With the 2015 general election six months away, and Labour and the Conservatives almost neck-in-neck in the opinion polls, the chances of there being another coalition government look increasingly likely. The comment made by Lord Prescott during the last Labour Party Conference that Ed Miliband may as well have told Labour supporters to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for coalition” (reflecting what Prescott sees as Miliband’s focus on appealing to core Labour voters and a handful of ex-Lib Dem voters as a means of achieving victory) could have an element of truth to it. As Labour continues to hold a few percentage points over the Conservatives, the formation of a new coalition with Labour at the helm and the Lib Dems remaining in power as a partner in government is a distinct possibility and would, I believe, be a positive outcome in the aftermath of the next general election.
There exists a degree of animosity between a number of Labourites and Liberal Democrats, as characterised by Harriet Harman accusing Lib Dems of breaking promises and Danny Alexander lambasting Labour’s handling of the economy while in office. It is sad that such a state of affairs exists, given that both Liberals and Labourites share a proud tradition of delivering enlightened social reform, and should in theory be united in a common purpose; that of bringing about greater social equality for the people of the British Isles. Despite the lack of such an alliance, many Liberal Democrats have expressed their support for a possible alliance with the Labour Party after May 2015, while Vince Cable acknowledged Ed Miliband as “a good social democrat” a few years ago, with the latter even speaking about the two exchanging text messages.
Although adhering to different philosophies, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are progressive parties that see the importance of using the levers of power to improve people’s lives, and can find common ground on a wide range of issues. Labour’s plan for a mansion tax could win support from Lib Dems (given that they proposed this measure back in 2009, and is still supported by the party today, albeit in a different form), together with its calls for expanded childcare and housing provision. Liberal Democrats have also spoken out against the Coalition’s benefit sanctions, seeing them as harmful to those needing help, a stance shared by various Labour Party members. Lib Dem ministers in a potential Labour-Liberal Democrat Alliance could ensure the maintenance of positive reforms that Lib Dem ministers have secured in government, while also pushing for the implementation of other progressive liberal policies as conditions for entering into an alliance with Labour.
Although the Liberal Democrats have had to deal with a number of harsh criticisms since entering government with the Conservative Party, one thing that it cannot be criticised of is a lack of timidity in policy-making, if one were to read the party’s pre-manifesto. Not only does this document outline the party’s hopes and dreams for the future, but it also provides an overall picture of what the Lib Dems wish to accomplish if they remain in government after May 2015. Apart from discount bus passes for those under the age of 21 to reduce the costs of travelling to college or work, the pre-manifesto calls for a “respite bonus” for carers, increasing the personal tax free allowance to at least £12,500, and strengthening the targets set by the 2008 Climate Change Act. Labour politicians should not have any problem at all in endorsing such forward-looking proposals, and it is probable that a governmental alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems after the next general election could give life to such proposals.
Since the establishment of the Labour Party in 1900, there have been numerous cases of Labourites co-operating with the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors the Liberal Party for social and political reasons. In 1903, an electoral pact was made between leading figures of both parties under which Liberals would support Labour candidates in the upcoming general election in exchange for Labour not contesting seats held by the Liberals, an arrangement that brought tangible results for Labour both in electoral terms (by enabling the party to win more seats than would have been the case) and in policy terms (by influencing government legislation). The latter was demonstrated by the victorious Liberal administration’s adoption of Labour proposals for trade union reform and free school lunches and by Labour’s support for David Lloyd George’s national insurance bill, who agreed to back this historic piece of legislation in exchange for the state payment of MPs, an act of co-operation that benefited both parties in enabling them to achieve their intended goals.
In the late Seventies, the roles were reversed when the Liberals secured an arrangement with the minority Labour administration of James Callaghan known as the “Lib-Lab Pact,” under which the Liberal party was given the opportunity to influence government actions in return for supporting Labour. Although only lasting from 1977 to 1978, it nevertheless helped to bring stability to the country’s economy at a turbulent time and led to the implementation of a raft of Liberal measures such as a tax incentive for firms that established profit-sharing schemes and a private member’s bill to combat homelessness.
Following the introduction of devolution in Scotland and Wales in 1999, coalition governments were formed between Labour and the Liberal Democrats which led to a range of liberal policies formulated by the Lib Dems in opposition becoming law. In Scotland, this included the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote for local council elections, while in Wales Liberal Democrats saw the attainment of policy proposals such as free school milk for infants and free dental checks for those under the age of 25 and over the age of 55. Such examples not only show the positive changes that Labourites and Liberals have achieved on a regional level, but they also give an idea of the positive things that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could achieve if they are able to work together effectively as a team on a national level.
Based on past experience and policy convergences between the two parties, the likelihood of a Labour-Lib Dem Alliance being forged after the May general election is a very strong one. Nick Clegg’s recent categorisation of Conservatives as “economic extremists” for proposing more welfare reductions without corresponding tax rises for the rich also shows how far removed the Lib Dem leader is from his Conservative colleagues, and how closer he is to Ed Miliband’s socially inclusive “One Nation” approach, increasing the likelihood of a coalition between their respective parties coming into fruition. Such an alliance has the potential of ushering in the dawn of a new era of pioneering reform in Britain, backed by a progressive majority in Parliament. If Labourites and Liberal Democrats can put aside their differences and work together as a team, then such a possibility may yet become a reality.
By Vittorio Trevitt