Andrew Adonis’s excellent ‘Five Days in May’ has left me with five questions. I asked the first yesterday, and here are the second and third:
Q2: Where were the PLP?
One of the noticeable missing elements in Labour’s approach to coalition was the bulk of the Parliamentary party. Given the incredibly tight parliamentary maths for any putative Lab-LibDem deal, Labour had to be united behind doing a deal.
As soon as PLP opinion on the merits of such a coalition began to splinter, whether from the bottom (discontented backbenchers) or the top (discontented grandees and ministers), the chances of Lib-Labbery being workable, already the subject of debate, would look infinitesimal. Indeed, that’s what began to happen over the Monday/Tuesday.
So Labour really needed to get the PLP together as soon as possible to secure mass agreement behind a common negotiating strategy. This would have been relatively easy to arrange; it could even have been done by Saturday evening, telling all Labour MPs to get to London for a big meeting.
Once the meeting was started, it would have been a relatively easy ride. PLP meetings are almost designed to allow the party leadership to unite the team together. Brown, as acting PM, would simple have had to spell out the possibility of staying in Government under him or, more likely under a new leader, set out the concessions what would be needed and the chance to protect people from the ravages of a Tory government.
I reckon if Brown had asked for endorsement to try to form such a government, the PLP would have roared acclamation, giving such a process a legitimacy among the wider party it ultimately lacked. Frankly if Labour couldn’t have delivered unity at that point, it never could, so even if the meeting went wrong, it would at least have prevented false hope.
Instead, Brown seemed keen to delay a PLP meeting as long as possible (one was finally held after Labour left government). Adonis reports that Labour people were dismissive of the LibDems rolling series of parliamentary and party meetings, but in this, it seems pretty clear to me that the LibDem processes were both robust and designed to create a lasting commitment across the wider party.
Indeed, the LibDems have shown an impressive parliamentary discipline on the key issues of Coalition for three years now. Labour can learn from this (and the Conservatives comparative unhappiness too – Tory MPs were never asked to formally bind themselves to coalition). Any future Coalition discussion needs to get the early endorsement of the PLP to the general approach and their full endorsement of the overall deal.
Q3: What effort was made to prove the Parliamentary Maths were really workable?
Adonis makes a convincing case that a Labour-Lib Dem government with 315 total votes in the Commons would have been able to govern in theory. But not much seems to have been done to prove it could work in practice.
There were three SDLP MPs and two Alliance/Ind Unionist MP who could be reasonably expected to regularly support the Government, making 320 MPs, more than either a Tory – SNP/PC or Tory-DUP vote, but less than a Tory-SNP-PC-DUP-Green group. (SFn don’t vote)
As Labour couldn’t rely on the SNP or PC not to bring the government down at a time of their choosing (Brown regarded the political cost to the SNP of permitting a Tory government as too great, but I think he underestimates the political opportunity an unpopular LD-Lab govt would give the SNP), this meant Labour really needed to prove that all the NI parties bar SF (all to prevent accusations of sectarianism) would be willing to support a Lab-LD government on a confidence and supply basis.
If this was agreed formally, a Lab-LD government would have had 328 votes even without any ‘rainbow’ parties. Can a coalition with such a small majority govern? Of course, look at Australia. But it needs to be clear. You can’t wing it. While Labour people were clearly talking to the NI parties, it’s not clear what evidence we had that the NI parties would grant such a deal in reality, not just in theory.
Without that practical evidence, the theory alone was likely to prove unconvincing. Labour really needed a firm, preferably written offer, publicly or privately from the NI parties to convince any other partner that a Labour led government was workable. This doesn’t seem to have been requested, let alone received.
Like my second question, this seems to point to an essential unfamiliarity in Labour with what it takes to build a stable minority or coalition government.