Rule out a coalition? Labour would be mad to do so

by Stephen Tall on January 22, 2015

Higher Education Bill vote in the House of Commons

I’m sure there are lots of posts I’ve written in the 10 years I’ve been blogging that have dated badly. But none so badly as this one published on LibDemVoice in March 2010: ‘5 reasons Nick Clegg should rule out a coalition now’.

I was reminded of it by this week’s post on LabourList by Luke Akehurst, ‘Labour should rule out forming a coalition with any other party’.

Like me five years ago, Luke sets out a number of persuasive reasons why his party should do just that. Like me five years ago, he’s being myopically silly. The reality is the parties will have to play with the hand dealt them by the electorate as best they can.

Let’s imagine a by-no-means-impossible scenario… The Tories beat Labour in the popular vote by a whisker, let’s say 34% to 33%. But Ed Miliband wins the ground-game, ending up with 280 seats to the Tories’ 270 and becomes Prime Minister. He’s a long way off the 326 he needs for a Commons majority of one, but he’s able to form a minority government by cutting a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Lib Dems and SNP.

So far, so good. Then what?

Well, then Ed Miliband faces the reality of the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, which has stripped him of the power to call an election when it suits him. Instead, general elections are held every five years, unless two-thirds of all MPs vote for one, or unless his minority Labour government loses a vote of confidence and there is no further successful vote within 14 days.

This leaves a minority government in a weak position, the opposition parties in a much stronger one. Ed Miliband will have to continue dealing with the other parties to get his parliamentary business through, while at the same time hoping he can keep all his backbenchers united. Tough enough at any time, let alone with more austerity cuts still to come.

Chances are, Labour (any minority government in these circumstances) would stumble from one disaster to another; harried by their opponents exploiting every split, championing every populist cause they know will cause Labour maximum grief. Think John Major’s 1992-97 government, but in a Twitter-exposed age, limping forlornly to a crushing defeat.

Of course, the option is open to Ed Miliband to try and ‘cut and run’ at any time. He can deliberately no-con his own government in the hope of triggering an election (if he really thinks he can improve his position). But then the Tories — who would be united behind a new Better-Off-Out Eurosceptic leader and outraged that Labour should have formed a government despite winning fewer votes — would have the chance to form their own minority government. How tempting might it be for Theresa or Boris to do just that, if only for a few months to earn the credibility of occupying Number 10?

It’s not impossible to make minority government work. After all, Alex Salmond managed it in Scotland from 2007-11. But he benefited from a split and demoralised opposition and being able to point the finger of blame at a parliament 380 miles to the south. The question for Labour supporters is this: do you think Ed Miliband is as ruthlessly skilled at exploiting a political situation to his own advantage as the former First Minister?

If your answer is no, you really shouldn’t rule out any option (even coalition with the – spit! – Lib Dems). Not now. Not unless you want to live to regret it if the voters leave you holding the minority end of the stick in 105 days’ time.

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