Corbyn Could Learn Something About Coalition Politics from Spain

You don’t convince other parties to support you simply by warning them the alternative is worse.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn visits Telford, England, November 6
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn visits Telford, England, November 6 (Labour)

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has ruled out forming a coalition after the election in December, daring smaller parties to back him or risk another Conservative government.

“We’re not doing deals with anybody,” Corbyn told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday.

Asked specifically about the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) demand for an independence referendum, Corbyn said:

The SNP will have a choice: do they want to put Boris Johnson back in with all the austerity economics that they claim to be against or are they going to say, well, a Labour government is going to deliver for Scotland.

This is the same mistake Spanish Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez made after the election in April and the reason we had another election here in Spain last week.

Give and take

Both times Sánchez fell short of a majority. After the vote in April, he expected Catalan parties, which demand an independence referendum of their own, and the far-left Podemos, whose policies are close to Corbyn’s, to support him without giving much in return. The alternative, he argued, was a right-wing government.

But Sánchez misread the mood in Congress. The Catalan parties and Podemos knew there wasn’t a right-wing majority — and they certainly weren’t going to create one. They needed the Socialists, but the Socialists also needed them. The sensible outcome would have been a coalition government with give-and-take from both sides.

It took another election for Sánchez to accept this. He has now done a deal with Podemos that would make the smaller party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, deputy prime minister. The next step is giving Catalan parties a reason to support him.

Majority

The transition from a two- to a five-party system in Britain, with the Liberal Democrats in the center, the Brexit Party on the right and the SNP in Scotland, makes it harder to predict how popular support will translate into seats. But it does seem very unlikely Labour will win a majority with around 30 percent support, which is where they are in the polls.

The Conservatives, who are polling at 40-45 percent, may. If they don’t, the alternative to a Conservative minority government would be a Labour-led coalition.

Presumptuous

Corbyn may be right that a Labour minority government would be better for Scotland than a Conservative one, at least from the perspective of the socially democratic SNP.

But it’s not just the example of Spanish politics that cautions against such presumption; Britain’s Labour Party made the same mistake in 2010.

The Conservatives, led by David Cameron, placed first in the election that year, but did not have a majority. Labour lost a quarter of its seats, but thought it could cling to power with the support of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.

The possibility that the Liberal Democrats might support the Conservatives was so implausible to Labour that they didn’t even prepare a coalition proposal.

Cameron, by contrast, met Clegg well-prepared. He came with a number of compromises that would make a center-right government palatable to the Liberals, many of whose voters are center-left. Labour was outfoxed. Cameron and Clegg ruled together for five years.