A Labour and Tory coalition? That sounds grand

by Stephen Tall on March 15, 2007

There are very good reasons why Lib Dems should not talk about hung Parliaments – as Ming Campbell recently discovered, it produces a lot of unhelpful distraction-chatter. However, I’m happy to make one exception to the rule (in time-honoured tradition): the prospect of a ‘grand coalition’ between Labour and the Tories in the event of no one party having a majority after the next election.

In the past, I’ve tended to be a little dismissive of the notion, regarding it as a too-clever-by-half response which deflects, but does not answer, the question Lib Dems hate: which party would we support? I felt it would lack any real credibility with the public, and so merely bring us a lot of grief as the media fixates on whether we’re ‘left-‘ or ‘right-wing’. (Even though the media would never think of asking Labour or the Tories whether they’re liberal.)

And I’m not the only one wondering whether Britain’s Tories and Labour might ‘do a Germany’, and band together on the mushy centre ground they each seem so keen to occupy – The Times’s Tory-supporting Daniel Finkelstein is also contemplating it:

… on three occasions now, Mr Blair has relied on a differently composed majority to sustain his Government – one that unites the centre against the fringes. Could a minority Government work in a similar way? A cleverly produced Queens Speech could challenge a centrist leader of the Opposition to support the Government or risk being seen as obstructive and opportunist. The Opposition leader might fear the consequences of bringing down the Government on a measure they actually support. The middle against both ends? It could happen.

Credit where it’s due – Chris Huhne was among the first to raise this prospect last year during his bid for the Lib Dem leadership:

We must fight as an independent party. If there is no overall majority after an election, we must look for the best way to advance our cause while maintaining our identity and independence. This may even mean going into opposition while the Conservatives and Labour form a German-style grand coalition.

There are two advantages to this approach from a Lib Dem perspective.

First, it emphasises the degree to which Labour and the Tories are seeking to triangulate their appeal – with Labour trampling all over civil liberties to reach out to voters attracted to authoritarian policies; while the Tories embrace Polly Toynbee and Bob Geldof in an attempt to woo left-liberal voters. It also demonstrates the extent to which the two main parties have collaborated on Iraq, education, and now Trident.

But secondly, it also distinguishes the Lib Dems as the ‘radical centre’ in opposition to the establishment which is the ruling Labour/Tory duopoly. When I voted for Ming Campbell as leader, I did so knowing he was the candidate most easily caricatured as a member of the political aristocracy. As a party which has often struggled to be taken seriously (and that was certainly the case a year ago), this seemed a positive virtue. It still does. But it’s not enough.

We need now to show the public that Britain under the Lib Dems would be a different, brighter, more optimistic and humane place. The choice facing the electorate is more of the same under the leadership of any combination of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron; or a change for the better with the Lib Dems. That’s not such a hard sell.