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.
The URL for this blog references the predecessors of the Liberal Democrats, but I am not supporting them on the basis that they are the political heirs of William Russell and John Locke, of Edmund Burke and Charles Grey. I do naturally find sympathy with those who espouse the liberal tradition, but such support should not be unquestioned.
That I would feel culturally closer to the Liberal Democrats than to either the trade unionist tradition of Labour or the socially conservative tradition of the Conservatives does matter to me. But it is simplistic to still reduce the contest to these terms, given the change both larger parties have undergone. Meanwhile, the most pressing issue facing the United Kingdom in the coming years is its budget deficit, and that cannot be ignored.
There are a few Lib Dem policy stances I disagree with. While I would favour tax decreases, I would not favour the approach in increasing the tax credit to £10,000. This would take some workers out of the tax net completely; cuts should rather be in the standard rate, so that as many workers as possible make some contribution. I also oppose taxpayers paying for third-level tuition fees, just as I oppose it in Ireland, but quite honestly, as the party has scaled back on its deadline for implementing such a policy, I don’t believe it would be a priority for them in government.
Nick Clegg rightly said this morning that it would be preposterous if Labour were to lead the next government if it were the third party in share of votes. What hasn’t been given due focus is that mightn’t even have that theoretical option if the numbers from these polls hold out. To command a majority, a prime minister needs the support of 326 of the 650 MPs in the Commons. Electoral Calculus currently put the Conservatives at 297, Labour at 227 and the Liberal Democrats at 94, whereas Times/Ladbrokes give the Conservatives 315, Labour 224 and the Liberal Democrats 78. They differ significantly in how they predict seats to be shared between the Tories and Lib Dems, but both show that even with Lib Dem support, Labour would not pass 326. Unless they also added the various nationalists, but that really would be pushing it, and the Liberal Democrats would not be so foolish.
The only real question left is whether the Tories will manage to govern alone or whether they will be compelled to rely on Lib Dem support. Labour are as good as irrelevant on those figures.
I had to laugh when I listened this morning to this week’s episode of The Bugle, recorded on Friday, where Andy and John had jokingly anticipated the reactionary end of the British tabloid press attacking Nick Clegg after his success at Thursday’s leaders’ debate for his international ties and family, in a similar fashion to some of the worst parts of the American press with Barack Obama. Well, right on form, The Sunday Mail today accused Nick Clegg of playing down his international background, “Revealed: The United Nations that make up Nick Clegg”, with a series of references to his family and those he has worked with, as if it were a case of MS that he had a duty to inform the British public of.
Mrs Clegg, 41, also described her husband as a ‘true internationalist’ – despite his repeated references during the leaders’ TV debate last week to the concerns of his constituents in Sheffield.
‘Nick has many international influences in his family and he has also worked in Hungary and Brussels, and he lived in the US,’ she said.
Indeed, Mr Clegg’s exotic lineage and cosmopolitan lifestyle is a world away from his gritty Yorkshire constituency.
The multilingual Lib Dem leader was born to a Dutch mother and a half-Russian father, and employs a German spin doctor. …
Mr Clegg, 43, plays down his international background. When it was pointed out that he was only a quarter English, he said: ‘Well, biologically…yeah. But I was born here, brought up here, went to school here, and I feel very proud to be British. I have been very fortunate to have different bits to my identity. That’s enriched me.’
Never disappoint, that crowd, do they? How long before they ask to see his birth cert?