Crippling blow – Dave Toke explains why Miliband should firmly rule out a coalition with the Tories
As the election date nears and it looks like the Conservatives may not (after the election) be able to win a confidence vote in the House of Commons we can see the first shots in a campaign to win the election by other means – by inveigling Labour to join in a ‘government of national unity’. Everybody on the left and centre-left of British politics should resist this in the strongest possible terms. First because a ‘grand coalition’ would thwart a Parliamentary majority in favour of a range of measures that would come with a Labour administration, and second because it would deliver a crippling blow to the left from which it would not recover for a generation.
On the one hand Labour is pledged to carry out a perhaps unspectacular, but nevertheless healthy, list of centre-left measures: getting rid of the bedroom tax, curbing persecution of people receiving benefits, reforming zero hour contracts, increasing the marginal rate of tax for rich people, cutting back public spending a bit less than the Tories, giving incentives for onshore windfarms and solar farms………..
Not much of this will be left with a coalition led by a Conservative Prime Minister. And no doubt, to boot, we would end up with a referendum on the EU with the Labour Leader watching helplessly as the Conservatives negotiate with the EU to allow greater discrimination against immigrants from the EU.
The Labour Party would be terribly divided (much more so than the Tories). The SNP would announce that there was no difference between Labour and Conservatives, satirising Jim Murphy’s ‘vote SNP get Tory’ call by saying ‘vote Labour get Tory’. Far from defending the union as some top Tories are suggesting, it would deal it a further blow as nationalists would point to such a national coalition government as proof perfect that the only way to have a different sort of government was to support the SNP, and independence for Scotland. In England UKIP would be given a powerful fillip. The Green Party might gain a few votes, but only at the expense of creating a generational shift to the right in British politics. The Tories would benefit most.
All the major historical precedents suggests that for the Labour Party, joining a national coalition would be a disaster. We all know (or should know) about how Ramsay Macdonald nearly destroyed the Labour Party in 1931 and that in the ensuing election Conservatives trounced the now truncated Labour Party in the polls. Then there is the more recent example, in Germany, of how the SPD were in a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU from 2005 to 2009, and at the 2009 General election the SPD lost a third of their vote, a result from which they have still not recovered.
The SPD have repeated the exercise in 2013, of course, apparently in the absence of better alternatives and after some hard bargaining. But before we follow Gisela Stuart in thinking that the SPD (so far bad) experience with grand coalition politics is something to consider we should remember that in the UK there is a healthy tradition of minority governments.
Labour formed minority governments in 1923 (then being only the second largest party), in 1929, and also in February 1974. The latter proved to be a good foretaste of a small majority a few months later for Harold Wilson’s Government.
Of course the Conservatives will do all that they can to deflect the public mind from the very workable possibility of a Labour minority government. In the aftermath of a campaign where David Cameron is left unable to form a majority government we will see a massive campaign in the Tory press for a grand coalition. All sorts of ‘wise’ elder statesmen will pop up to support this self-serving Tory proposition. They already are – John Major, Ken Baker, and of course, notably, Ian Birrell, the speechwriter for David Cameron.
We need now to start up a campaign against a grand coalition, and put pressure on Ed Miliband to rule it out. Otherwise we face a fundamental threat to progressive politics in the UK.
Dr Dave Toke is a lecturer at University of Aberdeen