new confidence vote by securing the backing of the remaining 5 active Irish votes (SDLP, Alliance & independent), Plaid, Green and Respect.
The Left ould not complain if Ed was to strike a deal for an emergency programme to begin to undo the damage the Tories (yes and Lib Dems) have done to date. It may be that “a huge proportion of Labour supporters find the notion of going into coalition with the Lib Dems a fairly gruesome thought” as Mark Ferguson put it at LabourList, but they might be less opposed to a new coalition agrement to last until 2015 which incuded:
- an immediate halt to government spending cuts and their replacement with a programe of public investment in sustainable transport and energy infrastructure, affordable social housing and public services;
- an interventionist industrial policy aimed at supporting manufacturing, developing a greener and more sustainable economy and acheiving a sectoral and regional rebalancing of the economy;
- an immediate cut in VAT, combined with the restoration of the 50% tax rate, and introduction of a wealth tax and a financial transactions tax, and a General anti-tax avoidance bill alongside other measures to combat tax avoidance;
- the immediate repeal of the Health and Social Care Act 2012;
- specific economic programmes for Wales and Northern Ireland to secure the political cooperation of Plaid Cymru and norther Irish parties (and the offer of discussions with the SNP);
- the offer of the position of deputy prime minister to a Liberal Democrat MP other than Nick Clegg (not that they’d be any better than Clegg… just because Clegg had previously shown an unwillingness to work with Labour’s chosen leader of the day).
Such a programme would save the skins of most Lid Dem MPs without compromising Labour’s desire to win an overall majority in 2015. It would even please the 36% of Lib Dem members who think that their party is on the wrong track. But the real reason for doing it would be to save the jobs of those who would otherwise lose them, the public services of those who depend on them, and stop the damage that the Tories would do in another two and a half years.