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A Con-Lab coalition would be the nuclear option – mutually assured destruction

mushroom cloudWith 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 the 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 weakness of British capital – low productivity, short termism, infrastructure, training and education needs, lack of firm industrial policy direction – this 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. In joining with 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 its 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.


  1. Robert says:

    Think of it Blair sorry Miliband is about to lose get the boot when he comes back and says I’ve done a deal with the Tories. I will be deputy dog is that all right his front bench who are all thinking another five years of nothing will now get some jobs, so they agree. Ed saves his job for five years anyway he will be a leader.

    Is it possible oh yes it is another nail in the labour party as we use to know it to the Progress party.

  2. John reid says:

    A nail in the coffin,well at least we’re still likely to get more than the 27% we go tin 1983

  3. Dave O says:

    Phil, can you flesh out your seemingly confident prognosis that Labour would expel anyone entering a coalition with the Tories?

    If such a step was agreed by Ed M – and thankfully, the prospect is unlikely – then my gut feeling is that the apparatus would go along with it.

    1. John reid says:

      Haven’t Fank field, Alan milburn drawn up documents for the Tories in the last 4 years,and would expelling anyone bother them, when Ken was expelled 15 years ago, he was happy to work with the Tories as he put it, he spoke at their conference, as Livingstone didn’t endorse labour at the 2001 election, he. Said at one stage he would be prepared to work with the tories if they wanted to back him, he’d do the same for them

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