Could a Labour / Libdem coalition happen?

10:30 am - January 29th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    

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It could, according to Sunder in this week’s edition of New Statesman.

But there must be changes to the New Labour agenda…

On civil liberties, ID cards would have to go. Labour could ditch the project on cost grounds, or at least freeze it for five years. A civil liberties commission – perhaps with Shirley Williams and Charles Clarke co-chairing and involving Tory voices, too – could engage the public on how to reconcile security and liberty.

A pro-European agenda for the age of Obama should be Lab-Lib Dem common ground. But public closure is required on Iraq. Shaping the scope of an inquiry would be a perfect task for Ming Campbell. The progressive parties would together champion a post-Kyoto global climate change deal, but guaranteeing a Commons vote on the Heathrow runway would, in practice, make it a casualty of the coalition. The Lib Dems could show they had used their influence for liberal change. They would need to drop their opposition to tuition fees and the child trust fund. Immigration and crime policies would have to be thrashed out as well.

While many in the Labour tribe were suspicious of the Blair-Ashdown project, this deal should bring them some cheer. “It would sort out the issues which have left our people reluctant to go out and knock on doors,” says one activist. And Blairites who might otherwise cavil at such leftish concessions could pay that price for the Lab-Lib “project”.

The only major objection? It won’t happen. But why not? Gordon Brown wanted Lib Dems in his government on day one and flummoxed all of Westminster by seeing the strategic logic in Peter Mandelson’s return. Many in both parties rue the missed opportunity of 1997. … Senior Labour and Lib Dem figures have remained committed to genuine centre-left dialogue even as party relations have deteriorated, though most believe the form any progressive realignment would take is now a post-election question.

I can’t see the Libdem grassroots taking too nicely to the idea to be honest, unless New Labour drop a lot more civil liberties projects and simplify the notoriously bad tax system.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Economy ,Lib-left future ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Is this coalition supposed to happen before the election? If so, why bother? Labour have a comfortable 66 majority, they don’t need propping up. And the Lib Dems would be out of their minds to go into coalition before the election – ‘vote Lib Dem, get Labour’ did for them in 1992,and it wasn’t even true then.

After the election? Assuming that the Tories don’t win an overall majority (which is a bit of a stretch just at present, but hey! opinion polls can change), it would be a disastrous move for the Lib Dems I’d have thought, to be seen propping up a Labour Party which had lost its majority in a General Election. Coalition Governments are inherently unstable, meaning that a new election would be pretty imminent as soon as it was apparent that no party had a majority (like 1974). A Lib Dem party that had gone into bat for Brown would face meltdown in the South West, where most of its MPs are – even if Labour do stand aside.

Ultimately, the only way to get the Libs into a coalition would be to offer PR. There simply isn’t time before June 2010 to go through the entire workings of a bill to reorganise the democratic system in this country – even if one swallows the fact that the legitimacy for such a massive step would be questionable to say the least. So the Libs would be risking their futures without any guarantee of reward. The Libs need to maintain some sort of USP, whatever it is. If they cleave to the Labour Party – effectively subsuming their identity – they lose that, and become mere a section of Labour.

So in other words, a formal pre-election coalition will give the Lib Dems one year of power, and then wipe them out. Which looks a little too Faustian a pact for me.

I’m inclined not to support this idea either. How would it work on a local level? Would local Labour Parties suddenly be expected to cheer on the Lib Dem councils whose cuts had hurt working class people? And whilst we can all pick policies that would improve a Labour government, who is to say that those would be the ones identified as the price for a coalition. I wouldn’t support, for example, the abolition of tax credits without making sure that no-one lost out (which, going about it by changing the tax system and raising universal benefits would be very, very expensive). And I don’t support PR either.

What happens after an election is for then. I hope there is no need to resort to coalition government, but if the price for keeping Tories out is giving the Lib Dems some power then I don’t know – maybe I would feel different after the election. It’s difficult to tell right now.

Working together on issues where we agree is fine – being tied into an agreement with a party which has no roots in working class movements is another.

Could a Labour / Libdem coalition happen?

Well it’s happened before (after a fashion) – but it wasn’t New Labour then. And it still depends on fluking a hung Parliament at the next election, with Labour as the largest single party and having enough LibDems to produce a workable majority…and that’s before the horse-trading on policies begins.

That’s more ‘if’s’ than a Kipling poem. Still, Sunder can dream I suppose…

I feel Sunder’s pain, but the problem with this idea is that it could only happen if Labour was not Labour.

I think he is right to say that a coalition would be a prospect if Labour abandoned its transformational government project (ID cards et al). But the transformational government project is the modern Labour Party. To abandon it would be the single biggest u-turn in the history of u-turns.

And much of the Labour backbenches – never mind pretty much the whole of the frontbench – wouldn’t stand for it. Just reading Tom Harris’s blog has made me realise quite how complacent Labour MPs can be about the civil liberties agenda.

Narrow Labour tribalism will always hold sway – just look at last night’s vote on Heathrow for an example (“I couldn’t possibly vote for the motion – David Cameron tabled it! Whinge, moan…”).

Is there really much point in talking about any of this until any of those factors change?

Remember – “Its the economy, stupid.” It would be worthwhile for the LibDems and for the country if Cable’s economic policy replaced Brown’s. Otherwise, forget it.

Well, the only situation where a Lib/Lab coalition would be democratically acceptable after the next election would be one where Labour emerges as the largest party in a hung parliament or has an extremely small majority.

I’m not sure that result’s very likely at the moment.

If it did happen my guess is that the Lib Dems would probably choose to stay outside and let Labour form a minority government.

Agree with James. The LibDems would be mad to consider a coalition with Labour under these circumstances. It would be electoral suicide. Just look where it’s got them in Scotland.

To even consider such an offer there would have to be:

1. A “Freedom Bill” which included total dismantling of all transformational government./mass surveillance programmes (not just “delaying ID cards for 5 years”) and repeal of all draconian laws (control orders, 28 days etc) attacking civil liberties
2. A full independent inquiry on Iraq and a public statement by the Labour leadership that they will not seek to obstruct any future prosecutions for war crimes

(extremely unlikely, I know)

Actually Sunder seems to conclude that it won’t happen, which makes you wonder why the Staggers published this bit of kite-flying.

Because it’s a wet dream for some elements of the New Statesman?


I cannot get out of my head a 1984-style image of Labour MPs, after an agreement with the LibDems, saying “We’ve always supported international law and habeas corpus and have always opposed ID cards”.

Well there is a theory the reason New Labour have held onto the ID cards is because they can offer to drop that to appease the LibDems rather than give them what they really want (electoral reform)…

Here’s the full piece. (Sunny might want to add it to the main post)

Let me go out on a limb and say Labour ought to offer this if the LibDems were to accept it – – so yes to electoral reform, Lords reform, (even PR to local government) and a path to a written constitution
– yes to an Iraq inquiry
– No ID cards; no heathrow runway.

If that were the deal, ought it to be taken.

i meant Labour could offer this if it were to be accepted, in my humble opinion

Have put in the link to the original article, which is now up on the NS website


Absolutely, the LDs would be mad to pass up such an offer. And such an offer would be in Labour’s long term interests too.

The question is, then, what is stopping it from being offered and how do we change it? Fundamentally, is it even possible to change?

The problem is, there are (at least) two Labour parties (just as there are at least two broad schools of thought in any party). Labour’s liberal wing I don’t have a particular problem with – I’m probably as far politically from many of them as I am from many in the LDs. But that tendency isn’t in the ascendency.

It’s an utterly ridiculous article. The LibDems shouldn’t go within a million miles of the Labour party, which has formed an incredibly nasty, authoritarian and incompetent government. These are the people who have attacked every civil liberty we ever had. They’ve made racism the norm – while the rest of the EU has torn down borders they’ve introduced more and more controls in their efforts to appease the BNP. And to associate Labour, which has twisted and turned to keep Britain out of the euro, with ruinous effect, as well as keeping us out of Schengen, with being pro-European, is absolutely outrageous.

The Lib Dems would face extermination in the South at the next election.

If they tried to ram through PR before the election it would be seen as an attempt to stop the Tories winning rather than a principled move. That would turn the floating voters away from Labour.

It’s basically a dream scenario for the Tories.

18. Shatterface

The Lib Dems should stear well clear of Labour: they’d have to sacrifice everything which makes them liberal.

Labour can just fuck off as far as I’m concerned. They’re as vicious as the Tories but lack their competance. If you want an authoritarian party at least elect one which is good at it.

Sunder @ 12 –

“yes to electoral reform, Lords reform, (even PR to local government) and a path to a written constitution
– yes to an Iraq inquiry
– No ID cards; no heathrow runway.”

Yes indeed, and I can hear the sound of a herd of Tamworths in forrmation ready to take off from RAF Northolt. Sadly, there’s about as much chance of Katie Price winning the Nobel Prize for Literature as there is of the authoritarian, “transformational government” tendency in NuLab – and it is they who have the numbers that matter in the PLP, not the McDonnells and the Corbyns and the Hoeys – agreeing to these terms. Getting into bed with that lot would be anathema to the LibDems.

IF, and it’s a big IF, there were to be a hung Parliament next time around, far better that the LibDems (and I guess this applies to the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Dr. Dick Taylor too) act as kingmakers by voting for or against the government, whether it be Labour or Conservative, *on the merits of each individual piece of legislation* than propping up some of the most loathsome, reactionary policies this side of the self-styled moral crusaders from the ear of High Thatcherism. Nobody believes that the likes of Jacqui Smith or Blunkett or (hack, spit) Purnell are going to turn round and admit they were wrong after losing their Parliamentary majority.


Thanks for your comment. That is very interesting. It would be interesting to get any sense of how many Libdems wd broadly think that, though I appreciate the public discussion won’t necessarily reflect that. It is much easier to be a rejectionist publicly.

So, what is stopping it being offered and accepted? My own view is that it would now be perhaps less difficult for Labour to make this offer than for the LibDems to accept it. I would go out on a limb to say that could now be the primary barrier.

Debates within parties shift all the time, and naturally much is in flux in current economic conditions, but there is perhaps much less time to think politically or strategically. I don’t think Brown was a million miles from this position in mid-2007 when it would have been much easier. He made the right speeches – on a new constitutional settlement, on liberty. Of course, there are cross-pressures, but my own reading is that there is a problem of government, in that moves that look and sound massive inside the system (eg constitutional renewal agenda) barely register outside, and that is a force for policy inertia.

Who would die in the last ditch in the Labour Party for the current electoral system, as against AV? As far as I am aware, nobody at the top table. Jack Straw is the main anti-PR voice, and made clear he would accept AV in Autumn 2007. So did Ed Balls. John Denham who is the main pro-Pr voice did too. No Prezza anymore. Everything was in place to do this during the Brown bounce. I think Labour should do most of this anyway. Certainly the opportunity to drop ID cards on cost grounds is obvious. Outside of this context, we couldn’t now u-turn on Heathrow but I think could if it was a deal-breaker. (there is a strong chance it will never happen, but we are taking a big political hit on it). And I can’t see us now prioritising electoral reform on our own.

I am sympathetic to the LD dilemma this would throw up. You could say that the Labour party had come back to doing the right thing after exhausting the alternatives. . (While you have a primarily defensive election next time, in my view, I think the withdrawal of Labour candidates in seats you defend from 2nd place Tories would, in the end, help not hurt, though others may disagree)

But LDs who would reject this don’t – I think – have a political strategy, beyond a presence in local government and some in parliament. Perhaps some think a Tory-LD coalition is possible, but I don’t see how. What would be the point of doubling seats (to 100 MPs) in two elections if not to take a deal as similar to this one as possible from one of the major parties, and to change the political system.

That’s the *era* of High Thatcherism, despite certain of the current crop of Labourites having the *ear* of Hilda 🙂

Supporting democracy requires plural politics with multiple parties and multiple perspectives.

Labour doesn’t care about this principle, they only care about the trappings of office – as this suggestion exposes.

If Sunder truly cares about the quality of life experienced by the wider population rather than his own and that of his intimate coterie of friends and acolytes then he is in the wrong party: we welcome and encourage any disaffected members to join the LibDems.

I suggest that a LibDem-Labour pact (with Clegg, Cable and Huhne at the head) is more likely than a Labour-LibDem pact (with Brown, Darling and Mandelson leading from the rear).

The idea is getting mainly mocked at Political Betting, though I am not sure Mike Smithson’s objection about the LibDem national vote second preference is necessarily a primary factor in my scenario, since that involves a coalition government going into a first-past-the-post election

I have responded to that here

An interesting response from Labour MP Nick Palmer – a PB regular – who writes

“For what it’s worth, I’d have few problems with the idea – the Lib-Lab coalition works well in Broxtowe most of the time”


As for how the LibDems would feel, I wonder if it’s an issue where some MPs and some activists might part company – if you’re a LD MPs in a marginal seat, the idea of Labour stepping down in your favour is quite attractive; if you’re an activist fighting Labour in Sheffield, less so.

I’d give 10-1 against it happening, but not 100-1″.

by Nick Palmer MP January 29th, 2009 at 9:44 pm

comment here

Well one things for sure, a Lib/Lab pact will be the only way to defeat the Tories if Labour starts sliding down the drain again, which it looks like it is…

Suspect the window of opportunity has passed, again. The Gordon of last autumn, during Brown Bounce II when he was busy saving the world from economic catastrophe, might conceivably have persuaded Nick Clegg and Co it was in their electoral interests to hitch themselves to Labour’s wagon. Not now though.

There will be no Lib Dem pact with either Labour or the COnservatives before the next election. Afterwards, if there should be a hung Parliament, I would be very surprised if the Lib Dem parliamentary party entered into any deal beyond confidence and supply for the largest party. Any closer coalition with either Labour or the Tories would tear the party asunder.

Looking further into the future, one can envisage a Lib/Lab pact – but Labour would have to change an awful lot of policy and personnel before that became a possibility.

I could only see it happening if Labour rescinded most of their recent illiberalism….however if they do that then there’s no reason to vote Lib Dem’s, so in the process of the LD’s asking for Labour to cut back they’d also be cutting out the type of thing that really makes them different from the Labour party and government.

They’d be stupid to do such a deal beyond, as Iain says, simply creating a majority on issues that they’re close on.

I think all this talk about Labour having to change is a bit off really. The LibDems would drop their trousers in a hot second if they were offered the form of PR they want…

And if they did they’d lose a lot of supporters, and so PR would mean little to them, unless they’re political martyrs at the same time?

What Tez Burke said, really. We’d have to have our heads checked to even consider this, especially after 97.


What I’m confused about is why much of this need be part of a “negotiation” at all? If Labour is minded to reverse its record on civil liberties, ID cards et al, then why does it not simply press ahead and do it? They don’t need Lib Dem permission.

Frankly, if Labour were in a position where it might even be an option, doing it this way would be better from a position of self-interest. The Tories are trying to present themselves as pro-civil liberties and oppose many of these measures on cost grounds. They would look ridiculous if they took up the mantle in favour of ID cards after Labour had dropped them: no danger of being outflanked on the right here.

But it would also hurt the Lib Dems, who would quickly leach support back to the Labour Party. Why vote for the “protest” party when you can vote for a party of government with a clean conscience?

I can only conclude from this that the “liberal” contingent within Labour is not as great as you appear to think it is.

Regarding electoral reform and AV, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I really don’t see it as being much of a goer. Last year I heard or overheard well connected Labour “sources” promising that AV was going to appear in the Queens Speech on an almost monthly basis. I’m always hearing how there are all these Labour MPs in favour of it but the same half-dozen names seem to appear again and again. No-one is organising a pro-AV caucus within the Labour Party. It would appear to be too great a reform to justify without fulfilling the longstanding promise to hold a referendum on any proposed change to the electoral system, yet too small a reform to get anyone enthusiastic about campaigning for it. The Sun, The Mail, the Tories and hordes of Labour rebels will make mincemeat out of it. And even if AV were adopted, the change would be marginal at best and benefit the Tories at worst. Forming a coalition on the basis of it sounds like an invitation to shoot oneself in the face.

Surely the only realistic compromise would be a fully independent review of the electoral system (borrowing from the British Columbia experience), the result of which would automatically go to a referendum? That way the decision gets taken out of the hands of the vested interests of politicians and into the hands of the people themselves.

I could live with that, win or lose. Surely it is better than a grubby shotgun wedding based around AV?

32. Alisdair Cameron

@ Sunder, (20).
“He made the right speeches – on a new constitutional settlement, on liberty” Agreed, Brown did speak in such a manner. He then acted very differently (no change there, then). Constitutional change is in the long grass for now (tho’ perhaps the Labour lords’ alleged corruption might spark some atoning measures…) while new labour’s moves on civil liberties (via the transformational govt agenda, and database society) have been horrendous and wholly unacceptable for anyone Liberal.
This erosion of civ libs has all of the LDs I know tearing their hair out on a daily basis, and is so over the top, and so brimming with authoritarian potential that one might be forgiven that it is purposely designed to massively antagonise and piss off anyone Liberal: it’s pretty much an ‘in-your-face’ direct insult.
Ally that to Brown’s appalling inability to perform U-turns adroitly, and his intransigence and inability to admit error over his pet projects, and it’s the database/surveillance/control-freakery of his cherished Transformational Govt programme that is the hugest block to any coalition, and I’d say it’s an immovable block.

What happened to my comment ? Why was it censored ?

I’m quite happy to drop my trousers to be a political martyr, but there’s no one single issue which would get me to do it.

PR alone is not enough for me. And I’d still say no if your threw in half a bottle of rum – I’ve got standards!

Too much info, Oranjepan 😀

Alisdair is right. I’ve just been over at NS being a bit stroppy with you, Sunder, which isn’t generally my reaction to anything you write, and the reasons are the ones @33. The actions of the Labour party prompt an almost visceral anger in me, and as a disincentive that would be very hard to overcome, whatever was on the table. (And as James says, if what was on the table was Labour becoming a liberal party, then why would they need us?)

Alix, primates don’t usually wear trousers, except when they’re imprisoned in zoos.

So why is my post deleted then ? Did it embarrass someone to have it pointed out that every time New Labour hit rock bottom there is an article about a Lib Lab Pact. This is something we call “The truth “

Labour will need thinking ‘outside the box’ if it is to have a chance of remaining in government after the next election, but as a Labourite I’m not convinced this would work. Whilst there are some ways in which I think Labour and the Lib Dems could work to each other’s benefit at a national policy level I just cannot imagine how this would effect the dynamics of local politics, as others have pointed out.

Thanks for your responses. I have blogged a short round-up of reactions to the piece (and offering some pedantic political history for the benefit of Mr Iain Dale)

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