If there’s a ‘hung Parliament’… what should the Lib Dems say?

by Stephen Tall on February 5, 2007

Over at PoliticalBetting.com and ConservativeHome.com, Mike Smithson has posed the perennial teaser the party loves to hate: what will the Lib Dems do in the event of a ‘hung Parliament’?

It’s a question that Ming Campbell has persistently – and quite rightly – refused to answer. The best political decisions are those made when in as full possession of the facts as possible (a thought Mr Blair might have borne in mind in March 2003). By its very nature a post-election strategy has to be determined after an election.

Ming closes down any interview which probes with the sound-bite of which we will continue to hear more: “the Lib Dems will campaign for maximum votes and maximum seats”. To do anything else is a fool’s errand. But those of us on the party peripheries have the luxury of being able to speculate in safety.

The premise of Mike’s article is the following election result:

  • Conservatives: 39% (283 seats)
  • Labour: 33% (284)
  • Lib Dems: 22% (54)
  • Others: 6% (29)

Personally, and for what it’s worth, I think he overestimates Tory, and underestimates Labour, support – not least because Mike underestimates Gordon Brown. Of course it’s true that Mr Brown’s promotion to the Premiership will be the least startling political event of the year. He will not, therefore, reap the reward of surprise that John Major’s rise without trace (temporarily) bought the Tories.

But expectations of Mr Brown have now been so tampered down – and Mr Blair’s death-throes so painfully, pointlessly drawn-out – that the Chancellor cannot now fail to ignite the political scene when he steps up to No. 10’s plate. After the turgid torpor of Labour’s last year, the rat-a-tat-tat of reforms with which Mr Brown will pepper his first legislative agenda will jolt politics into life, and boost Labour’s popularity. By how much we’ll see. But if and when this happens it’ll be the first real test of the leadership skills of both David Cameron and Ming; and a real test of the patience of their respective parties.

Nor do I imagine Mr Brown will repeat the mistake of his predecessor-but-four, Jim Callaghan, and delay an election until the last moment possible: we can expect an early poll. This would ordinarily give the Tories the opportunity to accuse Mr Brown of panicked cut-and-running. Unfortunately for them, Mr Cameron’s rather impetuous demand for an immediate election has spiked his party’s gun: a silly error.

So what do I think will happen?

My best guess would be that the Tories – just – win the popular vote, but that Labour remain the largest party in the Commons, with the Lib Dems holding steady. In one sense this would be a dream result for the Lib Dems. Not only does a ‘Hung Parliament’ give the party the balance of power, but such a result would also expose the inherent fallacy of our first-past-the-vote electoral system.

Yet with power (even the balance of power) comes responsibility. And that will be the tough part for the Lib Dems. Because our opponents will seek to paint us into a corner.

We will either be propping up a ‘tired, unpopular Labour government’, or we will be showing ourselves to be ‘nothing but Orange Tories’. Most likely, as Mike Smithson’s article suggests, Prime Minister Brown will attempt to form a minority government, laying down the gauntlet to the Lib Dems (together with a couple of minor concessions) either to back him or throw in our lot with the Tories.

Doubtless the top bods in the party are spending a good deal of time thinking about the various permutations – at least, I hope and trust they are (however much they will be obliged officially to deny it). Anyway, here’s a statement Ming might read the morning after the night before:

“The British people have spoken. It is now the duty of all politicians to pay heed.

It is clear the public has little confidence in this Labour Government and its broken promises. But nor do they trust the empty promises of the Conservative Party.

Our role as Liberal Democrats is simple and straightforward: to be honest brokers on behalf of the British people, and to do what is right for this nation.

“Here’s how we’ll do it. Liberal Democrats do not believe in ‘behind-closed-doors’ decision-making: what we say in public is what we’ll stick to in private.

These, then, are the policies we will be working night and day to have implemented within this Parliament, and seeking the co-operation of those parties who are prepared to work constructively with us to achieve these aims.

“First, we will devolve control of local hospitals to the communities they serve. No longer will the Secretary of State in Whitehall be the first elected politician responsible for services of which they know little.

“Secondly, we will abolish university top-up fees to ensure all have access to higher education no matter what their background. [Hey, I think it’s a crazy idea, but it’s party policy, so…]

“Thirdly, the ineffective, unnecessary and expensive ID card scheme should be scrapped, and the money saved invested in recruiting more police for our communities.

“Fourthly, we want to see increases in green taxes matched by reductions in income taxes to ensure that polluters pay, but hard work isn’t penalised.

“And, fifthly, we want to see a democratic revolution in this country: fair votes for all elections, an elected House of Lords, and real power devolved back to local councils and the public they serve.

“These measures are a package. Collectively, they would, I believe, improve the health, enhance the education, and safeguard the liberties of all our citizens. They would nurture our environment and empower our neighbourhoods.

This is what Liberal Democrats stand for. I believe it is a reform package which will inspire majority support among the public.

“And now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall step inside to seek to persuade my Labour and Conservative counterparts of our case.”