Having read David Laws and Peter Mandelson on the topic, I decided to purchase Andrew Adonis’s book on the coalition negotiations ‘Five Days in May’. While this does not have the immediacy of the other books, it has the advantage of looking back from afar and assessing the author’s views of progress and what coalitions could mean if, as some might expect, they are to be a common feature of UK politics.
Formerly a Lib Dem, Adonis defected to Labour in 1995 and became a leading member of the New Labour project, serving as Head of the Policy Unit and then, after getting a peerage, as a government minister. He was a key part of Labour’s negotiation team with the Liberal Democrats in the aftermath of the 2010 general election.
The first section of the book was written in 2010 and consists of Adonis’s account of the days from polling day through to the formation of the Con-Lib Dem coalition. While differing in some aspects from other accounts, it is a rattling good read. One gets a good sense of the chaos and confusion of those hectic days.
Gordon Brown comes across as someone both desperate to stay in power but also an honourable and sympathetic figure. The account of his final evening in 10 Downing Street, as his final hopes of a deal with Nick Clegg were slipping away, is quite moving.
Throughout the account, Adonis’s view is that a Lab-Lib Dem coalition was possible. In my view, as I blogged on Tuesday 11 May 2010, this was not the case. I wrote ‘The election was clearly a rejection of Labour’s record and policies and to put together a Lab-Lib Dem government would be ridiculous, especially with Gordon Brown STILL running things’.
Three years later we forget how poor the image of Gordon Brown was, but his character was one of the main issues on the doorstep. Also he has always struck me as a ‘my way or the highway’ type of guy and might not have compromised as much as David Cameron has.
Above all there was the numbers issue. Labour plus the Liberal Democrats would have made 315 seats, short of the 326 seats needed for a majority; or rather 322 if one takes into account the absence of Sinn Fein and the non-voting speakers. The Labour negotiating team stated that the DUP hated the Tories and would never vote with them, a fact which the Lib Dems were not so sure of. The Lib Dems have been subsequently proved right – the DUP have voted with the Conservatives on a number of key issues.
Equally the nationalists could not be relied upon. We saw in 1979, the SNP’s willingness to commit suicide when bringing down the Callaghan government and putting Mrs Thatcher in power, a huge blunder which damaged Scotland and set the nationalist cause back by twenty years, but of which a repeat could not be ruled out. And we Lib Dems are not exactly best buddies with Plaid Cymru.
While there is passing reference to Clegg’s concern of how the media would attack a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, especially if it resulted in a second unelected Labour Prime Minister, there is no mention of the expression which the media termed – ‘The Coalition of Losers’. This struck me as a damning and memorable phrase. A cartoon in the Daily Telegraph had three boys on an Olympic podium, those in 2nd and 3rd place placed higher in a state of jubilation while the winner stood lower, under the banner ‘Lib-Lab Sports Day’.
And of course there were many in the Labour party who, after 13 years of government and now exhausted, yearned for the comfort of opposition. David Blunkett, John Reid and Caroline Flint were amongst those pointing out that Labour had lost and should make a dignified exit. (Ironically there were no voices from Conservative backbenches opposed to the coalition – obviously biding their time to make the most mischief as subsequent events have proven).
In my view, these were the main reasons that a Lab-Lib Dem coalition would not have worked.
In the second section of the book, Adonis then moves to the present day. He discusses how the coalition is doing three years on and the lessons of coalitions overall. This section is well written and very interesting.
Adonis repeats his view that he thought a Lab-Lib Dem coalition would have worked and that the crucial decision was that of the Liberal Democrats, primarily Nick Clegg and David Laws to ‘veer right’. There may be some mileage in the latter view with the ‘Orange Bookers’ in control. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are two men of the same age with similar backgrounds so it is natural they would get on. And that as the Lib Dems moved right, and the Tories subsequently moved left, the two should meet somewhere.
In my view, two crucial points were (i) when during the campaign Clegg announced the Lib Dems would open discussions with whoever had the biggest mandate (which obviously was going to be the Conservatives) and (ii) even earlier, when the Conservatives had prepared a paper for discussion with common policies for agreement in the event of a hung parliament. Even though the polls had indicated an indecisive result was possible, Labour had done absolutely no preparatory work - did they really think they would win a majority in 2010? This fact gave the Conservatives a head start in the post-election manoeuvrings.
After considering the events of the past three years, Adonis’s four lessons are:
- Coalitions can work in Britain and can be as stable as single party governments (agreed)
- Coalition may be a serious option in a future hung parliament if all parties are prepared(agreed – one would hope all parties would be better organised in 2015 and that greater patience is exercised)
- Coalition is not a superior form of government to singe party majority government (obviously we would all like our own parties to govern alone – but it is the voters who should make that sort of decision)
- ‘Nick Clegg went into government but not into coalition which is why Lib Dem influence is so weak’
On the last point, Adonis sticks to the Labour party line – that in coalition the Liberal Democrats are doing no more than prop up the Tories and have no influence whatsoever. Conservatives, of course, argue the opposite – that the Lib Dems have too much influence. Obviously both views are nonsense – the real picture probably being somewhere in between.
That is not to say the Liberal Democrats have not made many mistakes, and this is mostly due to the novelty of coalitions in this country. Indeed many in this country still struggle with the concept. A coalition has to compromise. The Conservatives wanted to repeal the Human Rights Act and their supporters fail to understand why they have not done so. And Lib Dems have been criticised for the cut in the top rate of income tax – which of course a Lib Dem government would not have done.
I would add one more lesson. That the coalition parties should learn to govern for mutual benefit - not to use the coalition as an excuse to kick each other. If we were now looking forward to an election under new boundaries as well as elections to the House of Lords, both parties would be happy. Instead, rebel Tories (with Labour’s help) blocked Lords reforms so, in retaliation, the Lib Dems blocked boundary changes – not an adult way for a government to behave.
With this in mind, the coalition party leaderships must exert total discipline on their own backbenches – an issue at which the Conservatives have failed completely with regular rebellions.
As for future coalitions, Adonis argues four points:
- The leader of the second party needs to head a major department in his/her own right
- There needs to be genuinely joint control of economic policy and the Treasury
- The second party needs to hold at least one Cabinet post in each of the three main sectors of government (foreign/defence – public services and welfare – environment/energy)
- There needs to be machinery for ongoing policy development and negotiation
These are excellent arguments. Adonis makes the point, not unreasonably, that ‘hardly any Lib Dem ministers count’. I would argue that Danny Alexander, as Financial Secretary, counts very much – but most of the key department posts – home office, health, education, local government, foreign affairs – are firmly in Conservative hands.
In Europe, coalitions often result in smaller parties controlling certain departments in their entirety, instead of a spread of ministers as we have seen here. If, for example, Nick Clegg had become Home Secretary, and the departments of health, defence and climate change were controlled by Lib Dems, the government may have behaved very differently indeed. (This goes back to the discipline point earlier – as without doubt Conservative backbenches would have blocked any legislation or actions by Lib Dem departments).
The machinery point is, in my view, very important. We are now at the stage where the government seems to be drifting with all minds on the next election two years away. A ‘Coalition Agreement 2’ with fresh ideas and re-emphasis on key policies would have given the government fresh impetus.
The final point I would make is to point out that to win a majority in 2015, the Conservatives will have to gain over 20 seats – only once has a governing party done this in the last 50 years (1983) – and Labour will have to gain over 50 seats – which the party has only achieved in the landslides of 1945 and 1997. This, plus the fact that the rise of UKIP and other parties may make it impossible for any party to poll 40% ever again, make, in my view, a hung parliament the most likely result. Thus the thoughts of Adonis are worth considering as a contribution to the debate.
Overall, ‘Five Days In May: The Coalition and Beyond’ is recommended reading, both as an account from the Labour side of the immediate post-election events, and as a contributor towards discussion about the format of future coalitions in this country. I hope everyone takes the prospect of a hung parliament in 2015 and beyond very seriously, as coalitions and minority governments may well become the norm in this country.