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.