Obviously, it’s the Lib Dems that have made this election both interesting and enjoyable. If it were just a straight Lab – Con fight, then we’d be seeing the formation of a Conservative government with a large majority, and to the extent that that outcome’s not really on the cards, we the (substantial majority of the) people have good reason to be grateful to the Liberal Democrats.

That said, I’m finding it hard to see how the party will be able to do well out of the parliamentary shenanigans that are likely to follow. In the first place, there are the kinds of considerations laid out in this post from Brian Barder, which walk us through what the apparently agreed constitutional sequence of events is going to be in the event of a hung parliament. Now, I’m not so concerned about this kind of thing, as I think Brown is likely to quit fairly promptly in the event of a heavy defeat, for the inter-related reasons of not wanting to come across like Ted Heath after February 1974, and not wanting to doom Labour to an even worse defeat in a second general election, having visibly tried and failed to hold onto power after coming in third. But until he quits, the political initiative rests with him; and as soon as he quits, it passes over to David Cameron. People write as if it’s the choices that Clegg makes that will prove decisive after Thursday; but he’ll only ever be reacting to agenda set by others, and “screwing over the Lib Dems” will always be pretty high on those agenda.

If the Lib Dems were a clearly disciplined parliamentary force, and if Clegg were clearly a superb parliamentary tactician, then things might be different. But not even Lib Dem propagandists pretend that either of these is true. The Lib Dems are less centralised than the other parties, which suits them well when it comes to local campaigning, but this will be a source of weakness in a serious political fight at Westminster. And another of those things that isn’t being discussed much is this, that if there’s a hung parliament, the Lib Dems will be under sustained political pressure for the first time in their 20+ year existence, and there’s no reason to think that they’ll handle it at all well. (They can’t even get enough of a grip to run Oxford City Council, for goodness’ sake; it’s just fanciful to think they’ll somehow begin to function effectively as a political force when the stakes are about a billion times higher.)

So on the most straightforward reading of the situation, if there’s a hung parliament, Clegg’s bluff will be called. He can threaten to bring down a Tory government in a vote on the Queen’s Speech, but he’ll only perform if there’s reason to think that the Lib Dems will do even better in a second general election — and if I were David Cameron I’d be relishing the prospect of fighting all those Lib Dem / Tory marginals again in those circumstances. So what’s Clegg to do – if he isn’t to waste what ought to be the best Liberal opportunity since the Second World War? Answers in comments, please.

7 thoughts on “LibDemmery”

  1. I was going to say ‘agree any Queen’s Speech that says the next election will be fought on PR’ but I’m not in practice sure how they would get that – presumably even the pro-PR Tories would not wish to offend the leadership, and the Labour MPs will be there because of the lack of PR.

    So perhaps what it will need is a highly visible example of the unfairness of PR – with Labour behind on votes but well ahead on seats – but it can’t have been too unfair as the Libs need a certain numbr of MPs, and then public pressure will force cameron/labour leader to enact PR for second election with fixed terms, say in May 2011?

  2. If there is a Tory minority govt then I think the best sequence of events for the Lib Dems runs as follows:

    (a) Tories introduce spending cuts in 2010 (or maybe 2011) and become wildly unpopular as the economy goes into reverse. (Think Thatcher govt circa 1980/81 – set fire to the Quattro, it’s time to riot).

    (b) Brown quits and Labour elects a leader who is favourable to PR (Johnson is probably the most favourable but there are other possibilities).

    (c) The Tories are unable to pass legislation to re-jig the electoral system in their favour because they can’t get the votes (being in a minority).

    (d) At the moment of maximum unpopularity for the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems bring ’em down via a no-confidence vote.

    (e) There’s an election producing either a Labour majority or Labour as the largest party with the Lib Dems holding the balance.

    (f) Labour introduces PR with Lib Dem support.

    (g) all Tories jump out the window.

    It’s an absolute beauty – if it happens.

    There are other ways of getting to the same objective – for example, if Labour get less seats than the Tories on Thursday but Labour plus the Lib Dems can command a working majority, Labour could theoretically form a coalition with the Lib Dems straight out of the box. But I just don’t think it’ll happen. And Brown is too anti-PR to agree to introduce it.

  3. Gah. I have no idea. But it will be fun to watch. I would however estimate there’s an 85% chance the Lib Dems will make the wrong choices and cock it up.

  4. “They can’t even get enough of a grip to run Oxford City Council, for goodness’ sake; it’s just fanciful to think they’ll somehow begin to function effectively as a political force when the stakes are about a billion times higher.”

    Oh absolutely.

    A permanent feature of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party is the North-South petrol war.

    You see, most southern LibDem MPs are from rural areas where the opposition is Tory but a small majority of voters feel to common to cast a ballot for the toff party. However, a considerably number of Lib Dem MPs are Scottish or from the northern English border counties. Their main opposition is Labour.

    Accordingly, they all want to play different games in their constituencies. This comes out spectacularly when ever the issue of petrol duty arises. Southern Lib Dem MPs – especially the concentration coming from Cornwall/Devon/Sommerset – are implacably opposed to any support for higher fuel duties. Their farmer voters would crucify them. Yet Scottish/Northern Lib Dem MPs are responding, in general, to voters that are either more urbanised or more predisposed to/tolerant of higher tax rates (part of the wider picture about why the Tores are so dead north of the border).

    The result is the most spectacularly petty infighting. We’re talking about angry petulent memos being sent between the Treasury Team (mostly Southern, mostly Tory-lite, with the exception of Vince) and e.g. the Environment Team/Trasnport Team (mostly Scottish/northern MPs), which declarations that various individuals will refuse to work with each other and the TT threatening to veto left-right-and-centre.

  5. I tend to agree that Tory minority government is the most likely outcome and the LDs will not handle it particularly well. But I also think that Matthew is right and if Clegg had the nerve then he could potentially grab the momentum on this.

    What if Clegg were to come out in the early hours of Friday morning and say that there are two major challenges facing the nation: (1) the deficit; (2) the state of politics/iniquities of our voting system (especially if we get a properly screwy result with Labour 3rd on votes but not on seats – I am probably over-estimating how much the public care, but I do think this could cause a popular swell of opinion against FPTP).

    He should say that on (1) the answer is a “National Economic Council” of the kind he has proposed (which incidentally is where he got the highest scores from “the worm” during the speeches); (2) reform of the voting system. And he would support – in coalition or in minority – a government that would introduce those two things.

    This would (to most people) seem like a pretty reasonable position to take and it would then be on Lab/Con to either accept or reject this. Cameron would have to be pretty ballsy to reject this offer and put forward a Queens’ Speech knowing it could be voted down – especially when the public know that he could have gotten it passed, just by doing two quite reasonable things.

    There are obviously lots of problems with this: what happens if Brown accepts the offer (Clegg can’t work with him); is it a credible threat that Clegg would really vote down the Queens’ Speech; would the LDs get behind Clegg on this (though I am minded that if he moves swiftly enough on the back of their best election in a hundred years, then he might be able to hold it together in the short-run, which could be all he needs).

    As an aside – I wonder whether there are actually those in the Tories who think that a Lib coalition would be a good route to blame-sharing for the deficit-reduction measures they will need to bring in (provided price isn’t PR). This probably only works though if you think they are going to be a manageable coalition partner, which as Chris has argued, they probably wouldn’t be.

  6. An old Marxist writes: presumably the main function of a National Economic Council will be to ensure that all the main parties are agreed on the need for massive public spending cuts and whatever else the markets, poor loves, may consider necessary.

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