Better together? To avoid a Labour-SNP coalition, ever more people seem willing to contemplate a Labour-Tory one. Is that mad?


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The Independent Online

Is a grand coalition of the Conservative and Labour parties as outlandish as it sounds? Perhaps not, as the article by Lord Baker carried by us today argues.

If the constitutional future of the United Kingdom becomes the central question of our time, and Labour’s rivalry with the SNP poisons any possible relationship between them, then it might make logical sense. The Lab-Con group could then use its authority in the Commons and the country to call a constitutional convention to consider a new settlement for all parts of the UK. The SNP might care to join, or else be sidelined by it as it actually delivered the “devo-max” demanded by the Scottish people.

There are other reasons why Labour and the Conservatives might join together. As with the Coalition formed in 2010, parliamentary arithmetic might dictate it. In a fractured Parliament it could be the only way to form a stable government. There are precedents, too, most recently in Germany, where the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats had to make the best of a “Grand Coalition”, as they did also for a time in the 1960s.

Apart from in time of war, Britain has the mixed experience of the National Governments of the 1930s; and, during the industrial and economic crises of the 1970s, there were also calls for a “Government of National Unity”. The Conservatives, indeed, campaigned for  one in 1974.

If we consider the current economic challenges, we have obviously passed through the stage of crisis and crash that fostered the formation of the Cameron-Clegg agreement; yet the pressures remain, and the greatest adjustment in public spending is yet to come. The attraction of a Con-Lab coalition this time round is that both parties could ignore their more extreme wings, and concentrate on repairing the public finances and rebuilding the economy. For the Conservative leadership it would have the added benefit of allowing it to slide away from its reckless flirtation with the possibility of leaving the European Union.

The downside for both is the danger of a split. The problem could be more Labour’s than the Conservatives. Labour is still haunted by the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald, who left his party to join with the Tories, to relieve a national financial crisis. The following general election left Labour with only 50 seats. Then as now, a Con-Lab coalition would leave parliamentary politics badly unbalanced, with a tiny, fractured opposition.

Of course both parties would be more inclined to form minority administrations, trim their programmes and rely on the other party to abstain on the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and other confidence issues – if only because it might be in neither’s interest to force an early election so soon after the last one.

When in due course they did go to the country, however, there is no guarantee that either would win a majority. Then they might settle through a more or less formal arrangement on a programme both could support.

So much for political science fiction. Yet it points up some striking paradoxes about our politics; the surprising areas where mainstream Labour and the Conservatives agree, such as Europe and much of economic policy; about how broken the first-past-the-post system has become; and how strange it is that intelligent, patriotic politicians resist working together.

Lord Baker has given us a fascinating diversion, at any rate.