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Who’s afraid of a Lib-Lab coalition?

With the country displaying a strong anti-Tory mood, neither Keir Starmer nor Ed Davey is ruling out an electoral pact in 2024.

By Rachel Wearmouth

After the local elections, pollsters agree that while Keir Starmer is likely to enter Downing Street as prime minister, it is not clear whether Labour is on course for an overall majority. If it is true that Britain is headed for a hung parliament – a big if – then Labour may need to rely on the support of another party. With the Lib Dems surging, that has led to questions about whether the two parties could strike a deal.

Both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey failed to quash the idea in post-election interviews. Asked repeatedly, Starmer called such a pact “hypothetical” while rejecting a deal with the SNP, and Davey left the door open to Labour, underlining that a proportional voting model was “very important” to his party.

If both politicians are showing a bit of leg on this issue, their reasons may go beyond being put on the spot by journalists. The first for Labour is that the 2015 election saw voters flock to the Conservatives, driven by the fear that Ed Miliband would be in the pocket of the then SNP leader, Alex Salmond. With many seats in Scotland now marginal after the implosion of the SNP, Starmer will want to reassure people there is no threat of a second independence referendum and draw clear lines for soft Yes and pro-Union voters north of the border.

[See also: Labour’s Sunak adverts show Keir Starmer has finally decided to gamble]

Given the Tories’ poll position, the potential of a Lib Dem-Conservative pact should also be a question for Rishi Sunak. But the bruising experience of the post-Coalition years and Brexit has ruled out that idea as far as Davey is concerned.

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It serves both Labour and the Lib Dems to flirt with a pact and distance themselves from other parties, given the voters they want to win over in Scotland and the Blue Wall respectively. The messaging may change as a general election nears and should Sunak close the poll chasm between the Conservatives and Labour.

The local elections revealed a strong anti-Tory mood, with the Greens also winning support, and voters are increasingly convinced it is time for a change. If smaller progressive parties were to vote down a minority Labour government, how would that pan out? After years of Brexit chaos and economic turmoil, forcing people back to the ballot box to decide who has a mandate may be deeply resented. Squabbling politicians who championed a second EU referendum learned that lesson the hard way.

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Starmer is often criticised for failing to offer a suite of hopeful policies, and he made it clear in an interview with the New Statesman in December 2022 that Labour’s next manifesto would be a “slim document”. To win, the Tory government has to successfully paint the opposition as a risk. But if the most potent force at the next election does turn out to be fear, it may not be fear of any “coalition of chaos” but something far worse: yet another general election.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: A bad night for the Conservatives at the local elections]