Over at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free … ‘Hung parliament: the biggest ‘What if?”

by Stephen Tall on January 6, 2010

I’ve an article published today on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free website looking at how Nick Clegg has responded to the sudden bout of speculation regarding the Lib Dems’ intentions in the event of a ‘hung parliament’.

The specific question I was asked to address is: is Nick’s position sustainable? I say yes: see what you think …

The election campaign is, unofficially, under way. There are now just 121 days until the expected polling day, 5th May, and it’s a sure thing – oh, lucky voters! – that the political parties will be bombarding you with their key messages on every possible occasion between now and then.

This week has already given us a glimpse into what the next four months has in store. Labour and the Tories both launched new policy initiatives; both received extensive news coverage. And then, remembering there’s a third party which at the last general election attracted some six million votes, the media granted Nick Clegg a quick vox pop to explain which of the other two major parties he’d prop up if they didn’t win an outright majority.

It can be a tough job, leading the Lib Dems. The one question you are guaranteed to be asked is the one question it’s impossible – and, I mean, literally impossible – to answer: what would you do if there’s a ‘hung parliament’?

Ming Campbell, when he was leader, straight-batted it, refusing to budge from his ‘our sole aim is maximum votes, maximum seats’ mantra. It’s a half-answer that works better at a party conference rally than it does when subjected to a Paxman interrogation, where it sounds evasive and lawyerly.

Nick Clegg has, wisely, junked his predecessor’s stock response. Instead, he’s trying something new and innovative: telling the truth, or at least as much of it as he can at this stage discern.

He starts from a first principle, one which political journalists might like to adopt: that not a single vote has yet been cast in the 2010 general election, and it would, therefore, be arrogant in the extreme for the leader of the Lib Dems (or Messrs Brown and Cameron) to start dividing up the spoils of a battle not yet fought.

Of course, that’s not the end of it. Nick reads the same polls the rest of us do. And at the moment, they all concur that the most likely result is that the Tories will win a plurality of the popular vote, and return the most MPs to Parliament. Maybe it will be enough for Mr Cameron to govern with a majority; in which case this article, along with all other ‘hung parliament’ pontificating, is redundant. But maybe not.

So Nick’s second principle is also a sound one: ‘the party with the strongest mandate will have a moral right to be the first to seek to govern on its own or, if it chooses, to seek alliances with other parties.’

It really couldn’t be much clearer than that. Of course, there are those who endlessly hypothesise about the different permutations. For example, ‘What if the Tories win the popular vote, but Labour wins the most seats?’ To which the first response from a Lib Dem will assuredly be: ‘What kind of cock-eyed electoral system produces that type of crazy result?’ If folk seriously expect the leader of the third major party in British politics to waste his time musing aloud upon their infinite ‘What if’ speculations they’ll be, rightly, disappointed.

But, of course, that’s what the Westminster Village media wants Nick to do. They’re much more comfortable chatting electoral arithmetic than they are debating public policy. And so that’s all Nick’s been allowed to talk about these past 24 hours.

There are two possible responses to the situation: Nick might feel flattered or frustrated. Flattered that the Lib Dems are being taken seriously as a political force, at any rate as potential ‘kingmakers’. Or frustrated that the only question he gets asked is not about what kind of Britain he wants, but rather whether he likes Gordon or David more.

There is a third option, and it’s the one I hope Nick adopts: phlegmatic. At least the Lib Dems are being talked about, and at least he’s getting some air-time. The party’s poll ratings usually dip in the winter months for one very simple reason: the media ignores us. Yet the party is currently averaging 19% in the polls. True, that’s some way from ‘prepare for government’ territory. But it’s a lot better than we were doing in December 1996, the last time there was a change-making election: then we were at 14%.

Given the Hobson’s choice between Nick being asked by journalists endlessly, pointlessly about his ‘hung parliament’ tactics – or being ignored by said, same journalists – I know which I’d choose. Especially if he continues to take the opportunity, as he did to excellent effect on this morning’s BBC Today Programme, to spell out the Lib Dems’ priorities for any putative, post-election negotiations: fair taxes; a fair start for all our children; a fair and sustainable economy that creates jobs; and fair, clean and local politics.

Nothing Nick says, or I write, will stop journalists asking the Lib Dems what they would do in the event of a ‘hung parliament’.

But here’s a challenge to the media.

For each and every time you ask the Lib Dems about what we would do in the event of a ‘hung parliament’, why not put the same question to Gordon Brown and David Cameron? Ask them which of the four key policy areas spelled out by Nick they’d be prepared to adopt. After all, the Lib Dems cannot negotiate on our own. It’s all about fairness, you see.