A modest proposal

Well, with Brown exiting the stage, the talks on a Lib-Lab coalition are on as I write. And there’s one thing that’s annoying my brain in terms of the TV pundits and what they have to say about the arithmetic, and the prospect of a rainbow coalition.

First, the basic arithmetic. The winning post to get a bare majority in the Commons – taking into account the five abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs – is 323. Labour and the Lib Dems together have 315 – as the pundits point out, a little short, although more than the Tories can command on their own. Clearly the combo would require at least eight additional votes from somewhere.

Where could they pick up eight extra votes? To me, the answer has been obvious all along, but few people seem to have cottoned on to this. Where do you get eight votes? Easy.

You get them from the DUP.

At this point the bien-pensants go spare, at least those who have considered the issue. Because I find it highly amusing how British political correspondents don’t get the basics about this place. There was on Thursday night and Friday morning some talk on the teevee about how Cameron could count on the support of the “Ulster Unionists”. Would that perchance be the UUP led by Sir Reg Empey, which is indeed allied to Cameron? Because that party doesn’t have any MPs. What you’ve got is the DUP.

The pundits, thereafter, have tended to automatically lump the DUP into the Tory column. I assume this is because they’re reading Norn Iron politics on a left-right ideological spectrum, and thereby assuming the DUP have an affinity with the Tories. This doesn’t really work, for reasons I will get onto in the next post. Firstly, let me say that the DUP’s actual record in Westminster is one of wheeling and dealing with whomsoever can get them something they want, and indeed Sammy and Ian Jr have been going around the studios showing a bit of leg. Secondly, the DUP has just come out of an election campaign against Cameron’s local allies, fought on a fiercely anti-Tory basis. So an alignment with Cameron, while it can’t be ruled out, can’t be taken for granted either.

What’s more, this would put rather few demands on the Lib-Lab alliance. This wouldn’t be a question of having the DUP in government – we’re not looking at Sammy Wilson becoming minister for climate change – but of cooperation in Parliament, not voting down the budget and such. Nor do the DUP have any wacky policy demands – most of the stuff they care about is devolved to Stormont. What isn’t devolved is fiscal policy, and what they care about in terms of Westminster is protecting the block grant – this was their main line of attack against the Tories – and maybe getting a little cheque for police widows and such. And again, since Norn Iron is such a small place with a small economy, this would be much cheaper than any deal that might be struck with the SNP or Plaid – English taxpayers would hardly notice it, and it could be passed off as a peace process overhead.

This would probably be made more palatable if we put it in terms of the Norn Iron Grand Alliance, which would mean our thirteen MPs who take their seats collaborating to squeeze advantage out of the hung parliament. It helps that the other five are not averse to Lib-Labbery – the SDLP have taken the Labour whip for decades, Alliance have had close ties with the Lib Dems since the 1970s, and Lady Sylvia Hermon broke with the UUP due to her affinity with Labour. (One presumes there would also be moral support from the five abstentionists. Naomi Long raised this in the Assembly today, and Martin McGuinness was notably warm on the subject.) There are no automatically pro-Tory votes over here – nor, importantly, are there parties competing with Labour as the SNP does.

So, is this likely to happen? I don’t know, although if there is a Lib-Lab understanding it makes perfect sense in terms of the maths. It would, of course, cause conniptions in some of the Grauniad-reading advocates of a centre-left progressive alliance, that such a government would be reliant on hillbilly Paisleyites to get its agenda through. Which is sort of why there’s a part of me that hopes it happens, for thon would be deadly crack. And, let’s face it, a government of Blairites and Orange Bookers couldn’t be dragged any further to the right by the DUP.


  1. Ciarán said,

    May 11, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has said she would support a Lib-Lab coalition if reform were on the agenda.

    I think something along these lines will be how the picture plays out – a Labour-Lib Dem minority government with the general support of people like Lucas, and I’d imagine Sylvia Hermon too. I can’t see the DUP or SDLP looking to go into a coalition government (especially if cuts are to come in that could be laid at their door) so this kind of confidence and supply approach could work for the two of them as well.

  2. Doloras LaPicho said,

    May 11, 2010 at 1:49 am

    “What’s more, this would put rather few demands on the Lib-Lab alliance.”

    But backing a Lib-Lab government full of gays, the gay-friendly and assorted other “sinners” would surely hand a huge hostage to fortune over to the TUV, and perhaps UUP if they’re prepared to break with their metrosexual Tory friends.

  3. weserei said,

    May 11, 2010 at 3:43 am

    I had a feeling something like this post might be coming.

    @2: I think going into coalition with Sinn Fein was probably a bigger hurdle for the DUP and its voters than any sort of pact with the Labour Party, who they’ve cut a lot of deals with in recent years. And thanks to homosexuality-related questions falling under the “conscience votes” category, they’re unlikely to be put in too many awkward spots on that front. They can also negotiate exemptions for Northern Ireland, as has happened on abortion in the past (most recently when they traded their votes on 42 days detention, IIRC).

  4. John Palmer said,

    May 11, 2010 at 8:49 am

    It begins to look as though it may be a minority Labour/Lib Dem government negotiating extra votes from the nationalists (SNP/PC/SDLP) only on specific issues. The only (big) problem is the reaction of the financial markets (the bond market is already on the slide). It is a bit like Labour forming a minority government with some Liberal support in 1929. That was followed by 1931.

  5. May 11, 2010 at 9:05 am

    The Lib-Lab coalition/rainbow coalition notion could have less less legs that the Guardianistas think: my gut feeling is that it may well be scuppered, either before or shortly after it took office, by Labour tribalists from both ‘Left’ and Right wings of their party.

    But, yes, it’s hard not to watch goings-on at the moment and not crack a smile. Who could not want a show like this to run and run, just for the sheer entertainment value?

  6. Phil said,

    May 11, 2010 at 10:01 am

    The big problem with enlisting the DUPes would be Peter, I’m afraid. I’ve got a strange soft spot for the man – sure, he’s a crooked bigoted weasel leading a party of partially-reconstituted sectarian gunmen, but he seems like a bright enough guy (which you certainly can’t say for all of them) and you can’t help feeling life’s dealt him a bit of a rough hand. (Look at the pictures of him with Iris in the Professor’s slideshow – he looks like he’s hanging on for dear life, right back to the wedding shot.) But no amount of human sympathy would stop him wearing a big sign saying ELECTION LOSER and UNELECTED PARTY LEADER if Brown and co called him to London. So I’m guessing they won’t.

    The best-case scenario, of course, would be a quick substitution, followed by a new DUP leader coming to London, signing on the dotted line and making a statement to the gentlemen of the press in Ulster Scots. Well, I can dream.

  7. Chris Williams said,

    May 11, 2010 at 10:05 am

    I’ve been counting the SDLP in with Labour on an automatic basis, notably because of all long-standing guff about ‘sister party’ and the equally long-standing ban on people in NI joining Labour. Am I right to do that?

    • slug said,

      May 11, 2010 at 10:57 am

      People in NI are allowed to join labour, They even organise locally. Elections they do not at present contest but that it the logical conclusion of the process. The greens and alliance show that some impact could be had. But this is a separate matter.

      Yes, SDLP are in the bag to support a Lab govt and budget but not necessarily on all votes.

      • May 11, 2010 at 11:32 am

        And remember that Naomi Long’s party is a sister party of the LibDems – I think Cleggy actually came to Belfast to campaign for her, didn’t he?

      • Ciarán said,

        May 11, 2010 at 2:20 pm

        I think there are now two Labour groups in the Six Counties. There was the Labour Forum (now the Norn Iron Constituency Council), which attached to Free State Labour but most of its members were ex-BICO types who wanted to create a link with the British Labour Party as well. But it looks like last year another group was formed, Labour in Norn Iron, which looks to be exclusively attached to British Labour.

        I wonder what Mark Langhammer would have to say about it all.

  8. slug said,

    May 11, 2010 at 11:03 am


    Wouldn’t the biggest stumbling black for DUP be AV. The DUP surely would suffer? (I suspect SF would suffer too, so they might acquiesce….). Dodds would probably like AV in North Belfast , but Simpson in Upper Bann would not..

    • May 11, 2010 at 11:31 am

      The DUP are perfectly happy with STV for the Assembly and for Europe, why not for Westminster?

  9. Cian said,

    May 11, 2010 at 11:05 am

    my gut feeling is that it may well be scuppered, either before or shortly after it took office, by Labour tribalists from both ‘Left’ and Right wings of their party.

    Its possible, but I wonder if people overstate the risk of that. The most recent example we have of a rebellion (over Gordon Brown) was a damp squib, and the risk of a rebellion (both to the individual and the party) once a pact was signed would be far higher.

    • May 11, 2010 at 11:32 am

      Also, the rebels would be doing nothing but letting the Tories in. Mandelson / Reid / Blunkett are probably happy with that – I can’t imagine the likes of John Cruddas being happy, considering that their whole pitch in the election is “Vote Labour to keep the Tories out”.

  10. harry monro said,

    May 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    any pictures of Clegg with those PUP helpers campaigning for the Alliance?

  11. shane said,

    May 11, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Don’t count out the 5 Sinn Fein MPs for sure, because it’s likely a Lib-Lab coalition will abolish the oath of allegiance.

    A Lib-Lab coalition supported by the Welsh and Scots Nats will lead to a huge increase in English nationalism, especially in the Conservative Party. Not only did most of England vote Tory (while Labour did very well in Scotland), but both the Liberals and Labour will have to use their Scottish and Welsh MPs to pass legislation for England. It’ll be protrayed by the English press as the Saxons being stitched up by the Celts.

  12. DC said,

    May 11, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    I guess the Labour leadership were chancing their arm then, or trying to manouvre the Lib Dems into breaking first. Says a lot about the dynamics of the forthcoming Labour leadership election though-unreconstructed partisans vs “modernisers”. Not left and right as such, though, I suppose.

    I know you dont think much of the LDs Splintered, but I was entertained by one article in the Guardian over the weekend. A civil servant writing anonymously described how across Whithall the notes on the Liberal manifesto were being hurriedly retrieved from waste bins. You dont have to like em to be heartened by that particular poke in the eye for smug complacency.

  13. robert said,

    May 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Well looks like Clegg has got into bed with Cameron. I don’t think the rainbow coalition was ever really on – it would have been unstable and the right wing media would have screamed that it was a losers coaltion and an undemocratic stitch up. Shane is right that there would have been an English backlash and once the coalition fell we’d most likely have had a Tory landslide. As it is the Tories and their Orange Book pals will become deeply unpopular very quickly as the cuts bite. Osbornes emergency budget could plunge the economy back into recession if the liberals allow it to pass.

    Big problem for the Tories is that they have absolutely no mandate in Scotland I reckon Alex Salmond is rubbing his hands – he can offer Scotland an alternative to English Tory rule just vote for independence.

  14. Cian said,

    May 11, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Well that probably means that the Labour party are the new “natural party of government”. I can’t see the LibDems, or the Conservatives, coming out of this well. And unless the Labour party self-destruct, this get to sit out a nasty five years and then fight an unpopular coalition.

  15. May 11, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    […] dreams of a Lib-Lab coalition supported by the DUP have to remain only that, dreams, as Britain gets the government it didn’t want, after an […]

  16. May 12, 2010 at 12:06 am

    […] Conservative majority for starters. If a Labour-Lib Dem coalition had been cobbled together, backed by others, it would have had true car crash potential, a ‘coalition of losers’ which would have […]

  17. Richard T said,

    May 12, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    It’s interesting reading the comments on what might have been with a Lib Lab government. The trouble is the sums; they don’t add up on 2 main bases – first as spurned suitors, the Tories would be hell bent on trouble and that is likely to mean their making doe eyes at the DUPs to throw out the rainbow alliance; but primarily the government would have to rely on the goodwill of the Plaid and the SNP and would over a barrel with razor edges; to add to the picture, it’s election year for Holyrood and if you believe Salmond would not make trouble then let me have your pin number and your bank account details because you’re with the fairies. On that theme, the hatred of the SNP in Scottish Labour circles goes beyond any distaste they might have for sitting with the DUPs and the Lib Dems loathe the Greens in equal measure. Mind you don’t forget to add in the hatred Scottish Labour MPs have for the Lib Dems and any form of PR and you get a Micky Mouse solution – it disnae work.

    So Hobson’s choice – a Tory minority government limited only by the fear of the opposition of another quick election which only the Tories could afford or hold our noses and join them. Now I must declare myself as a Scottish Lib Dem and I’ve been playing ‘Why should I be sad on my wedding day’ all morning. Can’t think why really

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