The case against coalition becomes clearer

5 May

Three months ago I set out a Lib Dem case against Coalition 2.0. As Parliamentpolling day approaches, I believe that case has grown stronger.

I’m still hopeful the Lib Dems will hold on to more than 30 seats (and gain one in Watford). Our message is finally getting some cut through, Nick Clegg has fought a strong campaign and we have many excellent MPs who are worth saving.

But we are now only speculating about whether we lose a third or half of our seats. We may well lose our status as the third party in the House of Commons (to the SNP) and in the popular vote (to UKIP). That alone ought to give pause for thought before contemplating a return to government.

And then there is the maths. It now looks a very long shot that we will have enough MPs to make up a majority with the Conservatives or Labour. A three party ‘majority coalition’ appears out of the question, given that the SNP, UKIP and the Greens (or their potential partners) have all ruled it out.

So that leaves the possibility of a ‘minority coalition’ – Lib Dems in government with either Labour or the Tories, but looking for more partners to get each piece of legislation through the Commons. That doesn’t sound like much fun to me. If, for example, we come 4th and form a coalition with the 2nd placed Labour Party, imagine how difficult it will be to get agreement on deficit reduction within Government and then to seek the votes of the ‘anti-austerity’ SNP. The Lib Dems would carry the blame for the unpopular tax/spend decisions that a Labour-led government would finally have to face up to. This will leave the SNP well-placed to posture and publicly exert concessions as the price of their support.

A few days ago, Clegg went someway to rule out this most likely variant of a minority coalition, by stating that he wouldn’t want a Lib Dem/Lab coalition to be on a life support machine, reliant on the SNP. He then extended the same stance to a Lib Dem/Tory government, held to ransom by UKIP. This all felt rather clumsy to me, particularly the messy references to the legitimacy of SNP MPs. It also left unanswered questions about where we stand on any minority coalition which is reliant on the support of the socially conservative DUP. Or Plaid and the rest.

Far better to adopt a clear stance that a ‘minority coalition’ is not workable. So if the electorate (or our electoral system) delivers that type of parliament, with a significantly reduced Lib Dem influence, we will respect their wishes and return to opposition.

Now, that doesn’t mean we should behave irresponsibly. We should explore the scope for a confidence/supply arrangement with both the bigger parties. I can see a scenario where a Labour minority government might agree to address Lib Dem priorities on education spending and boosting mental health services, paid for by wealth taxes and not cutting welfare. We could outvote the Tories on the budget and reduce the reliance (real and perceived) on the SNP for holding sway on English public services. But there will be times when such a government pursues initiatives which we shouldn’t support (Labour have form on illiberal home office legislation, for example). We will make clear our opposition, forcing them to seek their majority by getting votes from Conservative or SNP MPs.

A more flexible approach to exercising our influence on the next government would give us both space and independent voice. We need to regain the trust that was lost with tuition fees; to rebuild our local government and membership bases; and to sharpen our liberal identity. We need to push once again for political and constitutional reform from within a hung parliament (which will still not resemble how people voted) where the case for change will be obvious.

There is a growing battle between nationalism (English, Scottish and far worse extremist variants in other parts of the world) and liberalism. That will last longer than one parliament and we must be ready for that. But if we enter another coalition from a weaker position – particularly one that doesn’t have the benefit of delivering the stability of a majority in the House – I fear we will be fighting for the very survival of liberalism at Westminster by 2020.

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One Response to “The case against coalition becomes clearer”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Be bold and liberal – from the centre | King in Kilburn - May 25, 2015

    […] I learned one lesson on Friday 8th May, it was never again write a blogpost 48 hours before polling day. My predictions of 30+ seats for the Lib Dems and a hung Parliament did […]

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