What I’d do in Labour’s shoes

by Stephen Tall on May 20, 2010

There’s no reason for me to offer this advice; still less reason for Labour taking it. But here goes …

I wrote last week about the potential danger to Labour of adopting a tribally oppositional approach to the Lib Dem / Conservative coalition government, at least while it’s enjoying its 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 turn 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.

The evidence so far suggests Labour are going to slip very comfortably into their comfort zone: attacking every single thing the coalition does, irrespective of its merits. Labour’s backing for Say No to 55% is a case in point, with trenchant criticism from senior Labour figures casually flinging hyperblic allegations of ‘gerrymandering’.

I’m not going to revisit the arguments about 55% here: my LDV colleague Iain Roberts has already explained what nonsense the Labour allegations are. And Nick Clegg even more pithily deconstructed the arguments in his political reform speech yesterday:

We’re not taking away parliament’s right to throw out government; we’re taking away government’s right to throw out parliament.

Labour went into the election promising fixed-term parliaments: if that’s to have any meaning, there has to be a block on the Prime Minister of the day choosing to dissolve Parliament using their party’s majority. That’s why, when Labour legislated for fixed-term parliaments in Scotland, they set a bar for dissolution at 66%, rather than 50%+1.

So what should Labour have done? Simple: they should have welcomed whole-heartedly the coalition government’s proposal to introduce a fixed-term Parliament, pointing out (rightly) that it was in their manifesto, and of course they welcome the implementation of Labour policies – regardless of which party is bringing them forward.

But then Labour should have dared the coalition to go further. The problem with 55%, they should have observed, is that it sets the bar too low – there have been many governments which would have been able to dissolve parliament using their own majorities, which defeats the whole point of fixed-term parliaments. They should have declared they would move an amendment raising the majority needed to 66% to dissolve parliament – just as Labour had enacted in Scotland.

If Labour had done this they would have achieved three things.

First, showing they are not going to be thoughtlessly tribal, but will judge issues on their own merits. Secondly, they would have proved their consistency, continuing to advocate a manifesto commitment and arguing for the same threshold they legislated for in Scotland. And thirdly, they would have driven a wedge between the Lib Dems (who most likely would have recognised the force of argument that 55% is too low) and the Conservatives (who don’t much like the idea of fixed-term parliaments in any case).

And that exemplifies what should be Labour’s approach at least during the initial phase of the coalition government: applauding those progressive measures coming forward (especially those they have endorsed), but constantly daring the Lib Dems to be more radical than they can within the constraints of coalition. Not only will this allow Labour to pose as the most progressive, reforming party – it will also do much more to undermine the coalition government than simply reacting with a tribally oppositional jerk of the knee.

Thankfully for the sake of the Lib Dems, there seems no prospect of Labour taking my advice: their comfort zone is just so much more, well, comfortable.