Five Days in May: parties, coalitions and One Nation

I’ve just got round to reading Andrew Adonis’ account of the negotiations between Labour and Liberal Democrats following the inconclusive 2010 General Election result.  Written at the time, the account of the negotiations is far from dispassionate; it is a vivid read, although at times a curiously impersonal one.  The clear theme of Adonis’ account is that the Liberal Democrats were never seriously interested in dealing with Labour and leaned towards the Tories from the outset; Adonis explains how the party and in particular its leading figures, Nick Clegg and David Laws, were always politically, temperamentally and personally strongly inclined towards doing a deal with the Tories.  Time and time again, the sense emerges that the Liberal Democrats only engaged in discussions with Labour as a bargaining chip with the Tories.  He describes how Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Tories, not despite Osborne’s economic policy, but because of it; he notes his surprise at how younger Liberal Democrats in particular lived and breathed the economics and politics of the Orange Book; and how it was only the Tories’ toxic attitude towards Europe that prevented Clegg from becoming a classic centrist Tory.  But Adonis also described how, in 2010 the Labour Party was demoralised and exhausted after thirteen years in Government – Gordon Brown’s determination to fight on after the inconclusive election result was not matched by the rest of his party.

The most interesting part of the book lies in Adonis’ conclusions; his reflections on the nature of coalitions, on the way in which the Coalition deal has damaged the Liberal Democrats, and his rationale for One Nation Labour.

Adonis describes how, as a founder member of the SDP in 1981, the idea of coalition was an implicit in his political outlook.  The SDP of course drew much of its inspiration from the way in which European social democratic parties worked, and claimed to offer a new style of politics based on consensus rather than conflict, and founded in reform of Britain’s political institutions; electoral reform, and hence the need to get to grips with coalition Government, were an integral part of that.  Adonis – in what looks like a post-hoc rationalisation of his own decision to leave the Liberal Democrats and join Labour in 1995 – argues that small parties are simply not placed in the British political system to bring about real change; a point given greater significance by the Liberal Democrats’ inability to secure any of the constitutional changes that formed the core of their coalition negotiating strategy.  Small parties, he argues, are just as fissiparous as larger ones.  The Liberal Democrats as a party were an incoherent alliance of Orange Bookers, social reformers and radicals; as soon as this alliance was tested by real decision-making, the incoherence was revealed – a key reason why the Liberal Democrats have been so weak in coalition, and have both failed to achieve constitutional reform and failed to act as a moderating influence in Government.  Adonis concludes that in reality the best way to advance  progressive politics is to organise, lead and win from inside the main parties.

Second, Adonis argues powerfully that the Liberal Democrats are in government, but not in coalition; they simply failed to negotiate a deal that gives them real influence.  None of the key economic or social policy-making Departments are in their hands, and as Deputy Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office without a big Department of his own, Clegg is marginalised.  Given the failure to secure  AV or Lords Reform, Clegg’s responsibility for political reform amounts to no more than a title.  Influence lies elsewhere; Adonis notes that the only real area where there is joint working is at the Treasury, where the way in which George Osborne and Danny Alexander work together reveals the essential intellectual continuity between Orange Bookers and Tories.   Within coalition, all  of the Liberal Democrats’ red line negotiating issues on constitutional reform and Europe have been lost.

Finally, Adonis gives an account of the rationale behind One Nation Labour – the idea that the Tories have become a party largely unrepresented over vast swathes of the country, irrelevant in Scotland and Wales and in many urban areas.  At the same time, Labour’s traditional “core” support appears to have deserted it in its millions; a strategy is needed to bring them back, in both the interests of the Party and in the wider name of democratic renewal.

It’s difficult to argue with any of that – up to the point at which you start to discuss actual policy. Labour remains publicly committed to austerity economics, by committing itself to working within Osborne’s spending limits; and its language on the politics of social security remains troublingly similar to that of the Tory party.  On housing it is saying some important things, but there is a sense on other issues that it simply is not driving the agenda.  It’s tempting to argue that 1945 was the decisive moment at which Labour really was a One Nation party, and that it should look back to the values of decency and collectivism it embraced then if One Nation is to mean anything at all.

And this remains the problem for progressives outside Labour.  On the key issues of austerity, and the closely-related questions of democratic renewal, Labour appears unable to offer a clear alternative narrative, and there is little faith on the non-Labour left that there is scope for change.  Andrew Adonis’ logic that progressives must work within the mainstream parties where there is no prospect of electoral reform in the medium term is powerful; but it depends on the belief that progressives can effect real change. And that thesis, to put it at its mildest, is looking distinctly unproven.


3 thoughts on “Five Days in May: parties, coalitions and One Nation

  1. The argument that Labour is timid in countering austerity is a very popular one but I think it ignores the very important ways in which austerity plays well in a population that is broadly prosperous but whose prosperity is often marginal and especially at present, precarious. In particular people fear higher taxes but also perhaps, in having made their own economies (forgone the second holiday or car service) “understand” why the Government too might “need” to do so. The decline of “community” between the broadly prosperous majority and the very (and increasingly) poor underclass along frankly with an often pronounced racial divide between the two, has further eroded fellow feeling and sense of solidarity between the two. . Asking Labour to simply ignore this is a bit like asking it to repeat the Charge of the Light Brigade upon which a French General famously commented that it was “magnificent but not war”. I don’t doubt that there are alternatives to the Government’s policy but I understand why Miliband and Balls often seem to be walking on egg shells over this.

    It might interest you to know Neil that in the days between the 2010 election result and the formation of the coalition I often used to see Adonis walking out of Great Minster House (Department of Transport, where he was Secretary of State) to what I took to be the negotiations at Cabinet Office of maybe to Lib Dem HQ – presumably he was unable to use his Ministerial car for these purposes. For what it is worth he never looked to me like a man with much faith in his mission!

    Finally I trust you’ll take it i the good humoured spirit in which it is intended when I remark that the proof that “Small parties, are just as fissiparous as larger ones” is found in spades in your article on the recent Brighton by election – however I don’t want to intrude on private griefs – and the garden needs watering!

  2. One of the more entertaining aspects of Adonis’ book is his description of the lengths to which he and other negotiators went to avoid the media seeing them on their way to negotiating meetings. Great Minster House is barely mentioned, although official cars do appear to have been used – the Civil Service machine was in theory at politicians’ disposal to facilitate the forming of a Government. Of course the negotiators retained their Ministerial responsibilities right up to the moment Gordon Brown tendered his resignation to the Queen.

    Regarding your comment about fissiparous small parties – as someone once put it, you might say that: I couldn’t possibly comment …

  3. The post 2008 global financial implosion (still being played out and unresolvable, frankly) seems to me to dictate all behaviours and all policies and it has to stay that way. No political party can move out of austerity for fear of interest rate rises taking the UK debt position beyond reach. Once a few countries break from the pack all bets are off. All political posturings are mere antics before the awfulness of the global financial situation.

    There seems to be an international agreement (for now) to keep rates on the floor as we are ‘all in it together’. And reducing the national debt seems an imperative ahead of an eventual (inevitable?) interest rate rise and rise. We might as well divvy up the H of C and just choose who to elect from each party to put into a 3-way coalition come 2015. None of them has one inch of manoeuvring room.

    We need a system. Right now Coalition looks like the right one. I hope we get a 3-way coalition (plus Caroline Lucas) in 2015. Everyone is on the same page anyway (Caroline apart)….of necessity. And each party has some good people. That more than anything is what is required to keep the good ship UK afloat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s