Nick Clegg’s statement that the Lib Dems could form a coalition with Labour after the next General Election was both premature and presumptuous.
He obviously sees the Lib Dems taking on the role played by their rightwing liberal sister party, the FDP (Free Democrats), in Germany, as a semi-permanent feature in coalition governments, swapping partners with impunity. The FDP has been in government for more time than any other German party, as junior coalition partner both to the centre-right CDU/CSU (1949–56, 1961–66, 1982–98, and since 2009), and the centre-left SPD (1969–82). This was despite the fact that until 2009 it never scored over 13% of the national vote. Notoriously, FDP leader Hans-Dietrich Genscher served as Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister for the entire period from 1974 to 1992 with only a two-week break. Whoever the German people voted for, they still got the same liberal politician as number two in the government. In 1982 the FDP
even changed the government from an SPD-led one to a CDU-led one without the bother of a general election.
One difference with the German scenario is of course that Genscher was, unlike Clegg, both competent and popular.
Clegg’s belief that he could casually swap coalition partners is dressed up with language about “doing their duty” as though the Lib Dems are performing some great act of self-sacrifice by selling out their manifesto pledges for a chance to plant themselves in the back of ministerial limos.
But we have a very strong tradition in the UK that general elections are an opportunity to deliver a clear verdict on the incumbent government. To keep it, or to throw it out. Not to allow one component of it to stay in office by swapping partners, while the other goes into opposition.
The statistical chances of a hung parliament in the UK are low, given the first-past-the-post system the public reaffirmed it wanted in the 2011 referendum. We have only had genuine hung parliaments since universal suffrage on four occasions: 1923, 1929, February 1974 and 2010. On each of these occasions it was because the third party was
comparatively strong and both major parties comparatively weak. Only 2010 resulted in a coalition rather than a minority government.
The unpopularity Clegg and the Lib Dems have justly suffered for propping up the Tories, going along with rather than restraining their austerity programme, and ditching key pledges as on tuition fees means that barring some remarkable recovery, the third party will be very weak (it is currently only just avoiding being pipped into fourth place by UKIP). This means the possibility of a hung parliament will be dramatically reduced – the fewer Lib Dem seats there are, the less chance they will hold the balance of power.
If the Tories and Lib Dems stage a recovery in the polls between now and 2015, the Tories might win outright or a continued Con/Lib Dem coalition might be possible. In the latter case Clegg will have a mandate to stay in government. Voters will have said they want the incumbents.
But if there is a hung parliament in which the Tories and Lib Dems combined cannot form a majority, and particularly if Labour also becomes the largest single party, the electorate will have rejected both the Tory and Lib Dem components of the current government.
In such circumstances, the public outrage would be immense if Clegg and other Lib Dem ministers tried to hang on in office by swapping their backing to Labour. That anger would not just damage the Lib Dems, it would damage us too. It really would reinforce the idea that politicians are all the same and that voting changes nothing.
In particular, such a scenario would probably involve the Lib Dems staying in power after and despite losing vote share and seats – exactly comparable to one of the reasons they gave for choosing the work with the Tories rather than us in 2010.
I want us to work flat out for an overall majority so that the unhappy and tawdry experience of coalition we are having now is a one-off.
If Labour falls short of a majority our preferred strategy should be to have nothing to do with the Lib Dems as they are tainted by participation in, indeed creating, this government. Coalition with them makes only marginally more sense, given the policies they have been signed up to, than the unthinkable-in-peacetime idea of a Grand Coalition between Labour and the Tories.
We should instead form a minority government as we did in 1923, 1929 and February 1974. We might also be able to form a government with some combination of the SNP, Plaid Cymru or Northern Ireland parties, before having to contemplate resuscitating the defeated Lib Dems. The option of a “confidence and supply” deal to sustain a minority government would be preferable to allowing Lib Dems to keep ministerial jobs when the electorate had rejected them.
No one made Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems go into coalition with anyone. No one made them go into coalition with the Tories in particular. No one made them sign up to a coalition agreement that stood their pre-election Keynesianism on its head and replaced it with support for savage austerity. No one made them sign off damaging policies like the Health and Social Care Bill repeatedly – when you hold the balance of power you have a veto over your coalition partner as you hold 100% of the government’s majority. No one made them stay in the coalition this long and not pull the plug on it.
Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems have made their political choices. The idea that they can casually sidle up to Labour and be forgiven is ludicrous and insulting. The very least prerequisites for working with them would need to be the departure of Clegg as leader (which the voters of Sheffield Hallam may do for us) and a comprehensive rejection by the Lib Dems of the free market Orange Book faction’s policies and leaders.