This was a disappointing election for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. As David Schneider tweeted, “Was the whole LibDem thing something I dreamed in the shower?”. With 63 MPs at the dissolution of the Commons on 6 May, they returned with only 57. These included a few high-profile losses, such as Lembit Öpik in Montgomeryshire, one of the safest seats for Whigs and Liberals since the 17th century, and Dr Evan Harris in Oxford West and Abingdon, who was possibly my favourite MP, a strong voice for a clear scientific understanding of policy, a defender of free speech, and a clear advocate for of gay rights, beaten by Nicola Blackwood, a Tory who apparently has creationist beliefs.
But they also have a great opportunity, as no government can be formed without their support. They have a choice now between supporting a government led by David Cameron, or one led by a probably David Miliband, also supported by the SDLP, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sylvia Hermon. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that as someone who has in political allegiances has gone between the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael that I would favour the former option. I see this as their best chance of affecting change in both policy and in the dynamics of party politics, as long as they ensure a place in cabinet rather than simply supporting the Conservatives in a confidence and supply arrangement.
The Conservatives are reluctant to move much at all on the question of electoral reform. This would be the best reason the Lib Dems would have to collapse negotiations, if they cannot secure a firm commitment on this. However, they should consider two things. The first is that a referendum proposed by a rag-tag slump coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems and a selection of regionalist parties would not be guaranteed to win. The second is that a successful and stable coalition agreement would seriously impair the Tories’ argument against proportional representation, whereas they could point to a Lab/LD/SNP/SDLP/Hermon coalition as exactly the kind of thing that would occur frequently under PR.
The change to the Tories
This leads onto the change they could affect in the party system. As referred to by Declan Harmon, Fianna Fáil eventually abandoned their core principle of opposition to coalitions. In 1989 the Progressive Democrats had had a poor election, falling from 14 to 6 seats. Its members were mostly composed of those who had a deep antipathy to the politics of Charles Haughey, who they were now supporting as Taoiseach. By doing so, they altered the presumptions everyone had about election outcomes and the formation of governments. The Tories know the importance of a stable government as a signal for the markets, and would likely not seek to collapse the arrangement over any frivolous matter. After a year of coalition, they would henceforth slowly begin to think less adamantly in favour of single-party government only.
I was talking to a friend this morning about the coalition who reminded me that they’re Tories, not conservatives. Of course there’s a difference, and there are many issues that I couldn’t trust Tory instincts on, be it Northern Ireland, their approach to families, or their commitment to gay rights (whatever about the optimism of Nick Herbert for his party and his likelihood of being a cabinet minister, there have been too many Lewises, Lardners and Strouds over the course of the election for my liking). But these tendencies would be less of a concern in coalition, and without them, the Tories would be in danger of regressing towards their
In government with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats could ensure that they follow through with their claimed commitments to civil liberties. They could force them to confront more quickly questions like biometric ID cards, the national database, and the level of CCTV coverage in Britain. On immigration, they would propose the amnesty for long-standing residents proposed by the Lib Dems, but neither they pass the stringent caps proposed by the Tories. The Tories would continue for opt-outs on social provisions of the European Union, while not being as obstinate in practice as they might otherwise be. The social conservative wing of the Tories are pushing for a cabinet position for Iain Duncan Smith in return for agreeing to any deal with the Lib Dems. Fine, so long as in the next year or so he is whipped to go through the lobbies voting in favour of some measure on gay rights.
So yes, the Liberal Democrats will suffer some initial drop in support in they enter coalition with the Tories, just as the Green Party did here after 2007, both because of their government partner and the inevitable cuts to government spending. But in the long-term, because of the change they would make to British political culture, both by normalizing c0alition politics and making electoral reform easier to pass, and putting pressure on the civil-liberties-focused wing of the Tories, I think it would be the right thing for them to do.