Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Are Labour incapable of being in a coalition?

This post today on Labour Uncut is very critical of Lib Dem Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election candidate Elwyn Watkins and some comments he made on Newsnight about tuition fees. LU seem to find it hilarious that he could have a view on tuition fees (that they should be ideally abolished) and yet still would have voted in accordance with the coalition agreement had he been an MP.

How can you campaign one way but vote another? How would he have campaigned against himself? Picketing his own office? Shouting at himself? Sending himself furious letters? Distributing leaflets saying “Do not vote for Elwyn Watkins – only the Lib Dems can win here”?

And all the while having to do all this campaigning without trying too hard, in case he convinced himself, and ended up not voting the way he intended.

Now I know this is not a world that we are particularly used to but the reality is that the Lib Dems are in a coalition with another party. So it is perfectly reasonable for Elwyn Watkins to have his views on tuition fees but at the same time to make it clear that he would have supported the government and the coalition agreement. If all Tory and Lib Dem backbenchers went against the agreement all the time the government would collapse. All he is doing is making it clear that he is a supporter of the coalition and the Lib Dem policies (and there are lots of them) that this brings. That doesn't mean he abandons all his views and he is still free to campaign for what he believes, after all the more Lib Dem MPs there are, the bigger the influence. It does however mean that he is willing to compromise to get the politically possible Lib Dem policies to be enacted.

Labour Uncut seem to have real trouble understanding this and it is not just them. I have seen lots of comments, mainly from Labour acvitists which if taken to their logical conclusion effectively rule out Labour from ever being in a coalition. Because many of these comments clearly have a problem with the fundamental principle of compromise. Either you absolutely stick to every pre-election position even when you are in a coalition (and hence it would not last 5 minutes) or you have "betrayed your principles" and "sold out" and made yourself a laughing stock.

If this is the case, and this view seems to be widely held by Labour activists from what I can tell then how could Labour ever be in a coalition?


Foregone Conclusion said...

This also presumes that all of the Labour ministers in the last government - and in fact all the MPs - agreed with everything that Blair and Brown did. A cursory glance at the political diaries and memoirs reveals otherwise. Is this some sort of spineless hypocrisy? Not really. It's compromise, which you get inside political parties and governments all the time.

Lady Virginia Droit de Seigneur said...

If Labour and the Lib Dems had been in coalition (presuming that Brown was removed as Labour leader) they would be behaving much the same way - the compromises would have been different but they would have been there.

It is probably certain sorts of individuals that can not live in coalition - Gordon Brown would have been an awful coalition partner - he treated a lot of his own party like shit so God knows what he would be like with other parties.

Vince Cable similarly doesn't seem well suited for it but the rest of the Cabinet appear to work together reasonably well despite some obvious ideological differences.

Whether the Coalition are delivering what the Tory and Lib Dem supporters and members want is a different question. Many Tories are very disappointed with Cameron and obviously Clegg has his own difficulties particularly with tuition fees. If the coalition does collapse I suspect this pressure from members will be the cause aided and abetted by the Tory right and the Lib Dem left.

Jim said...

I've been wondering about this too. There's a whole swathe of people going around declaiming 'I didn't vote Lib Dem to get a Tory govt!!!'. Or Labour types laughing at the Lib Dems for 'betraying their principles' (which is a bit rich coming from the party lead by Tony Blair for years).

I thought that one of the main things that Lib Dems (and many on the Left) were agreed on was voting change. PR in some form. Which by definition is going to mean more coalitions (probably after most elections), and the fact that you are going to have to be in govt with people who you disagree with on some things, and have to compromise on some policies to get others implemented.

If you don't like compromise, don't demand PR. Simple as that.

Mark Thompson said...

Jim - It's even worse than that (for opponents of coalitions). It is looking increasingly likely that even FPTP is going to start regularly delivering hung parliaments. In which case everyone is going to have to get much more used to coalitions and compromise.

I agree with the good lady though that it would appear for some this is not something they are willing to do.

Joe Otten said...

When Labour express this kind of hostility to political compromose, they are admitting that it is they and not we that rejected the possibility of a centre-left rainbow coalition in May. And in doing so they betrayed their voters big time.

Lady Virginia Droit de Seigneur said...

Mark - I think the chances of futher FPTP coalitions depend largely on whether the Lib Dem's support can recover to the voting levels in the May election. If they remain at current levels we will be back to a two party state.

It is also feasible of course that no two of the three main parties has an outright majority without joining forces with the smaller parties from the Celtic countries or conceivably the Greens or UKIP. In that circumstances I think coalition government will start to get a very bad press as I am sure we all know what sort of concessions people like the SNP and Plaid Cymru will want to extract.

The dilemma faced by Clegg is one that was always going to materialise once the Lib Dems got into coalition. There (at least to me) is a history of Lib Dems presenting themselves as a centrist alternative to the Tories in SW England and London commuter belt but also as a centrist alternative to Labour in inner city seats like Brent and Bermondsey. The MP's seem to fall the same way to me - people like Clegg and Laws are like Tory wets but people like Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy are much closer to Labour.

If Clegg can't carve out a clear identity for the Lib Dems then left leaning voters may switch to Labour (since they don't want the Tories).

It's a difficult balancing act and requires a clear policy distinction from both Labour and Tories. I do think a trick was missed over Iraq which alone the Lib Dems opposed (of the major parties at least) but also Europe is going to be a bigger problem for the party particularly if the UK has to pay into more national bailouts. In that circumstance the traditional pro-EU stance is going to be seriously out of line with public sentiment.

Dilettante said...

I considered whether or not an additional Liberal Democrat MP would actually be more effective than losing for LD influence in the coalition when Norman Tebbit brought it up, and concluded it would be better for the LD left if they lost in Oldham. I made the argument here:

Also Mark, where can I get a Freedom2Trade linkbadge?