Coalition Beginnings

Andrew Adonis, 5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond

Biteback, 190pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781849545662

reviewed by Abigail Rhodes

5 Days in May is written by the Labour Party peer, Lord Andrew Adonis, from the perspective of his party during the negotiations that followed the UK General Election of 2010. In the Introduction, written in April 2013, the sense of ‘historic importance’ of these five days in May 2010 is, in hindsight, given its full weight. The first half of the book was written in June 2010 in the style of a diary and catalogues the interactions between the ‘dramatis personae’ (listed at the start of the book) and the media. In the second half the reader is given the author’s reflections on the Clegg-Cameron coalition and ‘more broadly on the lessons for Labour’.

Thursday 6 May 2010 is polling day and the first ‘diary’ entry. The narrative is charged with the tension that must have been felt by Gordon Brown at the possibility of a hung parliament and a potential pact with Nick Clegg. It soon becomes apparent, even at this early stage, that the Liberal Democrat leader’s dislike for Gordon Brown and the electorate’s disdain for the latter’s leadership in the run up to the election were likely to prevent talks between the two parties being successful. There was the added complication of the ‘Clegg Doctrine’, which is described by the author as the statement that Nick delivered before the elections detailing his proposal that in the event of a hung parliament ‘the first chance to form a government should go to the winning party in terms of seats and votes’. By the end of polling day exit results were pointing to a share of votes of 39% for the Conservatives, which was putting them ahead of Labour.

As the morning of Friday 7 May rolled around it was becoming increasingly apparent that a hung parliament was in the offing, and so the fight for Liberal Democrat support began. Adonis recalls that at 6.30am he telephoned Danny Alexander to inform him that Gordon Brown (or ‘GB’ as he is known in the book) was ready to talk with Nick Clegg. But by 9.30am it seemed that the number of seats the Liberal Democrats had won coupled with those won by the Labour party would not be enough to form an overall majority government. So by 10.00am on the Friday Gordon Brown had amassed his cohorts in the ‘war room’ at Number 10 to crunch the numbers and to ‘get this going with the Liberals before the Tories did’. Shortly after this an official Government statement was released that instructed the Cabinet Secretary to ‘arrange civil servants to provide support for all parties engaged in discussions’. This is the official procedure, directed by Cabinet Office guidelines, in the event of a hung parliament. The guidelines stated that the sitting Prime Minister would not resign unless or until it was deemed that he could not command a Commons majority.

Gordon Brown and his advisors started to total up the number of seats won by each party and, to start with, it seemed like his resignation would be imminent. However, the author tells us that after a ‘deconstruction’ of the projected figures a new picture started to emerge. If the ‘other’ parties were factored in then the combined Lib-Lab seats (315) might be enough to fend off the Conservatives 307. A Lib-Lab pact would, therefore, require coalition with other independent parties such as the Greens, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the DUP.

So, with these new and ‘improved’ figures under their belts, Labour went to seek a Lib-Lab pact, yet all that came directly from the Liberal Democrat camp that morning was a wall of silence. At 10:30am Sky News broke the story that Nick Clegg was to make a statement from his Sheffield constituency. As the author and his colleagues watched the report it became clear that the leader of the Liberal Democrats was sticking to the ‘Clegg Doctrine’. The latter reiterated his election campaign statement that, ‘whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats, if not an absolute majority, has the first right to seek to govern’. Nick Clegg was openly leaning toward the Conservatives even before Labour had had the chance to discuss a potential coalition with him.

It was at that moment that Gordon Brown became more determined to forestall the Conservatives waltzing into Number 10 and claiming power. The incumbent Prime Minister delivered a statement at 1.30pm calling for all parties to have the opportunity to speak with each other before a final conclusion was reached. At 2.30pm, David Cameron’s statement echoed that of Gordon in calling for talks to be sought, but he emphasised a ‘common ground’ between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. And so it was that Clegg and Cameron were the first leaders to begin discussions on the future state of the Government. Gordon Brown was eventually given an audience with Nick Clegg at around 5pm on the Friday and the conversation was to set the background to the next few days. Clegg informed Brown that his party had only one negotiating team and that they would need to talk to each side separately, so Brown and his team set to work devising Labour’s pitch to the Liberal Democrats.

In the entry for Saturday 8 May, Adonis provides a detailed description of the policies that the Liberal Democrats and Labour were compatible on and how Labour were prepared to ‘campaign shoulder to shoulder’ on various issues. However, the author highlights that by 11.30am on this day is was becoming all too clear that Nick Clegg’s disdain for Gordon Brown was going to pose a big problem. In fact, the Liberal Democrat leader was being quoted on the BBC as saying that, ‘it would be impossible to enter into a partnership with [GB] because of his general attitude in working with other people.'

Adonis discusses the personality clash between the two leaders and suggests that this was one of the main reasons we have a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. He goes on to state that he and others felt as though the Liberal Democrat talks with Labour were just for show. Indeed, most media reports were showing a marked favouritism towards a Liberal Democrat coalition with the Conservatives even before the official Clegg-Brown meeting that was scheduled for 6.30 on Sunday 9 May had taken place.

At that meeting Nick Clegg was adamant in his request that Gordon Brown was to resign before a Lib-Lab pact could be made. The reason: he didn’t think it was appropriate to form a new government with a man who the British electorate had clearly rejected. The Labour leader agreed that he would resign in the autumn of 2010 if that was what it would take to keep the country out of Conservative hands. But for Nick Clegg this was not enough. The subsequent meetings between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on Monday 10 May went well and common ground was easily sought, but they were always reported in the media as having been ‘pretty terrible’ or to have gone ‘appallingly’. Eventually, after a cursory couple of meetings between members of the two parties and a lot of stalling by Nick Clegg, the announcement that Gordon Brown was to resign came at 7.20 on Tuesday 11 May. By 8.45pm David Cameron arrived at Number 10 from the Palace and declared that he aimed ‘to form a proper and full coalition with the Liberal Democrats’.

This is a short and readable account of the five days in May that took the UK from a hung parliament to the formation of Coalition Government. As a reader you get a sympathetic view of the Labour party and of the much-criticised Gordon Brown. The Liberal Democrats, and especially Nick Clegg, do not come out of it too well. In the last section of the book Adonis examines the aftermath of the decision by the Liberal Democrats to join forces with the Conservatives. He assesses why the Liberal Democrats acted as they did and concludes that Nick Clegg, David Laws (their chief negotiator) and Chris Huhne were always a bit more conservative than liberal. This is borne out by their unapologetically rightward leaning contributions to The Orange Book in 2004, which is described by Lord Adonis as ‘a clarion call for a return to classical small-state Liberalism’.

In the final chapter, ‘From Coalition to One Nation’, Adonis outlines his vision of ‘One Nation Labour’ and the future of his party in government. He does this in the first instance by explaining why the UK’s Coalition Government is too weak and divided to govern the country properly. According to Adonis, the inherent difficulty in coalitions between political parties that hold different ideologies lies in the fact that members with extreme Left or extreme Right opinions often sully the ‘radical centre’. This makes governing problematic because, in the words of Roy Jenkins (founding member of the Liberals Democrats’ predecessor party, the Social Democratic Party), ‘“big tent” parties of left and right “make the moderates too much the prisoner of the extremists.”’

Some of the difficulties that the current Coalition Government is facing are as a direct consequence of the clash between two opposing ideologies: one Liberal and one Conservative - though both neoliberal. Another effect of the current Coalition, coupled with the decline of the Left in Britain, is the rise in popularity of parties such as the UK Independence Party. The country is slowly being taken hostage by extremist views because no solid and coherent alternative is currently available to the electorate.

Adonis wishes to present a remedy to this lack of choice; he does so by clearly stating that the best way forward for Britain is a majority government headed by a ‘One Nation Labour’ Party. He suggests that, going forward, the UK and the Left need a strong and unified Labour Party that seeks to win on its own. In a rousing speech at the end of the book he states how his party is best placed to achieve this:

‘One Nation Labour speaks the language of middle England – middle class and working class – which wants to see more and better jobs, more choice and higher standards in the public services, more and better opportunities for their children to get on, greater responsibility as well as rights in welfare and criminal justice, and which also wants greater security, both physical security in their neighbourhoods and greater security in facing the challenges of modern life.’

More and more people are calling for a change to society and an end to the harsh austerity measures that are currently crippling future opportunities. The general public are becoming disillusioned with the political classes and the ever-growing inequality that they see. Voices from all backgrounds are demanding a change to the way society functions, which is borne out by the thousands who participated in movements such as Occupy London and the more recent People’s Assembly. If 'One Nation' Labour really does ‘speak the language of middle England’ then it might win an election or two, as Tony Blair did with 'New' Labour. But will it deliver the kind of profound change that is being demanded? The only way the Labour Party can successfully achieve this is if it returns to its socialist roots and starts putting people first.
Abigail Rhodes is an M3C/AHRC-funded PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham.