If you bought last month’s GQ, you may well have noted a feature piece entitled ‘The 100 Most Connected Men in Britain 2015’. At number 34 were two much-maligned gentlemen whom, the author of the article noted, both had “one connection that is the best chance of success for both of them: each other.” Yes, for all the ideological blows they have traded over the last five years, the political careers of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband could depend on each other come May.
Latest seat forecasts from May 2015, Lord Ashcroft and the Guardian all predict a hung Parliament with the Tories being the largest party and so despite Miliband’s impressive performance in the first election debate earlier this week, the chances of Labour winning an overall majority look increasingly slim. A YouGov megapoll today found that the top five character traits that voters associate with the Labour leader are “out of his depth, weak, weird, out of touch and indecisive”.
Clegg fares little better, with voters seeing him as “out of his depth, weak, out of touch, indecisive and dishonest,” yet the similarities in voters’ perceptions of the two men is telling and epitomises why the best option for both Clegg and Miliband in six weeks may well be to bite the bullet and embrace each other (I’ll just leave you with that uncomfortable mental picture for a couple of minutes.)
The question is how feasible a coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems would be and if it would have more prospect of success than the Labour-SNP alliance which Miliband finally ruled out earlier this month.
The success of the current coalition government has been debatable and there are signs that the public have tired of coalition government after half a decade of it, with just 29% of people indicating that they prefer coalition to single party government in a NatCenBritish Social Attitudes report earlier this week. Furthermore,, there would appear to be as many issues to resolve in any possible Lab-Lib coalition as there were between the Tories and Lib Dems five years ago, with the top 50p rate of tax and Labour’s pledge to cut tuition fees to £6,000 a year issues likely to be particularly contentious ones.
An additional complication to an already tangled theoretical and highly ideological web is that the Tories have by no stretch of the imagination ruled out another coalition with the Lib Dems, indeed, quite the reverse.
Senior Tory figures are thought to have made the first move towards the Lib Dems in floating the idea of another coalition between the two parties, while a new Dods poll reflects that 48% of Tory MPs would support another Tory-Lib Dem coalition, a figure that rises to 53% when prospective parliamentary candidates are included. The two parties would also now appear to have more ideological common ground than in 2010 and agree on raising the income tax threshold to £12,500, protecting the NHS budget and taking a tough stance on EU benefit tourism.
However, any deal to secure the continuation of the current coalition would be as potentially problematic as a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, with the Spectator’s scoop this week that Tories could only count on the support of Lib Dem ministers and not all Lib Dem MPs in any second coalition a major stumbling block to any new deal between the two parties.
The big problem for the Lib Dems in any coalition deal with Labour is that because of the ideological difference in policy, the Lib Dems would have to be the “bad guys” in government, a dramatic change from the role that senior Lib Dems have claimed that the party has played in coalition with the Tories. The party’s president Tim Farron, whose ambition to lead the Lib Dems is well known, recently claimed that going into coalition with the Tories would tarnish the party for a generation. It is difficult to see how the Lib Dem brand would be improved by a coalition with Labour where they would have to act as the loco parentis right wing voice to balance out the effect of what will surely be a dramatic increase in spending by Labour. From Labour’s point of view, going into coalition with the Lib Dems would be damaging in terms of both brand and support, with Unite union secretary Len McCluskey threatening to cut off funding if Labour hooked up with the Lib Dems.
Yet a joint report by the Fabian Society and CentreForum made the case for how a Lib-Lab coalition could work. Although the Tories and Lib Dems have more than common ground than they did at the start of the current Parliament, there is arguably more common ground between the Lib Dems and Labour. As the report points out, both parties agree on key issues including fiscal rules which permit the government to borrow for investment; extended free childcare for under-5s; building at least 200,000 new homes a year; a higher Minimum Wage; means-testing the Winter Fuel Payment and the mansion tax.
The question therefore, is who would pair up with whom. The considerably successful Treasury partnership of George Osborne and Danny Alexander has shown that ideological barriers can be overcome in coalition and common ground can be found, though a cynic would say the success of that particular relationship is merely an indication of how “Tory-fied” Lib Dem ministers have become in government.
Nick Clegg’s future as Lib Dem leader looks increasingly shaky and it would appear to be a necessary pre-condition of any Labour-Lib Dem coalition that he stands down after the election, even if he manages to keep his Sheffield Hallam seat, where Labour have overtaken his tiny majority and are actually leading.
Meanwhile, although the two have traded blows pretty regularly over the last five years, a partnership at BIS between Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna would not appear to be out of the question, although fireworks over spending would be likely from the off and would likely epitomise the Lib Dems’ new role as the “bad guys” in coalition.
Another potential coalition partnership could include Rachel Reeves and Steve Webb heading up the DWP. With pensions minister Webb instrumental in the coalition’s decision to triple-lock pensions and shadow work and pensions secretary Reeves keen to extend the pension scheme to 1.5m low earners, there would not be so much common ground as a fusion of ideas and as with Cable and Umunna, sparks would likely fly from the off, but potentially for long-term policy benefit.
A final potentially intriguing coalition combination could be Gloria de Piero and Jo Swinson. The women and equalities minister and her opposite number have both been true champions of gender equality in the workplace, have put pressure on the Tories over issues such as the gender pay gap and could be a formidable force in government together.
Ultimately, however, the common ground between Labour and the Lib Dems and potentially compatible coalition combinations matters very little if going into coalition together would be a brand disaster for both parties. This is 2015 and today in politics, what it looks like is more important than what it is. The Lib Dems could be left with just 9 MPs by the next Parliament according to one new seat forecast and depending on who is elected as their next leader, supposing Nick Clegg gracefully bows out, the party could go in a direction which negated their ideological compatibility with Labour. A Labour-Lib Dem coalition sounds like a fair idea in theory, but the constantly fluctuating nature of the Lib Dems’ post-election fate and the recurring point that a coalition would be brand suicide for both parties means that it looks increasingly unlikely.