Friday, May 07, 2010
The Liberal Democrats should accept David Cameron's offer in some form
So what happens if we don't accept David Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive" offer?
I see two options. The first is a short-lived Conservative administration and a second general election later this year.
That would be undesirable for two reasons. The first is that it would make the government - or at least make it appear - fragile at a time of great economic danger. That would be undesirable in itself and leads on to the second, more partisan, reason.
I do not think the Liberal Democrats would welcome a second election this year. We do not have the resources of the other two main parties and it would be hard to escape being blamed for the calling of the second election if we are seen no to cooperate with the government. It might also be hard to escape blame for worsening the economic situation.
This fear, incidentally, was one of the reasons for the Lib-Lab Pact in the 1970s: we were at least as frightened of a general election as Labour was.
The second option is to do a deal with Labour. The trouble is that a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition would not command a majority in the Commons. In order to do so it would also have to include the SNP, Plaid, the Greens (well, the Green), the Alliance Party...
This would make it unwieldy and require it to keep the flakiest Nationalist happy in order to stay in power. Not an appealing prospect, but if we keep these smaller parties out of the coalition they could bring down a Lib/Lab government at any time by siding with the Tories on a confidence vote.
Nor am I convinced that Gordon Brown, or any other Labour leader, would be able to persuade the bulk of his party to campaign for PR in any referendum. It might be possible to win a referendum under such circumstances, but it would not be easy.
Which leaves us considering David Cameron's offer.
Like most Liberal Democrats, I cut my political teeth fighting the Conservatives and I share John Pardoe's view that "hatred of the Tories is the beginning of all political wisdom".
Nevertheless, Liberal Democrat councillors are happy to work with their Conservative counterparts up and down the country. We used to run Leicester with them; we still run Birmingham.
So I don't see that there can be an automatic bar on working with the Conservatives. If I believed that, come what may, Labour must always be in power, I would have joined the Labour Party.
And there is the point of consistency. As Liberal Democrats we believe in proportional representation and in fixed-term parliaments. In other words, we believe in accepting the cards dealt to us by the voters and making the best of them.
If the hand we have been dealt this time makes Lib/Con cooperation inevitable, so be it.
Some are not against cooperation in principle, but say we should insist on PR or even STV as a precondition.
If we had won 100 seats or more then we could have asked for almost anything we wanted from Labour or the Tories,.But we didn't. So we are in no position to demand PR from the Tories. (And, again, I doubt Cameron could deliver the Tory party to support PR even if did agree to it.)
All of which leads me to the view that some sort of arrangement with the Conservatives is the only possible position for the Liberal Democrats in the new Commons.
The form it should take is open to argument and negotiation, but I find it hard to see another path for the Liberal Democrats at the moment.
Unless you fear David Cameron would go back on his word and call an early general election anyway, but I don't think that would go down well with the voters so I don't believe he would take the risk.