Lessons from last time (1)

Lessons from last time (1)

“Labour should have fought with every sinew in 2010 to retain power. To give up power voluntarily because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult is a betrayal of the people you serve. In politics, exhaustion and attrition need to be overcome, not indulged.” – Andrew Adonis

“We have been through a campaign: now we have a coalition. Until today, we have been rivals: now we are colleagues. That says a lot about the scale of the new politics which is now beginning to unfold. This is a new government and a new kind of government.” – David Cameron

Britain has a proud history of strong, stable, majority governments. As politics tutors up and down the country teach their students, our electoral system is designed to produce a clear winner. More often than not, the party that wins the most seats takes the prize. Many of our European neighbours accept coalition government and the often protracted negotiations that lead to their formation as a matter of course, but we tend to resort to coalition only at times of national emergency.

So the 2010 general election presented something new. It was a new experience for our politicians, for the monarchy and for the civil service. Covering the process was a new challenge for the media. And understanding what was going on was new to all of us as onlookers.

David Laws and Andrew Adonis – two of the lead actors in this drama – reflect in their books on how a climate of intense uncertainty gripped the nation. The unelected prime minister, Gordon Brown, clung on to office, desperate to negotiate a deal with the Lib Dems to keep his party in power. All the while, his main challenger, David Cameron, whose Conservative Party had somehow failed to win a majority, sought to gain power by whatever means through negotiations with the same party. Despite his party performing well below the levels expected in the run-up to the election, this thrust the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, squarely into the position of kingmaker over a frenzied five days of negotiations.

At the heart of this process were Mr Laws and Lord Adonis. Although neither was a household name, each was known within his party for thoughtful policy work. Architects of their own party’s manifestos and among the most trusted acolytes of their respective leaders, both played crucial roles in the negotiations and have gone on to write highly informative books reflecting on this curious state of affairs and the foundations of the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition.

There is an element of catharsis about the Laws account. Written only months after the election, it is a reflection on the ‘22 days in May’ that saw his own political career move so swiftly from triumph to disaster. He leads with a heavy amount of context, focusing from the outset on the run-up to the election, on how the Lib Dems had prepared for the possibility of coalition negotiations, and on his role in this. His is a considered analysis of the different personalities involved in the negotiations and the policies they debated over from all three sides – Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem.

In contrast, although also written shortly after the events, Adonis waited for three years to publish his account. His ‘5 Days in May’ is more fast-paced, energetic and immediate in its reflections than Laws. What’s more, he is able to provide a fascinating and unique insight into the characters at large in Gordon Brown’s Downing Street during his final days in power and the machinations of the defeated prime minister himself. A consistently engaging feature of the book is Adonis’s willingness to pass comment on characters he was surely aware he would have to work with again in future. His openness and sincerity lends credence to his conclusions on why negotiations turned out as they did. Less engaging are the concluding chapters in the updated copy of his book, which read first as an attack on the Lib Dems’ ‘shift to the right’, second as a report card on the coalition government after three years, and third as a clear message to Ed Miliband, setting out a blueprint for Labour to follow to win the election outright in 2015.

Interestingly, given their public comments at the time, one of the fundamental disagreements between Laws and Adonis lies in their assessment of the parliamentary arithmetic in May 2010 – the building blocks for a coalition.

A running theme of Laws’s book is his lingering doubt that the seats were there to produce the progressive alliance of the Left that so many of his party’s supporters would instinctively have favoured, which Nick Clegg was evidently open to, and which Adonis and the Labour side clearly felt was possible. Laws’s reflections on his conversations during the early days of the negotiations with his predecessor as the MP for Yeovil and Lib Dem grandee, Paddy Ashdown, are particularly instructive. Unsurprisingly, given his political leanings, Ashdown pushed heavily at the time for negotiations with Labour and the smaller parties on the Left. But Laws was clearly of the view that a coalition of this kind would prove too challenging to deliver and would not succeed.

Adonis’s reflections on what he calls ‘Lab-Libbery’ come to a rather different conclusion. He, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson quickly came to the view after the election that a rainbow alliance of virtually all the parties besides the Tories could produce a working government. He claims that Nick Clegg agreed that this was possible. But Clegg’s pre-election commitment to negotiate first with the party with the largest number of seats and votes had opened the door to a possible Tory-Lib coalition. David Cameron’s ‘big, open, comprehensive’ offer to the Lib Dems followed and negotiations became all about personality and which party – Labour or the Conservatives – was prepared to do more to find common ground with the Lib Dems.

As both accounts convey well in different ways, this was the Conservatives. Laws is particularly scathing in his criticisms of the Labour negotiating team. His obvious respect for Adonis and Mandelson and for their intentions to look seriously at negotiating a Lab-Lib coalition does not go far enough to mask his contempt for the other members of the team in this context. At no stage during his account is the reader left with the impression that Harriet Harman or either of the Eds, Messrs Balls and Miliband, were prepared to cede the ground necessary to form a coalition government. Financial matters – absolutely key to discussions given the country’s parlous economic situation – were almost entirely off limits. Neither Balls nor Miliband were prepared to negotiate in the absence of Alistair Darling – a serious problem. All the while, the Conservatives and Lib Dems were engaging directly and effectively on policy issues and making genuine progress. The Conservatives had put together a strong and serious team that included heavyweights George Osborne and William Hague, and Laws goes so far as to state that “the sense of urgency and seriousness that was present during our talks with the Conservatives was never quite present during our discussions with the Labour team.”

Adonis does not shirk from accepting this in his updated account. He devotes a few pages of analysis to “Labour fatalism” and reports that in May 2010 “the party was exhausted, demoralised, almost leaderless, with many ministers and MPs anxious to escape into opposition and stay there for a good while recuperating.” Implicit in this is his view that Labour had been unprepared for the serious task of negotiating a new government. Without the prior groundwork and consideration of the likely issues and discussion points, negotiations were never likely to succeed. Negotiating a coalition government requires patience, a positive approach and the mutual understanding that both sides are prepared to make concessions, if necessary. Coming off the back of thirteen years in power, the incumbent Labour Government had significant baggage that the Conservatives did not.

And the major element of that baggage was Gordon Brown himself. Ultimately, Adonis concludes that had Brown resigned the Labour leadership the Friday morning after the election he would have given the Lab-Lib Dem negotiations more of a chance. His would have been the major power play and the defining moment, rather than Cameron’s ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to the Lib Dems that came later that day. As it was, Brown’s insistence in the first few days of negotiations on staying on and playing a role in the formation of a new government before stepping down as Labour leader later in the year pushed Clegg further towards the Conservatives. Laws charts Clegg’s frustrations with Brown’s erratic behaviour, including increasingly desperate phone calls during negotiations, and makes frequent reference to the ‘Gordon Brown problem’. The Lib Dems were acutely aware that Labour had been rejected by the electorate and with the Conservatives offering them more in any case – including, most importantly, on electoral reform – Laws presents the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition that emerged as the only logical choice. What was clear to him and the other Lib Dem negotiators towards the end of those five days in May was anything but clear to those on the outside.

With May 2015 fast approaching, Britain has come to understand a bit more about coalitions – how they come about and how they work in practice. If anything, with UKIP’s rise, the unpopularity of the Lib Dems, the predicted gains for the SNP in Westminster and the implications of all this for our two traditional parties of government, our politics is perhaps on the verge of being more pluralistic than ever before. What seemed so unusual back in 2010 could soon become the norm and different teams could well be required to negotiate a new government come the 8th May. Both Laws and Adonis shed invaluable light in their accounts on how the process worked last time and the main issues different parties have to grapple with. They will again become required reading in the months leading up to next May.