Saturday, January 03, 2015

Is a Conservative/Labour grand coalition actually a serious runner?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceOnly two days ago, I rather rashly ruled out a Conservative/Labour coalition as almost too absurd to take seriously. And yet, Ian Birrell, writing in the Guardian yesterday, is suggesting that it might be a credible possibility. He, of course, is paid for his opinion, whereas I am not, so one ought to do him the courtesy of giving him a hearing, even if the 'below the line' comment is almost entirely negative, often offensively so (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...).

He suggests that, rather than yield to a constitutional crisis, the two big parties could come to an arrangement...
A government of national unity between Labour and the Conservatives may sound far-fetched, especially amid the froth and fury of a nascent election campaign. It would certainly be tricky, exacerbating internal divisions and leading to more defections. Yet, while there are serious disagreements, the two parties have more in common with each other than with the insurgents on many key issues – especially if David Cameron survived and Miliband was replaced by someone such as Chuka Umunna.
It may well be that the two parties have a lot of common ground - the deficit, a desire to control from the centre, a surprisingly similar world view on the welfare system, a general lack of regard for civil liberties, but I don't believe that it is as encompassing as Ian would have us believe.

For political parties are not just about the politicians in Westminster, they are about activists and members, about donors and deliverers. Labour has increased its membership on the basis that it opposes the Coalition's austerity, but could it hold onto them in coalition with the hated Tories? Not very likely? Could the unions give money to a Labour Party almost certainly promoting further cuts in public spending which will self-evidently impact on their members? One must surely believe that Labour strategists, having seen what happened to the Liberal Democrats, would be astonishingly wary of committing organisational suicide in such a manner. And if not, they must be either very naive or truly, heroically, optimistic.

From a Conservative perspective, one could reasonably expect a hemorrhaging of members, activists and councillors to UKIP, for could an in/out referendum on Europe be granted by Labour? Indeed, would the Conservative aim to shrink the size of the State be stymied by the need to get Labour MPs from the North, Scotland and Wales onside?

It all seems highly unlikely. Admittedly, one does get the impression sometimes that the one key thing that both Labour and Conservative politicians have in common is a mutual hatred for Liberal Democrats, but that's hardly enough, is it?

He does appear to be an optimist, when he suggests that;
Regardless of the personalities and positions, however, the two parties could start to hammer out those huge issues confronting the nation that conventional politics seems incapable of solving. These include the creation of a modern political system, the resolution of Britain’s haphazard drift into federalism and a workable funding solution to save the creaking NHS.
I'm sorry, but why should the two prime beneficiaries of the current political system want to change it. Labour benefit from the current arrangements very well indeed, needing less votes to gain an overall majority than the Conservatives do, whilst first past the post makes it very difficult for new parties to break through and discourages defection to other parties.

And, Mr Birrell, what's so bad about federalism anyway? The problem is not federalism itself, it is the inability of Labour or Conservatives to actually give any meaningful thought to the opportunities and challenges of relinquishing central control over so many aspects of our lives. Besides, they rather promised it when they rushed to Scotland in the dying days of the referendum campaign to make The Vow.

As for the NHS, funding is not the whole of the problem. Structure is key too. What services can/should the State provide, and how do you design a system that adjusts to changing pressures over time? Throwing money at it doesn't appear to have helped as much as it might have been expected to, and, as I recall, we still don't have any.

So, whilst on consideration, one should never rule out anything, I still see a Grand Coalition as a fairly unlikely option after 7 May. On the other hand, after a second inconclusive election...


Frank Little said...

The cousins across the pond would also be interested in a government which would push ahead with Trident and other military hardware.

Mark Valladares said...


That's an interesting point - both parties have similarly conservative views on the question of nuclear deterrence, as opposed to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Nationalists.

Hope that all is well in Neath!

peter arnold said...

Ian Birrell's article is not in the least daft or improbable.

The similarities between Labour and the Tories are greater than the things that divide them. First, they are both instinctively conservative and afraid of change. Second, they like the status quo because they benefit most from it. Third, they are desperate for power for its own sake.

All the signs are that there will be hung parliament after 7th May; Cameron will be desperate to stay PM; Miliband will be keen to get his snout in the trough; and most importantly, they are likely to have a comfortable majority by pooling their numbers. A grand coalition like this has been seen before in the UK; and never forget that they are quite usual in local government.

A grand coalition will also be popular internationally for the reasons given in your article.

And as for federalism - it is very clear from comments coming from the leadership that our commitment to a federal UK, as set out in the Preamble to the party's Constitution, has been ditched in favour of bodging and prevarication. When will our leaders ever learn that basing policy on our published principles is the way forward, and not by responding to the views of focus groups or opinion polls?

Mark Valladares said...


Well, maybe, but who would be Prime Minister and what would the other leader do? And are they so desperate for power that they would risk destroying their own parties to do it? But don't take my word for it, try talking to some Labour activists in your area and see what they have to say about a coalition with the hated Tories.

Coalitions between Labour and the Conservatives are actually pretty rare, and have only been likely in the past where we have been the largest Party but without a majority. So, that isn't wholly credible as a justification for your argument.

Finally, federalism. It isn't clear to me why you think that our commitment to a federal UK has been ditched. Perhaps you could point me in the direction of something that backs up that claim?