The upsides and downsides for Labour of the Lib-Con deal

by Stephen Tall on May 12, 2010

The decision by many Labour MPs during Tuesday to kaibosh any kind of ‘progressive alliance’ deal with the Lib Dems was doubtless motivated by many reasons: some good, some bad.

I’m sure some Labour MPs genuinely felt that, after 13 years of government, and having crashed to their heaviest election defeat in a generation, their party requires a spell in opposition to re-group and refresh. That’s a perfectly understandable and respectable position to hold.

Equally, it’s clear there were those motivated by less pure instincts. For some – the tribal partisans who cleave to the view Labour is always right – the very idea of sharing power with the Lib Dems was utterly anathema, regardless of whether they could agree with chunks of the Lib Dem manifesto. Such people are untroubled by the fact that Labour’s support dipped below 30% for the first time since 1983. All that matters to them is that Labour survives and does not have to talk to other parties, ever.

And then there are another group of Labour MPs: the tacticians, the strategists who have reckoned (not unreasonably) that Labour is much better off out of power. This was always billed as ‘The Election to Lose’ because of the necessity for any government, of whatever hue, to have to cut public spending drastically in the next five years. With the purity of opposition, Labour is now free to pick and choose the cuts they oppose, with regular bursts of tribal invective.

And, of course, the deal between the Lib Dems and Conservatives has taken this to a whole new level. Not only can Labour freely attack the public spending cuts for which we are all braced, but they, alone among the three major parties, are free of responsibility, too. It doesn’t take a Mandelson to calculate the campaigning advantage Labour will enjoy against both Lib Dems and Tories in the months and years ahead.

But it’s not all an upside for Labour. They will have to tread quite carefully in the immediate future. It will be a little while before we see via the opinion polls what the public makes of the Lib-Con deal, but there’s every chance the new government will enjoy a honeymoon. The public, generally speaking, likes to see politicians working together sensibly and rationally, rather than tearing each other to bits. The sheer novelty value of the coalition is going to intrigue voters, many of whom will be willing to give Clegg and Cameron a chance.

With a leadership contest to come, Labour candidates will be jockeying for position. The temptation for them will be to play to the gallery and to their tribal instincts in order to secure the activist vote. That will be understandable but potentially dangerous for Labour.

If they’re smart, they should welcome the deal, and wish it all the best, rather than damn it in a way which will trun off voters. There will be plenty of troubles ahead for the Lib-Con government, plenty of time for Labour to exploit the difficulties the Lib Dems and Tories will face. But turn the knife too soon, and they may end up shooting themselves in the foot.