Some disorganised thoughts from me, that may or may not add up to a coherent whole. For those looking for a more thought-through opinion on all this, I suggest visiting the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator and working through the entries there. Or take a look at this Dutch perspective on the situation.
I can remember approaching the 2008 elections here in Colchester and we were looking at the prospects of what might happen afterwards. Out of all the possible results, it seemed that the one with the four groups at 27-23-7-3 would be the hardest to find a solution from. So obviously, that was the result we got. This seems like a similar position – the Conservatives where they can’t comfortably form a minority Government, and the combined Liberal Democrat-Labour position doesn’t result in a majority. While we did find a solution in Colchester, this does seem like a much more difficult position to resolve.
Mathematically, a Labour-Liberal Democrat combination, while it doesn’t lead to a majority, isn’t as weak as it might seem. Given that they could rely on the SDLP and Alliance MPs, they’d have 319 to the 307 Tories (assuming they hold Thirsk and Malton in three weeks) and it’s likely that they could get the support of enough from the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green and independent Unionist MPs to counter the likely Tory-DUP alliance. However, while that might seem possible from a blank slate, given the history and politics involved, it’d be an incredibly difficult solution to sell to the people, especially if it involved Gordon Brown remaining in office, even before you get to the whole issue of Labour’s authoritarian tendencies on civil liberties.
Some have suggested Gordon Brown, or perhaps some other figure, as effectively a caretaker PM for twelve months while this rainbow coalition pushes through a wide-ranging political reform package before a new election. However, to get this through, the wafer-thin majority in the Commons would require Brown to deliver the entire Labour Party through the Aye lobby, and there’s enough of a draconian tendency there to scupper any part of the reform package in favour of keeping their safe seats. There’s also the question of whether a Government made up of so many parties and with a small majority could push through any tough economic decisions that were required.
The problem with a Liberal-Conservative coalition is… well, you can finish that sentence in a number of ways, from a number of different perspectives and almost all of them would be correct. While it seems that Cameron and Clegg might get on personally, the rest of their parties don’t and trying to get through those decades of distrust, contempt and outright hatred at times is not going to be easy, if it’s even possible at all. However, to even get to that point, there has to be a resolution on the issue of electoral reform first.
Whatever happens, I think the media will get their ‘angry Lib Dems quit party’ story – not just people disgruntled at teaming up with one party or another, but even if he finds a way to not choose either, someone will doubtless get themselves their fifteen minutes of fame by claiming we should have done a deal and walk off in a huff because we didn’t.
I know I couldn’t support any coalition deal with any party that doesn’t have a clear and timetabled commitment to a referendum on electoral reform. Not just a Blair-esque ‘we’ll have a referendum at some point in the future’ promise but a definite date by which said referendum will happen. Without that sort of commitment, I can’t see how Clegg and his negotiators could get the backing of the Parliamentary Party or the Federal Executive for a coalition, let alone survive a party conference. Electoral reform is a fundamental part of the Liberal Democrats’ raison d’etre and it’s not something we’d give up on for a few ministerial cars.
However, I do think there is a way for Cameron to get round it, if he can sell it to his party. Remember that our demand is not for the Government to force through electoral reform itself, just a referendum on it. If the Conservatives feel so strongly about it, and think they’re right, then why should they shy away from putting that argument to the people and asking them to decide? Sure, have a committee of inquiry to decide what should be put to the public, but that committee has to have a deadline by which it must report it’s recommendations to Parliament, which will then agree a referendum. I’ve already heard a comparison made to the 1975 referendum on the Common Market where members of the same party campaigned on different sides of the issue yet were able to come together again afterwards.
Of course, even if that can be agreed, then we’ll turn to the rest of the agreement and what sort of policy commitments it requires, but that won’t happen until after the electoral reform question is settled.
Finally, the other option that’s not been brought up much is the possibility of some form of grand coalition or government of national unity. If talks between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives do break down then that might become the only workable option remaining on the table, but that’s something I’ll write more about if we get to that position.