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Deciding on a coalition: should Labour follow Attlee or MacDonald?

Miliband & Salmond at No10Labour has had two experiences of formal coalition.

In the first, its leader chose not to consult the party which was very divided about his austerity programme, and chose to go into coalition with the Tories and Liberals. This split the party which didn’t form a majority government for 14 years.

In the second, the leader put it to a vote at Labour’s executive (carried 17-1) and two days later moved an emergency motion to the same effect at Labour’s conference in Bournemouth (carried 2,413,000 to 170,000). He went into coalition with the Tories and Liberals but kept the party remarkably united, and won the next election with a massive majority on a bold programme which had very broad consent in the party.

So what shall we do next time?

Former deputy-editor of the Indy and ex-Cameron speechwriter Ian Birrell makes a case in the Guardian that Tory-Labour unity coalition may be the only way forward after 7 May. I’m not convinced the idea will convince many Labour members short of Britain becoming engaged in a new war to prevent the rise of European Fascism, but if the SPD can do it in Germany perhaps those well-known members are so keen to spell out in great detail the deep cuts Labour will make would consider it. More plausibly Peter Franklin at Conservative Home argues the possibility of an arrangement where the SNP supply the ‘confidence’ and the Conservatives the ‘supply’.

Now I would never say “never” in relation to coalition or a lesser arrangement but I would oppose any deal with the Tories whatever the arithmetic in May. What I think might be acceptable – like some arrangement with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and other small parties or independents as Gordon Brown wanted in 2010 according to the fascinating account by Andrew Adonis – would depend on both the precise arithmetic and the terms. But what we clearly need is a proper process by which Labour considers whether either a coalition or a lesser arrangement is acceptable.

Like Clement Attlee but unlike Ramsay McDonald (Ed Miliband’s view is unknown to me), I don’t think this is a matter which can be left to MPs alone, though they (including backbench MPs) should clearly be involved. That was, as it happens, also the view of the Lib Dems in 2010, and of the SPD in Germany in 2013:

    1. In 2010, the Lib Dems’ coalition deal was agreed initially on 11 May by their parliamentary party and 33-strong federal executive, and five days later endorsed overwhelmingly by a special conference.

In Germany in 2013, SPD convention delegates voted by 196 votes in favour to 31 against, with two abstentions, before entering coalition talks with Merkel (though party leaders had already themselves ruled out a coalition with the Greens and Die Linke).

  • And Conservative Home argues that the Tories should ballot all their members before agreeing to another coalition.


Labour has three democratically elected bodies all of which could play a role – its national executive, the national policy forum (NPF) and party conference. I would hope that it is the national executive which agrees the process and makes any decision which must be made without delay. However, if there are a policy programme, the NPF would surely be well placed to consider that prior to final agreement – its policy commissions are well used to telephone conferences at short notice – and there is no reason why the party conference should not be reconvened for a session to approve a proposed deal recommended by the executive.

So who’s going to propose that?

How about that guy who stood for election on the basis that we “need a living breathing party“, who thought last time round “Labour felt as if it was in government despite its members, not because of them“? It seems hard believe that he wouldn’t want to consult the people he wants to have “four million doorstep conversations over the next four months to win the general election on the ground. Doesn’t it?

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One Comment

  1. swatantra says:

    The fact is that Labour walked away from taking responsibility in ’31 and left Mcdonald in the manure, for purely Party reasons, putting Party before the Country. The didn’t repeat that mistake in 1940. Of course Party revisionists have rewritten the ’31 situation, and made McDonald out to be the villan.
    Theres a distinct possibility that we will end up with a Grand Coalition, because 2015 outcome will be such a mess that Labour and Tory will have to swallow their pride and work together.

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