‘Could a Lib Dem / Labour agreement happen before 2015?’ asks Hopi Sen

by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2012

I realise the headline may well pre-destine this post for John Rentoul’s ever-expanding #QTWTAIN category. But Hopi Sen, an influential Labour blogger, is always worth listening to, and this week he put forward a scenario in which “a LibDem-Labour realignment could foil the Tories”:

Could this happen?

For the first time, it seems at least plausible. Senior LibDems feel let down by the Conservatives over Lords reform and the AV referendum. They feel they have delivered painful changes to their policy programme for the sake of national unity and this generosity has not been reciprocated. They see the Tory backbenches unafraid of their leadership and a Tory leadership unable to deliver a changed Tory party. …

A Labour-Liberal coalition would be inherently unstable, given the parliamentary maths. At most, it would be able to set out a governing agreement, pass a budget and perhaps announce a Queen’s speech and an interim spending review. After that, there would rapidly need to be an election to gain a parliamentary majority for this common programme.

To make a deal worthwhile therefore, a Labour-LibDem agreement would have to be binding beyond the next election, no matter whether Labour won a governing majority. It would, in effect, entail an informal “LibDem policy coupon”. In other words, we’d have to convince the LibDems we really meant it, and weren’t just using them to get the Tories out and us in.

You can read Hopi’s post in full (it’s worth it) here.

The ‘policy coupon’ he constructs includes an economic position “similar to Vince Cable’s the 2010 election – a short term stimulus programme followed by sustained spending restraint” together with banking reform and ‘green power’, and an offer of proportional representation for local council elections. (This latter, with the benefit of hindsight, would have been the best option for the Lib Dems to have included within the 2010 Coalition Agreement with the Tories.)

It’s an interesting hypothesis. However, there are three fundamental problems with it that I can foresee:

    1) Hopi is an outlier among Labour members, both constructive and non-tribal. I suspect there are a whole lot more Labour members that simply want to see the Lib Dems crushed not accommodated, believing it will resurrect the simpler bygone age of two-party politics.

    2) Equally, I cannot see Lib Dem members being happy with the idea of fighting the 2015 election on the basis of a ‘coupon’. We’ve always made it clear the party will contest the next election as an independent party.

    3) I think too that Lib Dems would be cautious about switching sides mid-parliament. Whatever the policy details, the public perception could very well be that ours is a party simply which sells itself to the highest bidder.

Still, as the Lib Dem negotiators showed in May 2010, keeping your options open is a necessary condition. A Labour / Lib Dem alignment is probably the least likely pre-2015 scenario around. But it’s not as impossible this week as it was a fortnight ago.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.