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Coalition Time

I really should't offer up big ideas about the politics of a foreign country that I don't know all that much about, but just scanning over the math of the British election results it's very hard to escape the conclusion that Labor would do well for itself to form some kind of formal alliance with the Liberal Democrats. The two parties policies don't really seem to be particularly different, especially once you take into account the fact that there's a certain vagueness as to what Lib Dem policies really are and a great deal of internal dispute within Labor. If a single party can accommodate the views of all the different Labor MPs, the it doesn't seem it would take much change at all to accommodate the views of all the Lib Dem MPs as well.

The upside would be enormous. The combined left-of-center vote would produce enormous majorities for the foreseeable future and basically condemn the Tories to oblivion. But in the absence of cooperation, the math seems to make it quite likely that the Conservatives could secure a parliamentary majority on the basis of a voting pattern that represented a pretty unambiguous rejection of conservative politics.

May 6, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on May 6, 2005 11:36:14 AM


The same thing should happen in Canada. Conservatives have so many of their seats thanks to pluralities of 35% because they ran against a Liberal and the other party (name escapes me).

I think Labour and Liberal Democrats should support the stronger candidate of either party and let the chips fall where they may.

Posted by: david | May 6, 2005 2:41:37 AM

"I think Labour and Liberal Democrats should support the stronger candidate of either party and let the chips fall where they may." that's what they do.

the status quo is great for labour. the split opposition works great for them.

Posted by: c. | May 6, 2005 2:46:57 AM

You could make the same argument that the GOP here should incorporate a ton of Democrats who care a lot about family values in the same way they do, or who feel we must be ready, after 9/11, to engage in pre-emptive military action, just as they do.

Oh wait, that's already happening.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 3:06:00 AM

The Lib Dems would never climb in to bed with Blair because of Iraq - the Lib Dems being the only mainstream British political party to oppose the war. Also Labour screwed them royally in '97 when a Lib/Lab pact seemed to be very close.

Posted by: Fred | May 6, 2005 3:10:32 AM

JohnFH: is life is so pathetic that you even have to trash-talk Democrats on a thread completely unrelated to them?

Posted by: Walt Pohl | May 6, 2005 4:03:33 AM

Matthew -

You should pay much, much more attention to whatever portion of your cognitive abilites that led you to write the first part of the first sentence of your post.

It's the only thing that even came *close* to making sense.

What you propose/contemplate is about as likely to happen as Nancy Pelosi admitting that she voted for Bush 43 because me made such good sense. Or the New York Times coming out against filibusters. Or Al Gore admitting that he tried to stack the Florida recounts. Or Jesse Jackson admitting that he's having a harder and harder time with corporate shakedowns. Or the DLC admitting that they can't even agree on what size and color paper to use, let along any realistic policy.

Makes you look even more clueless than usual.


Posted by: John F. Opie | May 6, 2005 4:09:39 AM

John, do back up your rhetoric as to why you think Matt's clueless. Otherwise you look clueless

Posted by: Cedar | May 6, 2005 5:02:34 AM

1) Labour doesn't need a coalition to govern. Party discipline in Parliament is much, much stronger than in the US. As long as you have 51% of the vote, you can do pretty much anything. What would be the upside, to Labour, of bringing the LibDems into their coalition?

Terrible, flawed analogy: If the US 2000 vote (presidential and congressional) had gone 60/30/10 for Gore/Bush/Nader, what incentive would the Dems have for forming a coalition with the Greens?

2) The fact that the two parties are so close ideologically yet still maintain separate identities and existences would indicates that there's more to party construction and identification than simply having compatible beliefs. If the difference between the two parties was so slight that "hey, let's form a coalition and totally rule" was trivially easy, then there wouldn't be two separate center-left parties in the first place.

Posted by: FMguru | May 6, 2005 5:36:20 AM

The LibDems would lose hugely from such a coalition, too, because across the north of England and parts of Scotland they market themselves as the opposition to Labour, and across the south, they market themselves as a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives. Labour would lose euro-sceptic votes to the Conservatives, as the LibDems are pro-EU whereas the Labour Party is much more ambiguous. And, as Disraeli famously said, "England does not love coalitions".

In Scotland, the LibDems are in a coalition administration with Labour and have found it, at best, a mixed blessing. And there was a short-lived coalition between the Liberals and the Labour Party in the late-1970's, in many people's opinion the worst British government in history (it was 20 years before the left took power again).

Posted by: PJ | May 6, 2005 6:24:20 AM

I forgot to say that they LibDems vehemently oppose the more stupid Labour ideas on restricting civil liberties in the War on Terror - that would be impossible to square with the Labour Party's extremely authoritarian stance.

A LibLab pact, as it would be called, isn't going to happen.

Posted by: PJ | May 6, 2005 6:32:19 AM

a little OT - Take a look at the results map of the UK. Squint your eyes and you have to conclude that Blue Britain is much larger than Red Britain. Of course the ridings where Labour won are usually much smaller than the rural/suburban constituencies where the Tories dominate. Same here in the US of course. And just as misleading.

BTW LibDems may agree with the policies of Labour but they lack the DNA needed to actually win elections and rule. If you supported Anderson, Hart, Babbitt and Tsongas you have the same genetic deficiency.

BTW2 - They used to say you can tell a Social Democrat (pre-LD) by how he orders wine. He always picks the 2nd least expensive bottle on the wine list. Boy, do they have my number.

Posted by: Wren | May 6, 2005 8:06:12 AM

Cedar -

I think that some of the other posts have made it clear that the differences between Libs and Labour is simply more than minor quibbles: above all, the opposition to Iraq is what has made the Libs what they are today.

Entering into a coalition as a junior party would mean that the Libs would be basically saying "What we were so adamant in opposing yesterday means nothing today."

Ain't gonna happen: as FMGuru correctly points out, Labour doesn't need the Libs to govern; as PJ correctly points out, the Libs would be repudiating the policies that has gathered them their constituencies in the North and in the South (albeit for different reasons).

And Matt acknowledges that he knows nothing of British politics: yet by simply looking at the numbers from the election and concluding that Labour and Libs would look good in a Grand Coalition shows that he does in fact know when he is out of his depth...


Posted by: John F. Opie | May 6, 2005 8:27:07 AM

Hey, I think merging the parties would be a great idea. One left of centre party, one right of centre. As we had for most of the latter half of 20th century...you know, the one where the Tories were in power for the most time?
51-63, 70-74, 79-97 ?
Good system that, but then I am a Tory.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | May 6, 2005 9:09:36 AM

Another problem: The Liberal Democrats strongly support proportional representation because they see it as the only way to become a successful national alternative. They've had decades of winning 15%-25% of the vote and this election is the first time they're cracking 10% of MPs. Proportional representation would cripple Labour so they're not going to do it unless they have to. Better to lose under an old system that favors you and wait until you can win again than to destroy the system.

Posted by: Brittain33 | May 6, 2005 9:30:35 AM

Betting here is that 05 is a high-water mark for the LibDems, as they profited most from anger at Blair over Iraq.

Looking at the internals, opposition to the war in Iraq brought the LibDems most of their 4 percent overall gain. Who's Old Europe now?

Posted by: Doug | May 6, 2005 9:33:43 AM

I think your error is in viewing Blair's Labour party
as "left of center" - on civil liberties (against),
foreign policy (follow Bush anywhere), and economic
policy (fiscally conservative) they're pretty clearly
right-of-center by British standards - it's pretty
much Thatcherism without the late-Thatcher craziness
(poll tax and rail privatization). And that's
exactly the problem for the Conservatives - the
only distinctive right-wing positions they can take
are either batshit crazy or evil.

To some extent the split between Labour and LibDems
is historical and cultural rather than ideological:
remember the SDP were originally right-wingers in
the Labour party, who split off because it was too
left-wing. And the SDP were also famously a party
of upper-middle-class intellectual wine-drinkers,
culturally far removed from Labour's working-class
union-movement roots.

However, the sticking point for LibDems
in any deal is a real commitment to reform of the
voting system. Currently with about 22% of the
vote the LibDems end up with a useless 10% of the
MPs. The problem with this is that whenever one
of the major parties has an absolute majority,
they have no interest in changing the system.
Certainly right now all Labour has to do is dump
Blair and let Brown take over - he's very competent
and so far much more trustworthy - and they can
count on a return to a landslide majority in
(roughly) 2009.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | May 6, 2005 9:38:08 AM

Yes, the PR issue is a big one - the Liberal Democrats won't join any coalition unless they can get that, and Labour won't give up first past the post.

Unlike others, I don't think the Iraq War is that big a deal, and I don't think it's "what's made the Liberal Democrats who they are today." The Liberal Democrats got 18% or so last time (before Iraq), and 23% or so this time - that's a nice swing, but not a party-maker.

I think the big issue is that the Liberal Democrats don't compete in the same places Labour does. In particular, I would guess that a united Labour/Liberal Democrat party would lose the Liberal Democrats a lot of the support they get in those big shire seats where they're the main competition to the Tories. Those people aren't going to vote for "Socialists."

Also, I think the Liberal Democrats are pretty committed to their separate existence as a party, and to the idea of making Britain a three party system. This, more than actual ideology, given Blair's swing to the right, is their raison d'etre, and I don't see that they'd be willing to give that up and merge into the Tories.

Posted by: John | May 6, 2005 9:43:17 AM

I with PJ. The LibDems get nothing out of a coalition. The exception would be if Labour offered them a coalition that gave them something substantial, like proportional representation.

Labour won't do that. They could lose ground to the LibDems. Neither side gets anything out of the deal. In fact, Labour is helped by the LibDems, since it allows them to run more righty. The LibDems have the same problems Democrats here do: they can't break left because there's no headroom to do so anymore (such as the way Labour was leftier than the Libs in the early 20th Century) and they won't move right, even if moving right would distance them from both Labour and the Tories. (If you use a 2 dimensional political grid, you could be as leftish as Labour in some sense and still be unalterably opposed to them.)

The Liberals destroyed themselves in WWI and the 20's and it ain't been the same since.

Kinda like Democrats.

If the Tories and the LibDems had won enough votes, they could have formed a coalition. Now there would be something interesting.

If the LibDems can just move 5 more points their direction....

['But you wouldn't like that.']

Posted by: ash | May 6, 2005 9:55:17 AM

What PJ said. (The Lib-Lab pact, though, was not a coalition.)

The thing that would keep the Tories out of government for the foreseeable future is electoral reform. At some point, it's going to happen: it's already in place for local, regional and European elections. Does Blair have the guts (or the spite, some might say) to propose it as a parting shot?

Posted by: ahem | May 6, 2005 9:55:32 AM

It seems to me that Matthew is not thinking this one through. What does Labour get out of such an alliance? Labour can govern all by itself now; it would simply be voluntarily giving up power. The Tories are not in danger of gaining a majority in parliament, so the only problem for Labour would be if it could not form a majority all by itself. If that occurred, it could, temporarily, form an alliance with the LibDems to get a majority.

But it simply isn't needed now.

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 10:02:05 AM

OK its time to end the moment of UK Zen. Blair has taken his bloody nose. Time to move onto real news. The story of today and every day forward this memo.


Knight Ridder has fired the opening salvo this morning, showing the depths of willful deception perpetrated by the administration to justify a war decision made by Bush himself, as he has previously admitted.

This memo is now the lens by which every action and proposal from this administration and its supporters should be colored, from this point forward.

This memo should be mentioned on every liberal blog and on every publication, as a rosetta stone to the internals of the GOP machine's operations. This memo serves as the strong basis for impeachment if not out right treason. Intentionally leading the nation to war based on a plan to both make up evidence and to consistently and continually lie to support that made up evidence, is a high crime, by any definition. If Nixon had been caught doing this he would have gone to the gallows, rather than departing on a plane.

This memo is a window into the willful pre-meditated deception of a nation. This is treason in the first degree. It's not enough to bitch and moan about a lack of coverage. The ugly truth of this matter is that the president must now be held accountable. How can we trust any policy proposal from this administration? How can we trust any word that comes from this man's mouth? How can we trust any appointee put forth by this administration?

To start, the public perception of the deliberations behind the John Bolton nomination must take on a whole new light given the memo. This memo is not just a credibility problem for the administration problem, its a criminal liability.

Posted by: patience | May 6, 2005 10:18:43 AM

It would strengthen the tories enormously. To be the only major opposition partry, the only alternative.

Posted by: David Weman | May 6, 2005 10:21:02 AM

If the most the LibDems can do is come up with a 4% swing based on an appeal to anti-war sentiment (though I think people are also just tired of Tony and company after so many years of having to listen to them), the Labs have nothing to fear. Why make any concessions to the Libs?

Circle the wagons and get on with it. As indeed Blair and Brown, his designated successor, did.

Posted by: JohnFH | May 6, 2005 10:22:23 AM

I just wanted post on this thread to say something I never thought I'd say: "I agree with Al."


If Labor's hold on government ever become more tenuous and worried about being shunted into "permanent minority" status in the near future, then I could see their switching to proportional representation. But a strong hold on government by Labor or a tenuous hold on government by the Conservatives gives neither party an incentive to change the electoral system.

Posted by: Constantine | May 6, 2005 10:31:27 AM

If the Tories and the LibDems had won enough votes, they could have formed a coalition. Now there would be something interesting.

That would be interesting. How would such a coalition even function?

Posted by: John | May 6, 2005 10:32:25 AM

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