May you live in interesting times…

It turns out that a chunk of my audience for my last blog post were my colleagues at work, they thought it a bit of a gloomy rant. These days I’m a bit more perky: in contrast to every election since 1974, this time the Liberal Democrats (my party) have something to be cheery about following the despair of election night! Usually post-election we are most definitely not in government, returning wearily to our constituencies to prepare for more time in opposition. This time it’s different!

Watching the comments on twitter as events have unfolded has raised a few questions, and clear misconceptions which I thought might try to address from my point of view as a long (21 years) term party member.

What are the Liberal Democrats?
Some Liberal Democrats were carried over from the old style Liberals, some Liberal Democrats split off from the Labour party as the Social Democrat Party, since 1988 they were simply Liberal Democrats. I’ve always been a Liberal Democrat but my political origins are probably closer to the soft-right of the Tory party. I’ve never been tribal Labour (or Tory) for that matter. It’s fair to say that the majority of the Liberal Democrats are left of centre, but we’re in the party for a reason – we don’t want to be in any other party.

What is coalition government?
The way people talk you might get the impression that the Liberal Democrats in coalition would simply be there to prop up their coalition partners. Labour seem to view this almost as a right, that the Liberal Democrats are a little turbocharger for those elections where they didn’t quite win in their own right. Consequently they believe that a LibCon coalition would simply prop up a Tory government with a Tory agenda. This misses the point of coalition entirely, why on earth would we sign up to such a deal? The point of coalition is to get at least some of your agenda implemented, if you’re not in the governing coalition then none of your agenda is implemented.

Proportional Representation
A lot of the discussion at the moment is around proportional representation, personally I think it should be around the economy first: massive deficits don’t get reduced by themselves. I don’t intend to discuss proportional representation properly here, but simply highlight three systems:
The pure Alternative Vote system is the one proposed by those that don’t actually want proportional representation, it doesn’t actually provide a proportional output. The Jenkins Commission, set up by the Labour government following the 1997 election, recommended Alternative Vote plus top up (AV+). In AV+ there are constituency elections with a top-up from party lists that provides proportionality, the benefit here is that there are still relatively small constituencies. The output should be pretty proportional. The Electoral Reform Society prefers Single Transferable Vote, this provides broadly proportional output, but requires the use of large constituencies to work.

Labour and Proportional Representation
Labour’s new-found enthusiasm for proportional representation leads to hollow laughter amongst Liberal Democrats. For why? Go have a look at the evolution of the Labour commitment to a referendum. Basically a referendum was promised at the 1997 election, this referendum never happened and although it remained in the manifesto for subsequent elections the commitment became ever weaker. You can see why Liberal Democrats don’t trust Labour on proportional representation.

I’d like to present a slightly heretical opinion for a Liberal Democrat: an absence of a commitment for a referendum on proportional representation should not be a deal breaker. My reasoning: I don’t believe either Tory or Labour party could currently deliver a majority in parliament for such a referendum. It is possible that a referendum would not require a parliamentary vote, but let’s assume it does. A commission on electoral reform means that at least the Tories will have to start thinking about it on their own terms, something they haven’t been doing, even if it is a self-evident kick into the long grass. The next time there’s a hung parliament we will then have fruitless electoral reform documents from both Labour and Tory parties, but here’s the good thing: that means that they can’t really ask for another one. Furthermore there appears to be a groundswell of opinion in favour of electoral reform, and I don’t think it’s party political. Over the coming parliament, and at the next election I really hope this groundswell is directed into contact with politicians, we shouldn’t be hearing “This isn’t an issue on the doorstep” next time.

Under proportional representation coalition government is likely to become a fact of life so a successful Lib-Con coalition in the absence of a deal on PR would be worth having. I must admit the green shoots of coalition are promising. Rather than a pointless exercise in taking chunks out of each other we are starting to see politicians talk about what they agree on.

In a way we have nothing to lose, what’s the worst that can happen? Things fall apart and an election is called where we lose some percentage share of the vote leading to a reduction in seats – unpredictably fewer due to first-past-the-post system. We’d still be an opposition party with little power in parliament, so in a place broadly similar to the one we found ourselves in before this election campaign. What’s different now is that there is a broader movement for electoral reform, that may be the thing we won at this election.

In posting this now (5:30pm on Monday 10th May) I am very aware that I may be overtaken by events!


1 comment

    • billynojob on May 10, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    I think the biggest problem with a LibCon coalition is the recent shift of the parties in the left-right spectrum. After the success of New (i.e.right-wing) Labour, the LibDems positioned themselves as a party that overlapped with Labour but also extended to Labour's left, as it were. It's impossible to know, of course, but my hunch is that perhaps at least 75% of those voting LibDem last week would rather see a Labour than a Tory government, and that they would be dismayed to see the party enable a Tory administration.

    Thus the danger for the LibDems now is that they may be in a lose-lose position: support the Tories and outrage most of their supporters; or support Labour and be massacred by the Tory press as well as having to face the logistics of a much more fragile coalition.

    I suspect Nick Clegg is currently suffering from a severe dose of "be careful what you wish for"!

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