Let’s be honest, there is something cosy about the Lib Dems. The jumpers, the smiles, the mantra about breaking up the “tired two-party system” which resonates with those who are tired with the way things are politically. They also have some genuinely nice people involved who are clever and thoughtful (I can vouch for this as my girlfriend is a Lib Dem activist), and have insightful, if sometimes misguided, spokesmen like Vince Cable.
So it is that when a leaders’ debate takes place on the TV and Nick Clegg does quite well, it is not surprising that the Lib Dems go up in the polls and in some cases past the 30% barrier. Once again there is real talk that the Liberal Democrats might hold the balance of power after the next election, just as it was considered in 1974, 1981-82, and 1991-92. But before we start being timid about attacking Lib Dem policy for fear of the possible consequences, let’s look at the possibility of a hung parliament. For while it may be attractive as a way of breaking our “tired politics”, the reality is more unfriendly.
A hung parliament will mean making deals with smaller parties until the following election just to stay alive. It means ripping up a number of important policy proposals put forward by one political party as a consequence. And it means unpredictable government.
We have seen this before. Not just in the hung parliament of February to October 1974, but in the following one of October 1974 to May 1979. True, Labour were given a majority, but it was with just three seats and before long it was a hung parliament again. Every vote on nearly every Bill that went through the Commons mattered in a way it hadn’t before. The Party Whips were in overdrive, deals were made with minor parties just to get a Bill through. There were attempts at bringing through motions of No Confidence (before the one which ended the Callaghan government), and while all this was going on, the country was being brought to its knees by rapid inflation, high unemployment, and out-of-control militant Unions. These were problems which might have been dealt with more effectively had Labour had a larger majority and had its social democratic wing been in the ascendancy, keeping the hard left on a tight leash. A firm Labour majority in 1976 just might have lessened the percentage of votes that Michael Foot and Tony Benn got on the first round in the 1980 leadership contest.
We know what happened as a result of those five dismal years: eighteen years of bulldozing monetarist policy and a polarisation in British politics which damaged many of the livelihoods of many ordinary families. That must never be repeated.
Of course I could be wrong and if the British people decide to give us a hung parliament we will have to work accordingly. But make no mistake, “Federal” hung parliaments in Britain do not have a good history and sometimes what looks attractive in politics is not always right.