Labour must not repeat the mistake of 2010 and make only last-minute plans for the possibility of entering a coalition after the May election, Lord Mandelson has warned.
Insisting it is not defeatism to consider the consequences of Labour failing to win an overall majority on 7 May, he says Labour should be thinking now behind the scenes about a shared programme with the Liberal Democrats. Mandelson, a key figure in the last-minute efforts to assemble a coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, also says the party should not insist on the departure of Nick Clegg as a price of coalition.
Speaking to the Guardian as the parties embark on the final 100 days of the election campaign, he said: “Labour has to be careful about two things – it must not appear tribal or exclusive in its politics and it must not repeat its 2010 lack of preparation. It is not defeatist to consider the different scenarios in which we can get the Tories out.”
He added: “Ed Miliband is an intelligent and adaptable person. If Labour is ahead on seats I am sure he will want to give it his best shot.”
He said a deal with the Lib Dems might be possible, adding: “Where there is a will there is a way, but it will be harder to scramble something together at the last moment if there has been no thinking through beforehand.
“The important areas to prepare are not the allocation of ministerial posts but the forging of a shared approach to policy. Achieving greater fairness and protecting those most in need would be relatively easy to agree between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as would the position on Europe, while the harder issues would be reducing the financial deficit and long-term debt.
“We cannot achieve anything we want without economic growth and policies to achieve that will have to come first. Security against terrorism would also have to be hammered out.”
Insisting an outright Labour victory was still possible, Mandelson argued it was quite fair for Miliband to avoid early discussion of a coalition in public. But he disclosed: “Some of us certainly contemplated beforehand what would happen if we lost our overall majority in 2010, but we did nothing about it, and during the weekend after polling day we had to make up in 48 hours what we had failed to do in the previous three months.
“No real attempt had been made to get on working terms with the Liberal Democrats. Gordon Brown had good personal relations with Menzies Campbell and Vince Cable, and he talked to them regularly – a relationship that continued in the weekend of talks in 2010. But he was not on the same terms with Nick Clegg.
“We were rapidly trying to make up for lost time. Gordon asked me to lead the Labour coalition talks [and] though I doubted the post-election arithmetic would add up I gave it all we had.
“But it was all too makeshift. If we had been serious the talking should have started long before, as I suspected it had informally between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. For them, the chemistry fell into place quite quickly. We were fighting a losing battle.”
Mandelson did not lean explicitly in favour of either forming a full coalition or instead forming a minority government with a looser “confidence and supply” arrangement, in which legislation is taken on a case by case basis. He pointed out the Lib-Lab Pact in the 1970s was short of coalition but more than confidence and supply.
In a message to the trade unions, he said: “Some of us are old enough to remember the 1974 –79 Labour government. I was working in the TUC economic department. We wanted to preserve a Labour government at all costs, including a Lib-Lab pact. When that dissolved we were on a countdown to defeat and the advent of Thatcher’s government, with all that happened to the country subsequently.”
He also suggested that the Lib Dems’ working familiarity with the Conservatives did not mean Clegg’s party would necessarily seek a second coalition with David Cameron.
He said: “I think in the main the Liberal Democrats are left rather than right-leaning, but they are pragmatic and they will have to look at the arithmetic, that is assuming they have the stomach to re-enter a coalition. That may be hard for many of them after the experience of the past five years.
“There is talk of a coalition with the SNP, rather than or in addition to the Liberal Democrats – I just think it is far too early to contemplate that, and who knows how they will do on the day. There are many in the Labour party who would find it even more difficult to stomach the SNP than the Liberal Democrats.”
He added he did not think it was right for Labour to try to set terms on the Lib Dem leadership. “In 2010 some senior Lib Dems said a precondition of a viable deal with Labour was Gordon Brown’s departure. Gordon did eventually agree to stand aside in the autumn, but I don’t think it would be any more appropriate to say who their leader should be than it was for them to do so in 2010.
“The other problem that I hope is not repeated this time is that in 2010 there were some very senior Labour MPs that objected to a coalition in any circumstances. It was Gordon’s view that ultimately, faced with a choice between a Conservative-led coalition or a Labour-led coalition, the parliamentary Labour party would back him.
“There were some people who were tribal and would not have it in any circumstances, and then there were others like David Miliband who were opposed to it because the arithmetic did not add up, and it almost looked undignified. But on the other hand how does it look if you just walk away, arguing ‘the Tories have not won this election’?”
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