In which I consider if a LibDem-Labour realignment could foil the Tories, and if Labour would want to do that deal, if it meant making David Laws de-facto Deputy Prime Minister in the next Labour government.
Over the last couple of posts, I've been thinking about how Labour should handle what I think is the strongest possible Tory 2015 election strategy. This is based on two prongs. First, claiming credit for whatever level of economic recovery is in place by 2015, Second, arguing that Labour generally, and our leadership specifically, represent the worst of the past, and a risk to a fragile recovery.
As we've seen, there is an argument that this Tory strategy cannot, and will not, work. This position holds the Tories, by dint of internal division, electoral weakness or the divisive consequences of their policies, will find it hard to attract more support than they did in 2010. Given that the Tories are currently three points below their General Election performance, I argue it would be complacent to plan the next election campaign on the basis the Tories will be under an almost insuperable handicap.
If we take the Tory Government's electoral threat in 2015 seriously, how can we counter it?
The first option is to change the political situation completely. Instead of being an insurgent, unproven opposition in 2015, we could next go to the electorate with Ed Miliband as a sitting Prime Minister.
How could this happen? Two elements are needed.
First, the Liberal Democrats would have to become substantially dissatisfied with their current lot. Not just some Liberal Democrats, or even two thirds of Liberal Democrats, but almost all of the Parliamentary party. If more than a handful of Liberals felt that they would be better off sticking with the current coalition, they would hold an effective veto on any government reformation.
It's not Ming Campbell, Vince Cable or Charlie Kennedy, Labour need to convince to switch, it's David Laws, Sarah Teather and Danny Alexander. Remember, it would take only ten or fifteen "Liberal Democrat Nationals" to give the Conservatives a wafer thin majority1.
Labour's next Deputy Prime Minister?
Could this happen?
For the first time, it seems at least plausible. Senior LibDems feel let down by the Conservatives over Lords reform and the AV referendum. They feel they have delivered painful changes to their policy programme for the sake of national unity and this generosity has not been reciprocated. They see the Tory backbenches unafraid of their leadership and a Tory leadership unable to deliver a changed Tory party.
But the increasing unattractiveness of the Conservative party is only part of what is needed. The other essential element is a Labour party that LibDems would feel comfortable governing alongside. Read this Stephen Tall post and the comments thread on LibDemVoice and you will see almost no enthusiasm for a LibDem-Labour alliance expressed.
As a Labour hack I'm probably not the best person to explain why this is, but I would guess the reasons include dislike of our governing record, distrust of our economic position, resentment at our cultural behaviours, historical enmity and continued irritation at our assumption of progressive leadership. Oh, and several practical "how could it work?" objections too.
These last are important. A Labour-Liberal coalition would be inherently unstable, given the parliamentary maths. At most, it would be able to set out a governing agreement, pass a budget and perhaps announce a Queen's speech and an interim spending review. After that, there would rapidly need to be an election to gain a parliamentary majority for this common programme.
To make a deal worthwhile therefore, a Labour-LibDem agreement would have to be binding beyond the next election, no matter whether Labour won a governing majority. It would, in effect, entail an informal "LibDem policy coupon". In other words, we'd have to convince the LibDems we really meant it, and weren't just using them to get the Tories out and us in.
What might that coupon look like?
Economically, a position similar to Vince Cable's the 2010 election – a short term stimulus programme followed by sustained spending restraint, a switch of spend from services to infrastructure and investment.
On non-economic proposals, Labour would have to make some commitment to proportional representation. Probably the easiest for Labour to offer and most meaningful to LibDems would be STV elections to Councils, as has happened in Scotland.
It would be easier to agree a policy programme on some more clearly aligned policy objectives – green power, international aid, investment banks, Banking reform, but I suspect that without some economic and constitutional rapprochement, this alone would not be enough for many members of the LibDems.
So while it might be possible for Labour to develop an offer that was tempting to LibDems, given the behaviour of the Conservative party recently, we would need to show a lot more than a little ankle to tempt the LibDems from their current partners.
So the question for Labour is – do we really want to make common cause at that cost? Or do we want to try to win on our own in 2015? Is it even worth it?
1 Depending on how willing the Tories are to deal with the unionist MPs
2. Remember though, it is in the LibDem's interests to have the possibility of Labour hanging over the Coalition. They need the Tories to know they're not trapped to get the best deal out of them. So Labour could offer a great deal, only to find the LibDems use that to secure some wins from the Tories. This is another reason why any Labour offer to the LibDems would need to be a comprehensive governing programme, not haggled short term concessions that would actually only serve as a way for the LibDems to lever more out of the Tories.