Sunday, 4 January 2015

The future of coalition

MSM chatter- another National Government?
A hung parliament has long since been seen as the most likely outcome in the most uncertain British general election in years. Questions are already being asked about possible coalitions with the ConUKIP option being seen as the nightmare scenario by many. On the other side people are wondering how Labour might deal with the various parties offering the prospect of an anti-Tory alliance. In this context, what are we to make of notion floated in the media, that the 2015 general election might result in a National Government, ie. a ConLab coalition?

The earliest reference I have to the idea is an FT thinkpiece from December 30th 2014. Arguing that a coalition with the Libdems won't secure any government, Johnathan Ford continues by asserting that "the price of doing business with the surging fringe parties, such as the Scottish National party and Ukip, will be too high for either Labour or the Conservatives to stomach", hence only a National Government will suffice.

Following up in the Guardian's Comment is free a few days later, Ian Birrell- former speech-writer for David Cameron in the run-up to the 2010 general election, took up the theme. Birrell refers back to Ramsay MacDonald's infamous 1931 experiment in National Government to highlight the similarities in today's situation- it's the global crash and the resulting austerity measures, naturally enough, and then attempts to explain why only another National Government might do.

Stable government at all costs?
I think the yearning for 'stable government' shared by Ford and Birrell- both clear establishment voices, demonstrates certain underlying prejudices about the nature and role of general elections in this so-called 'post ideological' age. After all, if the convergence of the Labour and Tory parties means that politics is no longer about the clash of ideologies, then votes are just a statistical convenience giving results to be stitched up at will. This conceit, not student fees, was Clegg's original fatal error: he betrayed the ideology of most of his Libdem voters by allying with the Tories in the first place. A product of the Thatcher period, this anti-Tory ideology remains a primary political factor to this day.

Ford and Birrell's anxiety about unstable coalitions and minority government strikes me therefore as entirely apt. Quite apart from the horse trading and huckstering as minority parties jostle for parliamentary position- unseemly as that will inevitably be to a public already jaded with Westminster politics, there is the simple fact that today's unprecedented political volatility is unlikely to be soothed by a period of snap general elections in the space of a few years. In a situation in which popular discontent with the political process is generating the demand for new, more representative political voices, each and every general election offers a chance for new voices to break through. UKIP might be the flavour of the month in that respect but, if Russell Brand's appearance on Question Time last December was anything to go by, there is at least as much demand for a principled radical opposition as there is for UKIP's brand of right-wing populism.

Labour matters?
And so back to the thorny matter of the Labour party. However shabby it might look today it's worth remembering that this is the party with which the British working class fought to win the prize that is the social democratic welfare state. That's hard won loyalty to lose, especially in an epoch of defeat when Stalinism effectively reduced the left to utopian dreamers, which is why voters cling to Labour even if New Labour hollowed it out so that it is now little more than a stick to beat upon the Tories: it's still better than absolutely nothing at all. Post 2010 polling for the Libdems and post September 2013 polling in Scotland shows the toxicity of allying with the Tories (who are, remember, the natural born enemies of the social democratic welfare state), so for Labour even to consider entering a ConLab National Government would be like turkeys voting for Xmas. To join one for the sake an austerity coalition would be to cross a line in the sand- New Labour shedding the old once and for all.

Either way, Labour's commitment to austerity means that the whole matter might be academic. I mean to say: austerity, Tory or Labour- what an invidious choice. Can Labour survive delivering an austerity programme whoever its allies are? Could the 2015 general election herald the end of Labour as it has been known, imagined and fought for since its foundation? The only chance of avoiding the question is for Labour to lose again.