5 Days in May: better than Borgen?

I’m not usually drawn to political memoirs, but my friend Joe reckoned I should give Andrew Adonis’s account of the fruitless coalition negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrat leadership after the 2010 election had resulted in a hung parliament.  You can read it in two or three hours, he pointed out, insisting that I’d find Adonis’s account of how we ended up with a Tory-led coalition revelatory.  He was right.

Andrew Adonis was at the heart of the Blair and Brown governments, first as a member of the No. 10 Policy Unit and then, after being appointed to the House of Lords in 2005, as Minister for Schools until 2008.  In Gordon Brown’s government he moved to the Department of Transport.  Adonis was a member of the Labour team that engaged in the coalition negotiations with the Lib-Dems following the 2010 general election, and 5 Days in May is his account of those negotiations –  written immediately after the events, but only published now.

You can indeed read this book in a couple of hours or so – it’s short and to the point (Adonis even summarizes his key arguments at the end in Powerpoint-style bullet points), and is quite a gripping page-turner (it’s no surprise that the book is being turned into a TV drama for the BBC).  There have been other accounts of the negotiations – including one by the leading Lib-Dem negotiator and parliamentary expenses fraudster David Laws – but (as far as us ordinary mortals can judge these things) I found Adonis’s version convincing, not least because, in drawing conclusions, he admits to having to reassess his previous views on coalition government.

Two assertions about the events of May 2010 have subsequently come to be accepted as the gospel truth: that the numbers did not add up for a Lib-Lab coalition, and that Gordon Brown clung desperately to power, so sabotaging any hope of a Lib-Lab deal.  Adonis rejects both these claims.

Adonis argues that Brown and others were right in insisting that there is no constitutional convention that the party with the most seats in the Commons must be the one that forms the government. Brown’s case was that the combined forces of Labour and the Lib-Dems could hold a majority in the Commons, with the smaller parties abstaining on key votes if they wished.  (The Conservatives had 306 seats, but needed 326 for an overall majority. The Lab–Lib total was 315. The five SDLP, Alliance and independent members from Northern Ireland were left-leaning, as was the one Green MP.  Crucially, Adonis argues, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would never have allowed themselves to be held responsible for the formation of a Tory government, leaving a Labour-Lib Dem coalition with a working majority of around 30.  He cites Willy Brandt’s reforming coalition of the 1970s Germany and the current Swedish government as proof that second-place parties can legitimately assume power.

Adonis is scornful, too, of the fatalism of those (especially that pair of Blairite bruisers, John Reid and David Blunkett) who argued that Labour needed to ‘renew itself’ in opposition. ‘To give up power voluntarily, because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult, is a betrayal of the people you serve’, he writes.

At the heart of his account, though, is Adonis’s disillusionment with hopes for left-leaning coalition in Britain. As a former Liberal Democrat party member he was, not surprisingly, a long-standing believer in a ‘progressive coalition’ between Labour and the Lib-Dems. Adonis’s disillusionment clearly stems from the realisation, brought home by the events of May 2010, that the Liberal-Democrats are not a left-wing party.

I understand that, having been seduced by the same siren song during the frustrating years of Blair’s New Labour project.  Marching against Blair’s Iraq war in February 2003, I was hugely impressed by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy’s appearance on stage at the Hyde Park rally alongside other speakers such as Jesse Jackson, London mayor Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn.  I was impressed, too, by Lib-Dem positions on Europe, civil liberties, proportional representation and constitutional reform which placed them easily to the left of New Labour.

In his acerbic review of the book for the Observer, Nick Cohen is scathing of people like me:

I lost count of and patience with the Billy Bragg types of the past decade, who announced that they were voting Liberal Democrat, and then stood back as if expecting a round of applause. Apparently, to be a truly right-thinking leftwinger, you had to rally behind Nick Clegg, a public-school former Eurocrat, whose ideologues had denounced “soggy socialism and corporatism” in the Lib Dems’ Orange Book manifesto.

What Adonis’s account confirms is the extent to which Clegg and other members of the Lib-Dem leadership, particularly his right-hand man and lead negotiator David Laws, shared the world-view and policy objectives of the Tories. Adonis reveals how the Lib-Dem leadership never seriously entertained a left coalition, merely playing Labour along until they had secured the one concession they wanted from Cameron – a referendum on AV.

The reason that Clegg and his crew preferred Cameron and Osborne, Adonis suggests, is that they shared a common background in wealth, education, outlook, and privilege. Despite his Europeanism, Clegg was a ‘privileged, home counties public-school boy’.  David Laws, like Clegg, was the son of a banker who had come into politics after a career in investment banking, eventually becoming a Vice President at JP Morgan.  Both men are millionaires.

Not surprisingly, therefore, both are economic liberals who believe in the ideal of the small state and both have asserted that ‘the social-democratic experiment has failed’.  The most dramatic moment in Adonis’s narrative comes with the revelation that at one of the first meetings between the Labour and Lib-Dem negotiating teams, David Laws made it clear that they had already accepted Osborne’s position on the need for an emergency austerity budget and deep cuts in public spending (this despite Clegg having campaigned against austerity in the election).

The acceptance of Tory austerity plans was crucial to the Lib-Dem leadership’s long-term strategy to convert the party away from what Laws described (in the 2004 Orange Book) as the ‘soggy socialism and corporatism’ that had captured the party under Ashdown, Kennedy and Menzies Campbell. For Adonis, ‘Clegg and Laws did not lead their party into coalition with the Conservatives despite Osborne austerity, but because of it’. Nick Cohen in the Observer:

Liberal Democrats had campaigned against austerity in the election campaign – Clegg warned of riots on the streets. But their promises on the economy, like their promises on tuition fees, were simply for show, and the reader is left wondering if Nick Clegg has ever made a promise he intended to keep.

If Clegg and co are the targets of Andrew Adonis’s opprobrium, it is Gordon Brown who emerges from his narrative as a redeemed figure, at least as presented here. Adonis explains how Brown began Labour’s campaign to remain in government with a responsible announcement that re-stated Cabinet Office guidelines and cleared the way for him to remain Prime Minister while inter-party negotiations could  take place and a conclusion was reached which he could recommend to the Queen. He drove Labour’s campaign to win a place in the negotiations and never gave up. Critically, at the outset, he set out the arithmetic of party numbers in the Commons to demonstrate that a Lab-Lib coalition could form a viable government without any need for deals with other parties. In doing this, he demolished the Lib Dem case that the figures for a Lab-Lib deal just didn’t stack up.

Further, Adonis’s account shows that Brown, albeit only slowly as the days passed, did come to appreciate that he himself was the main obstacle to coalition, given his reputation, his dismaying performance in the election campaign and the power of the argument that his leadership had been rejected by the electorate.  This was why he resigned as leader of the Labour party on the penultimate day of negotiations.

The overall conclusion drawn by Adonis from the experience of May 2010 is that ‘for Nick Clegg and David Laws, coalition with David Cameron and George Osborne was a marriage of neo-liberal minds’:

This, fundamentally, is why it was possible to form the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in the first place, and why it has survived for the subsequent three years.

Adonis reckons that the two people who really grasped the reality of power during those five days in May 2010 were David Cameron and Gordon Brown.  Cameron understood ‘the imperative to get into No. 10 at almost any price … That once he had the keys to No. 10, his room for manoeuvre, and his power of initiative would be massively enhanced.’  For Brown, there was everything to fight for – and every possibility of forging a workable left of centre coalition that could have eschewed austerity and protected public services.  Adonis reserves particular scorn for Clegg, describing him as being ‘in government, not coalition’, castigating his failure to secure key ministries and his belief that he would have more power in the role of deputy prime minister, rather than leading a key department.  Nick Cohen in the Observer again:

Adonis, the Whitehall insider, says that Clegg bungled the coalition negotiations as he bungled so much else. He did not understand how power in Britain works. Clegg should have demanded significant ministerial posts for himself and his lieutenants, but settled for the vainglorious title of deputy prime minister instead. He then compounded his folly by making constitutional reform the Lib Dem priority. Since constitutional reform has little popular support, it was easy for the Conservatives to subvert. As for being deputy prime minister, if it does not quite live down to the old description of the American vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, it is not worth much more.

Adonis concludes by outlining lessons that he draws from the three years of coalition government since 2010.  With his SDP background and liberal politics, Adonis was a true believer in the idea of a progressive alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems. He has now disavowed that position:

I used to think coalition government was preferable to single-party government.  But I have changed my mind.

But now he sees things differently:

The best way to advance mainstream progressive politics is to organise, lead and win from inside the major parties.

Oddly, though, Adonis ends still foreseeing the possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition after the next election.  At present, it’s difficult to envisage there being the inclination in the Labour party or sufficient Lib-Dem MPs to make that even a remote possibility.  Primarily, though, Adonis puts his faith in something called ‘One Nation’ Labour.  I remain suspicious about what this might mean (particularly after Ed Balls’ recent commitment to maintain the rigour of austerity restrictions on public spending), while agreeing with Nick Cohen in the Observer that:

The behaviour of Liberals in power shows that the only vehicle for progressive politics is the Labour party. It’s not much of a vehicle. Its engine is usually choking, its exhaust is usually spewing, its passengers are usually stabbing one another in the back, and its driver is usually heading at full speed in the wrong direction. But as Adonis concludes at the end of this revelatory and quietly shocking book, it’s all there is.

See also

TUC returns to Liverpool after 103 years

This week the 141st annual Trades Union Congress was held in Liverpool for the first time in 103 years. In 1906 the TUC met at St George’s Hall; this year’s conference takes place at the new BT Convention Centre on the Albert Dock.

One of the key issues facing this year’s Congress is the link between the Labour Party and the unions. Some, like the RMT and NUM, have already severed their connections. The Communication Workers Union,  currently greatly concerned by the threat of Post Office privatisation, will almost certainly disaffiliate if privatisation goes through. In fact, the union has proposed a motion for the Liverpool Congress which should cause great concern to the Government. It observes that New Labour is failing to attract trade unionists and is pursuing policies of cuts, privatisation and has refused to repeal anti-trade union laws. The CWU wants an urgent conference of Labour affiliated unions to “consider how to achieve effective political representation…”. Meanwhile, Unison has suspended constituency funding to 35 Labour seats including  Liverpool Wavertree, held by Jane Kennedy.

This all has curious echoes of the 1906 Congress; back then Liverpool was not a bastion of Labour support: there were divisions among trade unions and debates over affiliation to the new Labour Party, the result of casual work and sectarian politics. Yet nationally 1906 was the year of the great Liberal Party landslide election victory and the passage of the Trades Disputes Act which for the first time granted the right to strike.

1906 was also the year that the Labour Representation Committee, established at a special meeting of the Trade Union Congress in 1900, adopted the name Labour Party. In the 1906 election, the party won 29 seats. Within 17 years the Liberal party was in ruins and Labour was in government.

The introduction to the report of the 1906 TUC asserts proudly:

Never in the annals of the Trades Union Congress has there been so large and representative gathering as the one held this year at Liverpool, 191 delegates being present, representing a membership of 1,555,000. Among the delegates there were no less than 30 Members of Parliament, one Mayor, and a large number of Magistrates and Councillors from all parts of the country, showing thereby that the Congress is maintaining its importance. Although differences may exist as to the solution of certain social problems unity prevailed throughout the week, and sincerity marked the tone of the speeches. On the whole, business was conducted in a most satisfactory manner…The Congress at Liverpool of 1906 will always stand out conspicuous in the history of the Labour movement as the most successful and business-like ever held.

I’m sure the 2009 report will adopt a similar tone!

When the TUC met in Liverpool in 1906 they were coming to the second city of Britain and the Empire. The phenomenal nineteenth-century growth of the city had been based primarily on trade: British industrialisation brought massive increases in the imports of cotton and other raw materials and the exports of manufactured goods, and Liverpool became the largest port serving the industrial north.

The rise of the city drew in many thousands of migrants from the rest of England, Ireland,Wales and elsewhere who formed a huge and varied labouring force. Liverpool became a great proletarian centre, therefore, and it was out of its working class that the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party evolved.

Everton fans in London for the FA Cup Final in 1906 (Everton won)

The ‘new unionist’ strike wave of 1880s broadened trade union support, especially in Liverpool. A series of major strikes in Liverpool amongst unskilled workers in 1889 and 1890 led to the unionisation of dockers, seafarers, gasworkers, post office workers, tramway employees, and others. Women workers in the workshop trades of cigar-making, book-folding, coatmaking, upholstering, sack and bag making and laundering were also organised . By early 1891 the Trades Council had 47 affiliated unions, representing 46,000 workers, and in October 1890 it voted to admit women delegates for the first time.

However, the relationship between the Trades Council and certain unions, particularly the Dock Labourers Union, which represented the largest single group of male workers in the city, was fractious.  There was a series of disputes between the leader of the dock workers, James Sexton, and the Trades Council. A social and cultural gulf divided the regularly-employed, relatively well paid time-served workers that dominated the Trades Council, and the low-paid casually-employed workers. From the other side, the attitude towards maritime workers was expressed succinctly in the pages of a local socialist newspaper as follows: ‘The ways of those amphibious trade unionists who work ‘along the line of the docks’ are not easily understood by those who find employment on terra firma’.

There was a thriving socialist movement in Liverpool around the turn of the century, with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party engaging in campaigns over unemployment. But it was only in 1900 with the development nationally of the Labour Party that the local craft unions  were finally won over to the idea of independent labour representation. The Trades Council joined with the ILP, Fabians, SDF, and the Edge Hill and Garston Labour Clubs to form what became by 1903 the Liverpool Labour Representation Committee. Later, in 191 7, this body formally adopted the name of the Liverpool Labour Party.

One historian of the early years of the Labour Party points out that Merseyside was an extremely weak area for the party, due  to the combination of religious sectarianism with the predominance of casual, unskilled labour in the area. In the dockside wards of Liverpool, the Catholic areas, and the areas of predominantly unskiued, casual labour, the Labour Party won little support. Nevertheless,  a number of significant figures in the local labour movement had connections with the Labour Party, including union leaders like James Sexton and Jim Larkin of the dockers, and Bob Tissyman of the Policemen’s Union.

Labour made only limited gains in local elections before the First World War. It won its first two seats in 1905 when the dockers’ leader James Sexton won St Anne’s ward and John Wolfe Tone Morrisey (great name!) took Kensington. Even then, Morriseylost his seat three years later leaving Sexton in splendid isolation in the council.

While the TUC was meeting in Liverpool in 1906, a painter, Robert Noonan was working in the building trade in Hastings, experience he was to transform into  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,  published under his nom de plume, Robert Tressell in 1914.

He had died, aged 40, in Liverpool Royal Infirmary three years earlier from tuberculosis. There is now a plaque (above) on the old Royal Infirmary building in Pembroke Place which records this. How did he come to be in Liverpool?  Unhappy with his life in Britain, he had decided that he and his wife, Kathleen should emigrate to Canada. He had been influenced by William Morris, and had joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. The following year, after a dispute with his employer, he lost his job. His health began to deteriorate and he eventually developed tuberculosis. Unemployed and unable to remain politically active, he started writing, something he hoped would earn enough money to keep him from the workhouse. In Liverpool he was buried in a mass grave with twelve other paupers opposite Walton Hospital. The location of the grave was not discovered until 1970. Subsequently, a memorial was placed on the grave (below).

“As Owen thought of his child’s future, there sprang up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against his fellow workmen. They were the enemy – those ragged-trousered philanthropists, who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to their miserable slavery for the benefit of others, but defended it and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion of reform. They were the real oppressors – the men who spoke of themselves as ‘the likes of us’ who, having lived in poverty all their lives, considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for their children” – Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

One of  the designs painted by Robert Noonan in St Andrews Church, Hastings and saved before the demolition of the church.