I should imagine that many Liberal Democrats have spent today agonising over what should now be done. To the injury of a dreadful election result we may now be about to add the insult of a Lib-Con coalition. Many have recoiled in horror at that thought, myself included.
Labour and Conservative politicians alike scoff at our party. We have no experience. We are naive. We are simply a mish-mash of disaffected socialists, wet conservatives and bearded weirdos with no real driving principle. Even if all that is true, we are now standing at a major decision point and the stakes are rather high. The next few days are not just about policy. They are not even just about politics. This is a three-sided chess game with no written rules.
Despite the myriad permutations, I see three options for the Liberal Democrats. The first is that we simply remove ourselves from the melee and declare that we will take each vote as a matter of pure policy and support the ones we agree with. No coalitions, no deals. This is not a credible position. For a party to campaign for proportional representation and ‘balanced parliaments’ and then be unable to work with other groups would be absurd.
The second possibility is a Lib-Lab pact of some form. This is undoubtedly a much more comfortable position for a great many of the Liberal Democrat membership. Senior figures in both parties have pointed out that there are areas of common ground, including the Labour party’s new found commitment to electoral reform. Forgotten for 13 years, this became a key priority for Harriet Harman at approximately five past ten on Thursday evening. Indeed, the sickening parade of Labour hopefuls queuing up to convert to the cause of vote reform might serve as a reminder to those who feel more comfortable with a Labour deal that all that glitters is not gold.
Ideology aside, the maths for a Lib-Dem / Labour coalition barely stack up. The ‘finishing line’ for an overall majority is 323 (assuming Sinn Fein continue to absent themselves). Labour plus Liberal Democrats amounts to only 315. Even 100% support from Plaid Cymru and the SNP leaves only a majority of one seat. So the coalition would have four members, and only then if the parties had 100% discipline. This would not be a strong government in anyone’s eyes and would struggle to provide the radical platform for economic change that is required, even with a new Labour leader as Prime Minister.
The final option is the unholy alliance with the Conservatives. A great part of their Queen’s Speech would be utterly unacceptable to the majority of Lib Dems, myself included. As hard as it is to accept, the Conservatives have 5 times the seats of the Liberal Democrats and have an unimpeachable argument for keeping much of their program. With a combined total of 363 seats the programme could certainly be delivered, even with some disaffected rebels voting against key bills. Negotiations may falter however, simply on the basis of electoral reform. Cameron’s current offer is of no value at all and the Liberal Democrats can and should accept nothing short of a serious commitment to reform in this parliament. For 23% of the vote to carry less than 10% of the seats is indefensible.
Nick Clegg may be in an impossible position. Walk away from the Conservative deal and the Lib Dems can be blamed for ‘letting them in’ as a minority government by splitting the progressive vote. At the next election, perhaps as soon as the autumn, the old two-party system will be stronger than ever as people vote against Tory cuts and injustice and the failure of a hung parliament. Proportional representation will be as distant a dream as ever and the lurch from ‘tax and spend’ to ‘slash and burn’ and back again will continue for at least another generation.
The alternative is that Nick Clegg should wring the very best deal possible out of the Conservatives and perhaps dilute some of their most damaging policies. It will take great courage to lead the party into such a coalition. Liberal Democrats will have to support some truly awful policies in order to win some of the changes our country needs so much. If we can deliver some real improvements in the structure and funding of education along with fairer taxation for the poorest it may be the best option available.
Some Liberal Democrats will find this utterly unacceptable. I would remind them that this is politics, and furthermore it is the politics of the balanced parliament we all wanted. We can’t have all the policies we want because we didn’t win outright. Neither can anyone else. Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a breakdown of right-left politics and a move to representative leadership. The time for that is now. Let’s not pretend that we are all going to play nice and share our toys. We should fight tooth and nail to deliver the fairness agenda that was the cornerstone of the campaign. Whether we are working with the Conservatives or Labour should be a matter of who can best deliver those key reforms. At the top of that list must be electoral reform.