Forging a Progressive Coalition

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

It's hardly the most inspiring mantra in politics. But in an election of deadlocked polls and scattered swings it’s one Labour may just have to swallow if Ed Miliband is to walk into Number 10 on May 8th.

In the new era of multi-party politics the manifestos produced by all the parties take on a fresh significance as coded love letters to would-be partners in government. Labour started the courting process with its launch on Monday. What, if any, of its flirtations will resonate with the other parties?

First up, the SNP. There’s been more ‘will they, won’t they’ back-and-forth between Sturgeon and Miliband than between Ross and Rachel from Friends but the stage is set for at least a loose confidence-and-supply arrangement between the two parties if they take a combined majority of the seats in the Commons.

Labour’s manifesto goes some way towards accommodating the Scottish Nationalists. On the declared “red line” of Trident, Labour has given itself some wriggle room by putting on paper that it “remains committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent” while steering clear of actually saying it will renew the current system.

The semantics matter. Sturgeon has repeatedly stated that her party will never vote to renew Trident, always using the name of the existing Deterrent. In doing so she’s almost inviting Labour to meet her halfway by suggesting a pared-down Deterrent as a short-term goal and eventual abolition as a long-term one. There’s no doubt a full and frank discussion on Britain’s future relationship with the bomb will be the pillow talk of an SNP-Labour coupling.

What about the Liberal Democrats? Labour has been muted in its attacks on the party who spurned its advances last time around, at least on the national level. This may be because Nick Clegg’s party is not the force it once was. As of April 12 the May 2015 forecast placed the Liberals on 26 seats, not enough on its own to get Ed over the line.      

Yet there were some coquettish phrases thrown in the manifesto to get the Liberals blushing. The commitment to cut the deficit every year in the next parliament- and eliminate the current budget deficit by 2020- chimes with the Liberals' noises around fiscal responsibility. Though on Monday Nick Clegg told Evan Davis that Labour’s timeline was “specious stuff” that “is totally opaque about when they will actually balance the books”, this was more bluster than substance. We already know from last month’s Budget that the Tory plan is to eliminate the deficit by 2019. Is Clegg really going to spurn Labour again over a 12-month time difference?

Also it is interesting to note that Clegg’s problem with Labour’s deficit reduction plan is the when, whereas with the Tories it is the what- namely the £12 billion of welfare cuts. The Liberals are open to tax rises as a means to help balance the books- as is Labour with the commitment to restore the 50p top rate. It looks like Clegg is running out on things to disagree with Ed about.

It helps further that Labour added in a pledge on House of Lords reform- a boon offered by the Conservatives in the 2010 Coalition Agreement but then reneged on, causing keenly-felt Liberal grief.

Labour has less need for Green MPs in the House to support a Miliband government- mainly because there will only be one of them- but does have a need for Green votes in certain key marginals. To secure these, Labour included strong statements on investing in low carbon technologies in the manifesto  and is resurrecting the “million green jobs” rhetoric of 2010. The legal target to remove carbon from Britain’s energy supply by 2030 will also strike a chord, although a continued commitment to nuclear energy could put off the wavering. Labour’s promise to slash tuition fees could also recapture those students flirting with the Greens, who have pledged to abolish them, by appealing to their sense of the achievable over the ideal.

The seedy game of footsie between the progressive parties will continue right up to, and beyond, May 7th. Yet Labour has been more forward towards its potential partners than many realise. A subtle, but aggressive, pitch to plurality could be all the difference when the votes are in.

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