Mark Kleiman is one of a number of smart American leftists who have asked me why the Liberal-Democratic Party and Labour Party don’t either merge or run in coalition, producing a majority left-wing government in the UK. A Lib-Lab coalition in the expected 2015 election is certainly possible and some experienced politicians want to lay the groundwork starting immediately. But now that I have worked extensively with the UK government and politicians in all three major parties, the “two left wing parties” of the UK look fairly different to me. I therefore don’t see a coalition as particularly likely, whereas even three years ago, I would have shared Mark’s perspective. As the London rain has driven me temporarily indoors, let me try to describe to my friend and other American leftists who share his puzzlement what I believe are the barriers to a Lib-Lab coalition.
Let’s me start with the Labour party. A party is certainly not reducible to who funds it, but neither can funders be ignored. The current Labour party is bankrolled almost entirely by trade unions. UK unions contribute a far higher portion of Labour funds than than U.S. unions do Democratic party funds, and they do so in a country with a much stronger union tradition. Labour has other supporters, for example middle to upper-middle class non-union college graduates with leftist sympathies tend to vote Labour. But there aren’t enough people who read the Guardian and own comfortable sandals to constitute a national political party, so Labour can’t move too far from its trade unionist base.
This unionist base brings Labour into immediate tension with certain constituencies within the LibDem party. “Liberal” is used more often in the UK to mean classically liberal than it is in the US, and the LibDems should be understood in that light. The John Stuart Mill/Adam Smith-types in the LibDem Party like their government small and non-interventionist when it comes to markets, the reverse of what unions typically want. Another, partially overlapping group of LibDems (Orange book types) are keen on promoting private sector concepts of competition and choice into the public sector; this too draws no smiles from unions. Finally, it has to be remembered that the “Democrat” component of the party label “Liberal Democrat” derives from the Social Democratic Party it absorbed when it was created. The SDP were centre-leftish Labour refugees who, broadly speaking, didn’t want to sign the longest suicide note in history. The left wing of the Labour Party and the descendants of the SDP are no more similar now than they were at the time of the original split.
A smaller but still important division between Labour and LibDems concerns environmentalism. Green sentiments are widespread among LibDems. Some Labour supporters are fine with that, but the “smoke and dust” unions that support Labour tend to view environmentalists with suspicion. PM Cameron thus has more running room for his green instincts that Ed Miliband has for his, and that would make some green-minded LibDems chary of an alliance.
Finally, whether for reasons of temperament or ideology, the left in Anglo-American politics has simply had much more trouble than the right in holding coalitions together. In the U.S., Will Rogers satirized this tendency by saying “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.” In the UK, the Monty Python troupe skewered the same leftist tendencies in their sidesplitting “People’s Front of Judea” sketch in Life of Brian. The only people the People’s Front of Judea hate more than the Romans are the f**king Judean People’s Front. They also hate the Popular Front. Question: “Where is the Popular Front, Reg?” Answer: “He’s over there. Splitter!”.
We laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true. Holding together myriad leftists in a Lib-Lab coalition would be a tremendously challenging task, and could easily result in splits and new political parties (especially by current LibDems — they are more purist in outlook because they were out of power for so long). That’s the biggest reason why I am expecting the three headed monster that is British politics to stay three headed for a long time to come.