A stab in the back….
Nick Clegg, apparently, is open to the possibility of forming a coalition with Labour after the next election. He should be so lucky, not even our leadership is daft enough to form a coalition in which toxic Nick plays any kind of role. One of the most interesting and depressing, from a Labour-supporting point of view at least, lines of thought this whole episode opens up is what exactly are the Labour leadership thinking?
Of course, there will be an element of mischief-making involved; talking-up the possible and a dalliance with the yellow peril can only sour the increasingly strained romantic relations between the two governmental bed fellows. For Clegg, as well, he probably imagines such talk may strengthen his hand when it comes to influencing the increasingly restive Conservatives; ‘look, I have got other options’ says the notoriously flirtatious Mr Clegg. I doubt this will impress a Conservative Party that is already looking to junk its partner at the earliest possible juncture. Meanwhile, such a strategic gambit is not without its negative implications for the Labour leadership.
Although on the surface it appears to be a win-win, it is likely to alienate a significant proportion of its own activists. Certainly, those who are standing against Liberal Democrats in the upcoming election are likely to be decidedly nonplussed. However, hostility to the idea of a Coalition with the Lib Dems is however more generalised and comes from all quarters, from those recently returned to the fold, from a skeptical left that can hardly have failed to notice the contrast between the cold counsel given to the TUC and the unions compared to the warm-words for Vince Cable and, finally, from the Party-patriotic and tribalist right. LabourList‘s recent poll, finding 57% opposed to the idea of a Coalition, is likely in my mind to be indicative of how the majority of the Party feels. So, why rock the boat?
Well, for me, the answer is simple. It isn’t about short-term strategic gain (though that is obviously a plus), but more about the long-term ambition of the higher echelons of the Party to reforge the old Liberal Party, finally marginalise or even vomit-out the unions and rid the Labour Party of any last remaining flecks of red in its flag. I don’t think Ed Miliband substantively diverges from that agenda. Let’s place our cards on the table. Labour’s grand-economic plan is not to end austerity. In fact, every public proclamation of Mr Balls and Mr Miliband has told us that they intend exactly the opposite, to continue with austerity and come the election there will probably be a committment to stick to the Coalition governments spending targets. Our economic narrative is different in emphasis but not in substantive content. ‘Pre-distribution’ is obviously intended to provide ‘progressive’ gloss t0 a continuation of the slash-and-burn hack job we have seen done on Britain’s economy. From this angle, a Coalition with the Lib Dems becomes even more appealing, it would marginalise Parliamentary dissenters on Labour’s benches and give the leadership a convenient human shield to deploy when it comes to justifying itself to the membership.
All-in-all then an alliance with a ‘reborn’ and ‘rebranded’ Liberal Democrat Party looks like a win-win for the leadership. Sadly, I am convinced that if they were asked, hand-on-heart, what they would prefer I suspect many within Labour’s leading circles would prefer this outcome to Labour winning an outright majority. They will bank on the Party faithful’s desire to be back in office to railroad a deal through. However, this would be the ultimate stab-in-the-back to both the Labour membership and its supporters at the polls. Many will say this is a question that can only be answered in the future and in some senses that is right, however, the fault-lines are appearing in the here-and-now over this issue and they could well define and shape the future trajectory and course of the Party in a major way.