Saturday, 8 May 2010

Maybe Do It Nick: Why a Lib-Cons coalition might not be as terrible as we imagine.

As I write, the top trending topic on Twitter in the UK is #dontdoitnick. It seems most Lib Dem supporters, and doubtless all Labour supporters, oppose the idea of Nick Clegg selling his soul to the Tories for a slice of the government pie. Most are actively supporting the alternative of a Lib-Lab coalition. There are good reasons for feeling this way; the ideological chasm between the Lib Dems and the Tories is just cause for doubt over whether there can be a coherent platform for the two parties to stand on; the Tories and the ideas they represent are generally reviled by Lib Dem voters; the two parties clash on major issues, and the concern is that the only "concessions" Cameron would make to the Lib Dems are policies he is already on board with, like scrapping ID cards. But I don't think Clegg should be warned off this coalition quite so quickly, and for several reasons.

1) Electoral reform

So, we know Cameron & co. are against PR and against electoral reform in general. In his "big, open and comprehensive" offer to the Lib Dems he did not bring to the table the one thing they really want - his offer of an all-party committee of inquiry amounts to nothing (Jenkins, anyone?). But I think it'd be premature to assume that this is non-negotiable. If Clegg makes a referendum on electoral reform the single necessary condition of an alliance, Cameron might have to reconsider, given that Labour have offered this on a silver platter. And if electoral reform was achieved, the face of British politics would be changed forever - and in the Liberal Democrats' favour. Yes, we would have to put up with playing second fiddle to an unpleasant government for a few years, but beyond 2015 there would be real representation for Lib Dems, not the systemic unfairness that means 23% of the vote gets us 8.7% of the seats.

"But," the Twitterverse cries out, "the Lib Dems will never trust Clegg again if he betrays us all and coalesces with Cameron! PR will do nothing to help them when their supporters all abandon them!" Well, if they do, they'd be foolish to. Our electoral system as it stands prevents the Lib Dems from ever being anything more than a third wheel in the Labour-Conservative relationship - they have no power and relatively little influence. Being part of a government coalition would mean recognition and would make it possible for some of their policies to actually be implemented. As a small third party, the Lib Dems have approximately zero chance of getting electoral reform through, or any of their other policies. Why are Lib Dem supporters so quick to turn their back on something that would ultimately benefit them?

2) Cameron's proposed compromises

This brings me to my second point. Let's assume Cameron gets his way and a Lib-Cons coalition is entirely on his terms - that means no electoral reform, no budging on Europe, immigration or Trident. What he has suggested he's willing to compromise on is the tax system. Remember that the Lib Dems would raise the threshold of the lowest band of income tax to £10,000. If Cameron caved to this, not only would it mean one of the most important and fairness-centric Lib Dem policies getting through, it might also give us a reason to hate the Tories slightly less in the first place. Isn't the reason we're all so opposed to them at least partly because they represent the vested interest of the richest in society? Bringing in left-wing tax policies ought to counteract at least some of that revulsion.

3) What is the alternative?

A Lib-Lab coalition undoubtedly makes more sense ideologically. Both parties sit on the centre-left of the spectrum and share core values, and there would be much more room for agreement. Plus, Labour sorts are quick to point out, more people voted against the Tories than for them - it's simply unfortunate that the centre-left vote was split between two parties, and to get a true representation of the electorate's feelings, those two ought to bind together. This is, however, problematic. There's something counterintuitive about suggesting that the people who have the right to govern are those who came second and third in the contest, and Clegg's ostensible reasons for trying to negotiate with the Tories - that it is the right thing to do in terms of democracy, and that he alone ought not to be the kingmaker - are on my view very good ones.

However, there are tactical reasons as well as reasons of principle to favour a Lib-Cons coalition over a Lib-Lab one. Let's assume a Lib-Lab coalition results from the hung parliament. Based on current election results (with only one seat left to declare, which will not do so until 28th May) it would comprise 315 seats out of 650 - not even a majority. They would have to bring MPs from at least two other small parties on side in order to create a working majority. This is probably doable, so let's say they get to the requisite 325 seats. That majority would be so tentative, and met with such a large Conservative opposition, that getting anything through - let alone radical Lib Dem policies - would be very difficult. Any small back bench rebellion would throw it off kilter. Someone who wants to see Lib Dem policies implemented would probably not end up preferring this state of events, even though the coalition itself makes more sense.

Plus, Labour isn't all happy fuzzy rainbows and puppies. One of the few policy areas that the Lib Dems and the Tories share ground on is also one of the most important for the Lib Dems - civil liberties. A Lib-Cons coalition would emphasise this and we might see some real steps to counteract Labour's appalling record. There would also be something dispiriting about voting for change in the form of the Lib Dems and getting it in the form of a coalition which gives primacy to the party that's been in power for 13 years. Labour have a lot to answer for, not least in the Middle East, and for some Lib Dem supporters (though probably a minority) propping up a Labour government would taste almost as sour as bolstering a Conservative one.

Let's also remember that if Clegg does not side with Cameron, Cameron might look to form a temporary minority government and then re-call the election in hopes of getting an outright majority, which he would have a pretty good chance of achieving. Then we would be much worse off - electoral reform has a snowball's chance in hell of getting past a Conservative majority, and the Lib Dems would be relegated once more to the position of insignificant minority third party, their policies once more dismissed as implausible, unworkable and just plain mad.

I am no Conservative, and I don't mean to assert that a Lib-Cons coalition is definitely the best option for the country. I know there are good reasons why it may not be. I've simply tried to identify some reasons why it is a genuine option that should not be dismissed out of hand, and one that might end up benefitting the Lib Dems in a real way - and why the alternative might not be so rosy. Undoubtedly there's more to be said on the issue, but I think I've rambled on sufficiently for now. Commence commenting, trolling, flame wars etc.

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