At several points in the last few months it has seemed ‘obvious’ to armchair politicians like me that, post election:

  • Labour would indulge in lunatic blood-letting;
  • lose the mantle of CentreLeft-ness to the Lib Dems;
  • do something daft like elect Ismizing Cruddas or not-awfully-popular Balls as leader

and that, from a Lib Dem perspective it would all be jolly good fun, and a tremendous opportunity to squat in their territory.  A school of influential thinkers started to reckon that the LibDems could have prospered left of the Labour party.*

A couple of prominent writers are still of the view that this election is another step towards the eradication of Labour.  Guido thinks that Tory-LibDem arrangements are

“an historic opportunity to realign politics along a liberal-conservative axis.  It is the chance to destroy the Labour Party as a party of government forever.”

Matthew Parris’ writes an interesting article today (read it while it’s free), and there is no doubt some sense when he writes “Mr Clegg should make no mistake: bound to Labour he would find that when Labour goes, it would take him and his party with it.”  But I would replace WHEN with IF.  The statement that Labour is ‘dying’ just doesn’t fit with what has happened in the last 48 hours.  They look rather difficult to kill. Consider these facts:

  • their strength in the recent council elections
  • the fact that (read UK Polling Report) Labour increased their share of the vote in 80 seats, and just 29 seats had a swing from Labour to LibDem
  • that David Milliband is heavy favourite to be next leader (see Betfair; he’s at 50% right now, and the only others better than 10% are Johnson and Harman).

Parris is assuming – or hoping – that Labour will kill itself. Maybe.  But there is no sign that the others can easily do it.

Just because being linked to Labour in government might be like swimming upcurrent with a half dead shark strapped to your back, does not mean that Labour is doomed if it is in opposition. Donald on LibCon argues that a LibCon alliance could be good for Labour, and joins people like Polly Toynbee in suggesting that a Labour failure is not such a terrible thing for them.**

I would like to add these opinions:

  • Conservatives probably seem more united to their opponents than they are. Nick Robinson writes

The Tories are surprised by Labour’s electoral resilience and do not fancy getting to grips with the deficit whilst constantly looking over their shoulders at the electorate. Oh, and one other thing. Lib Dem votes in Parliament may prove more reliable for David Cameron than restless Tory backbenchers.

  • and this theme repeated in no less a place than Tory Diary. The backbenchers  want the sort of consultation that is hardcoded into the LibDem constitution. This means it is by no means obvious that a collapse of some deal will necessarily come from the Lib Dems kicking up.  It might originate in some furious right-of-centre Conservative revolt.   Remember, LibDems cooperate like grown ups all over the country with Conservatives
  • Perhaps it is not as easy as some think to just ‘put electoral reform on the table’. Read Alex Barker of the FT about this. The slips ‘twixt cup and lip are massive, particularly if the parties proposing it are in substantial minority.
  • I personally think the blogosophere overstates the importance of tribal issues (‘if you work with Tories I’ll never vote for you again’) and understates the value of looking professional and serious.  That is what I think helped propel Cleggmania – the first mass-exposure of the fact that the LD leader is just as intelligent, articulate and electable as the others, and not a sandalwearing wisecracking liberal caricature.  Watching Laws address the cameras this afternoon, it struck me how this might be the first time ever that this hugely intelligent man has observed so closely.  The next four years might bring plenty of that.
  • Both the biggest parties appear to have been faced with an existential risk at this election.  The Tories were just a couple of percentage points from facing a combined Labour-LD seat share of >335 seats, and the prospect of electoral reform, a permanent minority perhaps, a split even.  Labour appeared to be heading for a serious disaster – 24% of the vote before their leader started abusing the core voters.   If the Tories had had a large majority, they might have been able to gerrymander Labour into relative oblivion.
  • These risks must have changed the frame within which they each judge acceptable outcomes. I can’t begin to work out how this makes them strategise, but it seems to have propelled electoral reform into the middle of Labour’s agenda for ever

The Lib Dems poor showing suggests that they too may be justifiably worried about serious setbacks.  A parliamentary period in which things go badly, and then a quick election while they are still depleted, is not a pleasant matter to contemplate.  Their cause of electoral reform might get permanently dented.

This leads to a weird conclusion.  If Labour remain sensible, they might enjoy opposition while the others cut. (conventional wisdom).  If they do, the other two both have serious existential reasons to fear another swift election.  As a result, some sort of LibCon cooperation might have what we economists call equilibriating forces from all sides driving it together.  Perhaps we are about to have stable government?



*At the launch of the Kampfner pamphlet ‘Lost Labours’, ostensibly about this,  Clegg disabuses this view that ‘we are really on the same side’ (watch video from 3 minutes in); as if the policies of John Reid were an abberration rather than intrinsic feature of arrogant statist thinking. ‘These are not just blemishes’

** I personally expect#goodelectiontolose to become a trending topic on Twitter amongst Labour types – if only they can lose their  crazed power-at-all-costs approach


7 thoughts on “Oh, how existential risks focus the mind

  1. I think the ‘lunatic blood-letting’ could easily still happen, although I wouldn’t use quite those terms.

    Labour if they do hold it together will of course benefit from being the only opposition party.

  2. Giles,

    Do you not think that in some ways a crazed power-at-all-costs attitude is actually more admirable than a ‘good election to lose’ attitude? I’ve got much more time for people saying it’s a shit job so better I do it and the fact that Labour are in general far more resilient in the face of everything that’s been thrown at them than I thought has given me more respect for them.

    Which is why I agree with you that actually Lib Dems have more to lose by stepping away from power and trying to remain unsullied. Being in power will lose them lots of supporters. That’s what happens when you’re in power. But the alternative is being a party simply of the protest vote and I don’t want the party that best represents sensible Liberalism to be happy tootling along heckling from the sidelines with UKIP. And anyway we’d probably not be as good at it as more radical parties.

    1. “I’ve got much more time for people saying it’s a shit job so better I do it and the fact that Labour are in general far more resilient in the face of everything that’s been thrown at them than I thought has given me more respect for them.”

      A fair point. Is it in fact honourable to hold on? “This may screw up my party and hand the Tories a huge majority in 2012, but it’s worth it for the country because I know how to do things better than they do”. Discuss.

      Yet more considerations to throw into the mix.

  3. Labour isn’t dying because in terms of activism it’s linked to the cooperative and trade union movements – and most Labour voters believe the Tories will assiduously serve the super-rich.

    You had a post a few weeks ago about David Harvey – now, I’m not aware of his political views, but he makes a good point – to revive, the economy requires the prospect of a healthy rate of return on capital so that there is investor confidence and growth.

    Given that the financialisation gimmick has gone tits-up, the options are limited – so argues Harvey. The transition to low-carbon industries might be of some help – but far better would be the elimination of less profitable firms and further erosion of wages.

  4. Let’s say David Cameron does have his Clause 4 moment and offers a PR referendum for at least a Confidence & Supply arrangement with the Lib Dems (Thank God for a politician wanting to climb the greasy pole to the very top!). Presumably this would mean at best abstaining on a Conservative Budget and thus agreeing to their early cuts timetable. What should be done if offered that? And why was this chapter in The General Theory??

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