“…let me be clear: I have repeatedly stated that coalition government will not occur unless it is preceded by a meaningful change in our political system. That is merely stating the obvious.”
– Nick Clegg MP, Lib Dem leadership candidate, letter in the Guardian, 17 November 2007
It’s worth recalling that in the dear long-ago days before the 2010 election, almost all right-thinking progressive folk (apart from me) were in favour of going over to proportional representation (PR) for elections to the House of Commons, in large part because it was thought that only PR would produce hung parliaments and thus coalition governments; and the general opinion was that coalition governments would be a Good Thing, since the LibDems would always be members of them, and the LibDems could be relied on to ensure that coalition policies would be moderate, middle-of-the-road, small-l liberal, consensual, and generally acceptable to sensible fastidious middle-class people who found the tribal politics of the Tories and Labour distasteful.
Well, it turned out that we got the coalition without the PR, contrary to Nick Clegg’s and many other people’s expectation, and now people are complaining that the coalition government is pursuing policies that were not in any of the party manifestos on the basis of which we all voted in 2010, so there is no electoral mandate for these policies. Government policies were worked out in hectic horse-trading (“you can have a referendum on electoral reform if we can go ahead with student fees and privatising the NHS”) behind closed doors between the Conservative and LibDem leaders after the polling stations had closed, too late for the benighted voters to influence them. This was precisely the objection to PR and coalition governments that some of us, a small and much despised gang, had predicted. (There were other objections, mostly also now confirmed by experience, but this was a major factor in our misgivings.)
When it came to it, coalition government seemed less attractive in practice than it had looked in theory before it happened, and even the diluted form of PR offered to us in the referendum on electoral reform was rejected by a healthy majority.
It now seems increasingly unlikely that any one party will win an overall majority at the next election, whenever that turns out to be — and the coalition won’t necessarily survive until 2015, whatever its members say. If the election takes place after the Scottish referendum on independence in the autumn of 2014, there will be hugely important decisions for the new government to take if the United Kingdom is to survive as a single country, whatever the result of that referendum. There will also be a pressing need for new directions in fiscal, social and economic policies. So it’s by no means too early to start thinking about the shape that the next government will take, in the likely event of another hung parliament, and how its policies might be developed. Here are two propositions for debate:
1. Single-party minority government, with the main opposition parties promising to treat each parliamentary issue on its merits but to support the government in votes of confidence and supply, will be better than another coalition. The opposition parties need not compromise their principles in the way that they must do if they are members of a coalition, and a minority government will be unable to pursue extreme or doctrinaire policies without the support of other parties.
2. The most natural and congenial informal partner for the LibDems is the Labour party. There should be the beginning of informal talks now, tomorrow, or next week at the latest, between the Labour and LibDem leaders and front-bench shadow ministers with their LibDem opposite numbers about the broad shape of the policies that a minority Labour government will pursue and to which the LibDems would give general support. This set of informally agreed policies will eventually be reproduced, not necessarily in identical terms, in the manifestos of both the LibDems and the Labour Party before the next election, so that the electorate will know what they are voting for (or against). The Greens and the left-of-centre nationalist parties of Scotland (including the SNP), Wales and Northern Ireland should also be consulted about the general contents of the agreed policy proposals of Labour and the LibDems and invited to promise their general support for them — whether or not there is a hung parliament.
Come on, Ed! Why not?