There is an interesting interview with Lord Andrew Adonis in today’s Guardian, in which the former Labour cabinet minister explains his change in attitude to coalitions since 2010.
Adonis was a member of the Labour Party’s team which negotiated with the Lib Dems after the last election. Whilst there was clearly less difference on policy issues between the Lib Dems and Labour, than between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, the Labour and Lib Dem teams did not develop a spirit of mutual trust. The talks foundered.
By contrast the Lib Dems and the Conservatives (admittedly both much more hungry for office than Labour and with the electoral arithmetic in their favour) did develop a spirit of genuine negotiation and compromise, which resulted in the coalition agreement.
I was interviewed in the press immediately after the election and stuck my neck out to say that I thought that the coalition would last. Many commentators did not agree. It has been hard work and sometimes uncomfortable, but, past the half way point, the coalition is still intact.
My underlying belief that the Con-LibDem relationship could work came partly from my research on political defections and inter-party relationships over the whole of the last century. This has been published by Manchester University Press as Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910 to 2010 – a study of inter-party relations. Andrew Adonis, himself a defector from the Lib Dems to Labour, wrote the foreword. The key piece of evidence which I found was that defectors from the Liberals to the Conservatives and vice-versa nearly all remained happy in their new political party, whereas, of the defectors between the Liberals/Lib Dems and Labour, over half became dissatisfied with their move. The problem was generally not to do with policy, but much more to do with social compatibility, trust and tribalism.
All parties are tribal, but Labour arguably most so. In times of crisis (such as 1931 or 1982) Labour’s tribal instinct has probably saved the party, but in normal times, tribalism can be a barrier to inter-party relations. It may have to be a barrier to be overcome after the next election, but if anything Andrew Adonis’s interview (and Andrew is a consensual and moderate politician) suggests that the barriers to a future LibDem-Labour coalition may be getting higher, rather than lower.