Of future coalitions and political alignments

by Stephen Tall on September 17, 2010

Three quick links to must-read articles this past week, all with compelling arguments to make:

The Cameroons already thinking the unthinkable (Bagehot, The Economist)

Tory MP Nick Boles’ naively sincere suggestion the Tories and Lib Dems will band together at the next election has given rise to much meandering ‘could they really?’ commentary. I think it’s 99% certain not to happen, and I’m not going to invest over-much effort in contemplating a 1% likelihood. But this paragraph did strike me as interesting:

I cannot shake the feeling that all these careful, practical objections make sense only if you suppose that the electoral landscape has been shifted about a little bit by the 2010, but remains essentially the same, familiar place known to generations of activists and MPs. My hunch is that well-informed types around Mr Cameron think the landscape has been radically changed, and—crucially—is about to be hit by tectonic shifts that will render the old political maps almost irrelevant.

No-one would have imagined this time five years ago the political state of Britain today. David Cameron, not even an MP for five years as Prime Minister; newly-elected Nick Clegg in as Deputy Prime Minister. Utterly implausible. Yet it happened. So no hard and fast predictions for me for what the political Britain of 2015 will look like.

A coupon, redux? (Hopi Sen)

Hopi is one of my favourite bloggers, but together with Next Left‘s Sunder Katawala (another charming lefty) he does have a tendency to look to history for parallels. And however beguiling historical parallels are on the surface they are always to be resisted because (and forgive me if I’ve emphasised the point before) history never repeats itself.

History is messy and inconsistent and unpigeonholeable; not surprisingly given it’s simply the accumulation of human actions and frailties in any given period. So the left’s contention that the Lib Dems are going to be irresistibly hoovered up by the Tories or split asunder — that it’s a fate we cannot avoid now we’ve pledged our temporary troth — is not one I buy.

… when the Coalition becomes unpopular (and it is when, though the timing and length of that moment is not decided), some sort of Electoral arrangement will be attractive to a number of Lib Dems, especially those who see themselves as philosophically closer to the free market liberals of the current Conservative party. Why slowly edge towards the cliff of electoral oblivion when a deal could preserve both parliamentary seats and political direction? It’s a hard challenge to answer.

It is highly likely the Coalition will become unpopular; also highly likely that the Lib Dems’ popularity will drop further. To this extent the Lib Dems and Conservatives will be bound more closely together.

At the same time, though, they are, I suspect, more likely to look forward to life apart in order that we can recover our ideological identities. Politics tends to work on a pendulum, reacting — sometimes subtly, sometimes extremely — against what’s gone before.

The most likely long-term effect of the Lib Dems aligning with the Conservatives in my view? That the Lib Dems will, eventually, be drawn more closely to Labour.

An anxious autumn is Labour’s yet to lose (Philip Stephen, Financial Times)

How will Labour respond to this pendulum effect? Well, a lot will depend on who the party chooses as its new leader. I think their best bet is David Miliband: he’s genuinely impressed me as a candidate, much more thoughtful and energetic than Brother Ed. Here’s Philip’s conclusion:

By choosing David Miliband, Labour would be saying it wanted to win back England’s aspirant classes – that it was still serious about power. But the party’s heart could yet rule its head. Mr Clegg – and Mr Cameron – are cheering on the younger of the two brothers.

I’m not sure Nick will be cheering Ed. The stength of the Lib Dem negotiating position in May was that — notwithstanding the parliamentary arithmetic — there was a real sense that the party could cut a deal wither with the Conservatives or Labour. That the Lib Dems were being courted (assiduously by the Tories, half-heartedly by Labour) allowed the party leadership to drive a harder bargain than would have otherwise been the case.

Ed Miliband’s more introspective, soft-left, tribal-ish Labourism is less conducive to partnership with the Lib Dems. And his peevish declaration that he could never work with Nick Clegg (small-minded revenge for Nick forcing Gordon Brown’s resignation) hardly helps matters.

In contrast, if David Miliband were elected Labour leader, there would be greater potential for future liberal-left alignment leading up to and beyond the next election. Though there’s the risk David Miliband’s Labour will have a broader middle-England appeal that threatens the Lib Dems electorally, I suspect Nick would prefer his more pluralist outlook. And he would, moreover, be relieved not to face the prospect of being boxed-in at the next election, with little realistic alternative to a continuation of the Coalition with the Conservatives.