Tribune leader, 21 February 1992

Labour can win an outright majority at the election. Despite what the pundits say, Labour is not doing badly in the opinion polls; with a good campaign it is certainly capable of achieving the four-point lead it needs to gain an absolute majority in the House of Com­mons. Like party members everywhere, that is what Tribune wants and that is what we will work to achieve.
This does not mean, however, that Labour will neces­sarily win the outright majority it wants. It is possible that the election will have some other result: a hung Parliament of some description or a reduced Tory ma­jority. And it is not an act of disloyalty to speculate about Labour’s actions in such circumstances.
Indeed, in the bars and cafes of Westminster and among Labour’s electoral reformers, talk turns repeat­edly these days to the question of what Labour could or should do If it finds itself the largest single party but short of an overall majority, with the Liberal Democrats (or perhaps, at a pinch, some combination of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party) holding the balance of power. Labour’s traditional position is simple: Labour should form a mi­nority government on its own and challenge the Lib Dems (perhaps plus others) to bring it down, perhaps of­fering a few succulent policy scraps (freedom of infor­mation legislation, Scottish devolution, maybe a Speak­er’s Conference on electoral reform) as an incentive for toleration.
Until recently, most Labour Party members would have accepted this approach without question: antipa­thy to anything smacking of coalition runs deep in the Labour Party. Now, however, there are signs of heresy abroad. No one senior in the party is saying anything of the sort in public, but a surprising number of Labour people are mumbling, off the record, that, given that so little separates the two parties, it might not be a bad idea to give the Liberal Democrats a cabinet seat and a constitutional reform package – including a clear com­mitment to the Additional Member System for the Com­mons and a democratic second chamber – in return for five years in power.
Are these would-be coalitionists right? They are cer­tainly open to the criticism that their scenario is im­probable because the Lib Dems are unlikely to hold the balance of power on their own. More importantly, there are arguments of principle and party advantage. Labour advocates of retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system are implacably opposed to any deal on electoral reform with Paddy Ashdown for obvious rea­sons.
There are also those who argue that the Liberal Democrats, particularly after their party conference last year, are an explicitly pro-free-market anti-trade union party, radically at odds with Labour’s own pro­gramme even after the changes of the past four years, and are thus unsuitable coalition partners. And then there are many who object on principle to the building of coalitions behind closed doors. Add the argument that there would be a very real danger of Labour split­ting over the prospect of coalition, and the case against is strong.
But it is not so formidable as to rule out coalition in all circumstances or on all terms. A centre-left coali­tion is preferable to a centre-right one, if that is the choice. The Labour leadership should not tie its hands during the coming campaign by saying that it would never consider forming a government with anyone else.
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