Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Lib Dems cannot choose their coalition partners

What should the Liberal Democrats do if they hold the balance of power at the next general election?

The answer is that we shall probably have no choice.

The first reason is that the experience of coalition in this parliament may, rightly or wrongly, lead whichever is the largest of the parties - Labour or Conservative - to decide to govern as a minority and try their luck at another general election soon. We could even force this decision on them by refusing to form a coalition, but we Lib Dems are supposed to believe in coalition and would find the prospect a second election more frightening than either of the main parties.

The second reason is that it is unlikely that we shall be able to command a majority when combined with each of the other two parties after the next election.

After the 2010 election there were those who wanted a Labour/Lib Dem/SNP/Green coalition to be put together. This seemed inherently unstable to me - Alex Salmond would have asked for another billion for Scotland every second month and Sinn Fein would have held the balance of power in the Commons if its members decide to turn up - but even if it was the outcome you wanted the numbers were not quite there.

And it may well be the case after the next election that there is only one coalition (assuming Labour and the Tories do not get together - and they do have much in common) that can be put together. So the decision as to whether to govern with Labour or the Tories after 2015 may well be taken out of our hands by the voters even if the collapse of Lib Dem representation that many forecast fails to materialise - and I suspect it will fail.

Once you have more than two parties of any size under first past the post, election results become something of a lottery. We are not in government today because of Nick Clegg's masterly leadership - we lost seats and votes at the last election - but because of the way the votes for the other parties fell. Being lucky is an immensely useful quality in a leader, but it is best not to mistake it for strategic genius.

Stephen Tall makes some related points in his latest column for Conservative Home: "We Lib Dems haven't chosen our strategy. The voters have chosen it for us."


Iain Sharpe said...

To be unfashionably fair to Nick Clegg the Lib Dems actually gained national vote share at the last election. I suggest that Clegg deserves at least some credit for this as

1. On all previous occasions of Labour losing power/Tory revival (1924, 1951, 1970, 1979) Liberal vote share fell significantly.

2. The fact that we lost seats suggests that the overall gain in vote share was due to the national campaign.

3. We have to remember how grim Lib Dem prospects looked midway through the last parliament.

Agree with rest of the article though and add that putting any party back in office after it had been in power for 13 years and just recorded a lower % vote share than John Major in 1997 would seem to flout the verdict of the electorate, regardless of which coalition partner one might prefer if all other things were equal.

Jonathan Calder said...

Let's try another example that works better.

The Lib Dem vote fell at the 1997 general election yet we gained 26 more seats.