Monday 30 March 2015

Vive les coalitions

I normally have a great respect for the opinions our former leader David Steel but was rather surprised to hear him reported last week as suggesting that in the event of another balanced parliament, if the party is in a position to make a choice  we should opt for offering "confidence and supply" to a minority government rather than enter another coalition.

Surely, as the party which believes that the main function of parliament is to represent the varied opinions of the people as broadly as practicable through proportional representation by STV we accept that, when parliament exercises its other function, as  an electoral college to select a government, coalitions are almost inevitable.

As we know to our cost, being inside and government and making a contribution is much harder and much less fun than remaining outside the government and just criticising.  Surely, and as Nick Clegg and Co wisely decided in 2010, the party exists to implement as many as possible of our policies, not just act as a source of useful suggestions. Think tanks can do that.

We have to our  credit a whole string of achievement which would not have happened had we been on the sidelines criticising rather than in government for the last five years.  To my mind by far and away the most important of these is the fixed term parliament, though our election strategists don't seem inclined to shout about this.  They prefer the raising of the income tax threshold, the triple lock pensions, the pupil premium, equality for mental health patients, the green investment bank etc.  (I have a list of another 17 if anyone is interested.)

So I hope that we shall be in a position to form part of the next government, and I believe it is counter-productive to make too many hostages to fortune by  saying too much about who we will and won't join with.  We must, as Simon Hughes aptly put in 2010, "play the cards the electorate deals."

So it is not wise to rule out joining a government along with, say, the SNP.  They, like us, will have to make sacrifices, and if they will, in the short run, settle for Home Rule rather than immediate independence, well, that's been Liberal/Liberal Democrat policy for a century, so why not?  And, as I've argued before, they have by far the best economic policy.

Liberal Democrats joining a government that also relies on the support of UKIP doesn't seem very likely.  (This is one of the two issues on which I agree with David Cameron: they are best regarded as "fruitcakes.") But if their major demand is for a referendum on Europe it wouldn't be the end of the world.  We have, after all (though wrongly in my view) said that we would have one if there were a major treaty change which transferred further powers to Europe, so having one anyway wouldn't be a great betrayal and would help to clear the air.  We should, have course, have to do what the Tories did on Electoral Reform; concede the referendum and then campaign for IN rather than out.

Of course to maximise our potential for being in government we have to win as many seats as possible, and then, this time, "play our cards right.".  So there is all to play for: we should not settle for second best -sniping from the sidelines.  We can leave that to Paxman et al.


  1. I still think the natural partner for the Lib Dems in a coalition is Labour. Two left of centre parties in government makes much more realistic the chance of co-operation than the uneasy squabbling of the past 5 years. In the past week the Tories have shown a shameless exploitation of propaganda which sticks in my throat and Cameron is making election promises like a man spinning plates with little chance of delivering results. Miliband is given despicable treatment by a rabid Tory press. It is about time Clegg and his supporters showed a sense of justice and principle rather than treating politics like a game of cards. Alexander should be the first to go as a shameless Tory stooge..

  2. I agree with all but your last two sentences.

    True politics should not be treated like a game or, as with the recent Seven Leaders’ Debate, some version of the Big Brother House (Whom do you vote out?) So perhaps the analogy of "playing the cards the electorate deals,” sends us on the wrong track.

    Nevertheless it's the number of MPs of each party that the electorate sends to parliament which determines the possible coalitions. I suspect the overwhelming majority of both our activists and supporters would have preferred a coalition with Labour but there just weren't enough MPs to make it possible. A combination of all Labour, Liberal Democrat, Nationalists and the one Green MP would have had a majority of one and, since on average four MPs die each year, such a coalition would have been fighting for its survival at some four by-elections per annum.

    In addition, although Gordon Brown was keen Labour's tribal "big beasts” such as David Blunket and Jack Straw most certainly were not.

    So the Liberal Democrats made the best of a bad job.

    Re Danny Alexander, I do not agree with his economic policies, but as far as I know he is a perfectly good Liberal in terms of Europe, Liberty, Civil Rights, Devolution of Power etc. It's pity he didn’t stay in his original post as Secretary of State for Scotland.