by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2010
I’ve an article published today on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free website looking at the newspaper’s report that Nick Clegg is set to rule out a coalition with either Labour or the Tories in the event of a ‘hung parliament’.
I reckon this is the best and only strategy open to Nick and the Lib Dems, and was impressed with the way the party secured such good headlines for the move. Then the leadership rather went and spoilt it all by insisting to the BBC “they have not made up their mind about what they would do if the general election fails to give one party a majority in Parliament.” A statement of blithering waffle which promoted perhaps the most uninspiring headline I’ve seen this year, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg ‘undecided about coalitions’.
Ah well. Perhaps the party should outsource its hung parliament strategy to the Grauniad’s reporters, Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt – they’ve made a more coherent job of it than the party has today.
Anyway, here’s how I praised the party’s policy before the leadership buried it:
Be careful what you wish for. That’s a maxim that could have been coined to describe the Lib Dems’ Catch 22 dilemma of a hung parliament, and the media’s inevitable question: “So who would you support?”
Back Labour, and risk losing a swathe of Lib Dem seats in the south of England to the Tories as the electorate rejects a tired, stale government with nothing left to offer. Back the Tories, and risk losing the chance to make a generational breakthrough in Labour-held seats where Lib Dems are the principal challengers and the electorate is crying out for a genuinely progressive alternative.
It’s a quandary the party has come to both resent and dread. We resent the media’s fixation with asking it of the Lib Dems each time an election looks close: our campaign in 1992 was bedevilled by the implicit assumption that the Lib Dems would back Neil Kinnock. We dread having to find a good answer that doesn’t either lose us votes, or split the party, or look evasive – or all three at the same time.
But this time, it looks like the party might have managed to adopt a hung parliament strategy that will work. As the Guardian reports, Nick Clegg is making it clear that the Lib Dems have no interest in forming a coalition with Labour or the Tories in the event of a hung parliament.
Instead, he will use his role as “kingmaker” to press whichever party forms a minority government to adopt four key Lib Dem policies – all integral to the party’s core election theme of “fairness” – in return for supporting (or at any rate not opposing) the first Queen’s speech of the parliament.
Will this hung parliament strategy work for the Lib Dems leading up to the election? And will it work for the party after the election if there is a hung parliament? The answer to both questions is yes. In fact, it is the only possible strategy available to Nick Clegg. Here’s why.
There are three crucial responsibilities of a party leader in the months leading up to an election. First, they must keep their party both united and motivated: it is activists’ campaigning footslog on the doorsteps which will determine the final result. Second, they must crystallise for the voters what it is the party stands for, and project that message loud and clear. And third, they need to help the party to win the maximum number of votes and seats possible.
How does Clegg’s strategy measure up against these responsibilities? There is no doubt that the vast majority of Lib Dem members want the party to maintain its equidistance from Labour and the Tories. For the party leader to indicate a preference for Gordon over Dave, or Dave over Gordon, would provoke a fierce backlash from the grassroots. Clegg has wisely avoided doing so. A survey we carried out on Lib Dem Voice last week showed 63% of party members saying the party should be equally prepared to talk to either Labour or the Tories so long as key elements of our manifesto were included. A further 23% thought we should steer well clear of both. Just 11% thought the Lib Dems should enter into arrangements exclusively with either Labour or the Tories.
But selling the strategy to the party is only half the job. Clegg also needs to persuade the electorate that the Lib Dems’ hung parliament strategy is framed around what’s good for the UK. This is why he has now identified four key policy strands – on education, taxation, a sustainable economy, and political reform – on which the Lib Dems would demand progress from Labour or the Tories if either were to form a minority government.
Clegg isn’t demanding seats in cabinet, or comfy chauffeur-driven cars, or anything else the public might regard as self-serving. Even the Lib Dems’ cherished belief in proportional representation is presented as part of a package of reforming measures designed to restore trust in parliament. The Lib Dem leader is being ultra-careful to show that his sole concern is a fairer Britain, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s the smart thing to do if he’s to deliver the best possible results for his party.
So, what if a hung parliament moves from hypothetical media obsession into statistical reality after the election? Wouldn’t the Lib Dems be better off demanding our most popular asset, Vince Cable, is made chancellor to demonstrate the party is capable of exercising power?
A coalition is almost certainly a non-starter. Even if Clegg and Cable were persuaded a deal with either Labour or the Tories were for the best (and I have no reason to believe they are persuadable), the leadership would have to secure the majority support of their fellow MPs, the party’s federal executive, and the national party membership.
That isn’t going to happen, and with good reason: for as long as the UK has a first-past-the-post system, and allows prime ministers to call elections at whim, coalition government is simply too risky for a smaller party. It could mean the exercise of a little power for a limited time with the ever-present danger of annihilation at the following election.
By remaining outside of government, however, the Lib Dems can command considerable influence, both by blocking unpopular measures and by working with both parties to deliver positive reforms.
If Labour tries to introduce ID cards, we can work with the Tories to defeat them. If the Tories try to make swingeing public spending cuts too soon, we can work with Labour to block them. Equally, it’s perfectly possible to imagine the Lib Dems working with Labour (for example) to achieve proper reforms of the banking system, or working with he Tories (for example) to take 4 million of the lowest-paid workers out of tax.
“Influence you can believe in.” OK, it might not be the most rousing of campaign slogans, but it could be one the Lib Dems will be in a real position to deliver after polling day.