5 reasons Nick Clegg should rule out a coalition now

by Stephen Tall on March 10, 2010

With most polls showing the next election could result in a hung parliament, there has been various speculation about what the Lib Dem position would be. I think it’s time for Nick Clegg to make an unambiguous statement that the party would not enter a coalition with either Labour or the Tories. Here are my five reasons why Nick should spell this out clearly and simply now …

1. A coalition is a non-starter, so let’s just rule it out now

It’s quite simple: the majority of party members will not for a single moment entertain the idea of a coalition with either Labour or the Tories unless they commit to a fair voting system – and that quite simply isn’t going to happen after the coming election (though it’s conceivable after a second inconclusive election).

Remember: the party membership, along with the party’s parliamentary party and federal executive, all have to approve any coalition (it’s what’s known as the ‘triple lock’). Even if Nick and Vince were to recommend a coalition – and I’ve no reason to believe they would – the party would almost certainly reject it. How could we keep this Labur Government in power for a fourth term of authoritarian rule? And how could we hand the keys of Number 10 to David Cameron and his right-wing Tories? We just couldn’t. So why spend the next two months pretending either option is a possibility?

2. The Lib Dems need a clear, simple answer

Let me put it this way, which headline do you want to read:

The first: strong, clear, decisive. The second: weak, ambiguous, waffly. Both are news headlines from the same day, 15th February. We might be able to get away with the latter in pre-election times; the media will hang us out to dry if that’s the best we can come up with in the heat of a general election campaign. We’ve had fair warning (see above). We’ve been here before (the 1992 campaign, when speculation of a Lib-Lab pact helped John Major sneak a surprise victory). Let’s get the message nailed down now.

3. Nick and Vince need to say the same thing

It’s fantastic that the party has such a strong, popular leadership team in Nick and Vince, a perfect blend of energy and experience. But a dual leadership team poses problems: anyone who remembers the 1987 ‘Two Davids’ election campaign, and the way the media continually probed their policy differences, will know what I mean. True, I don’t expect Nick and Vince to clash on big issues: but even the slightest hint that they appear to have different views on the party’s hung parliament strategy will be pounced on. There’s no room for nuance, with Nick seeming to hint one thing, Vince another. We need a clear statement both can confidently repeat.

4. We need to kill the question and focus on Lib Dem issues

The moment we say, ‘The Lib Dems won’t go into a coalition’, the media will have to ask us something else. Until we give that answer, and for as long as the polls point to a hung parliament, every interview Nick and Vince give will include a question on whether the Lib Dems will go into coalition. That is a real waste of our opportunity to broadcast the Lib Dems’ four key messages of fairness: fair taxes, a fair start for children, a fair, sustainable economy, and fair, transparent and local politics.

5. The public needs to know the Lib Dems can’t be bought

There is of course a risk in ruling out a coalition: the Lib Dems are a party committed to pluralist politics, to constructve engagement with other parties – so why rule out a coalition? The answer’s clear: we don’t need a formal coalition to exert influence, the votes of our MPs are all we need. As I put it here last month:

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.

What the party absolutely cannot do is look eager to trade in its votes and independence for the perks of ministerial office. Ruling out a coalition is the clearest possible demonstration that the Lib Dems and our senior MPs are putting national interest above self-interest.

Those are my five top reasons why Nick should rule out a coalition now, and get over and done with what is in any case inevitable. You’ve got an important speech coming up this weekend, Nick: no time like the present …