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Monday, 10 May 2010

A "marriage of principle" is the best way forward

Despite the disappointing General Election results, the Conservatives’ inability to gain an overall majority has presented the Liberal Democrats with both opportunities and dilemmas. Already sections of the media are referring to Nick Clegg as the Kingmaker – a role he has, rightly, always denied should be his.

That the electoral arithmetic provides exciting prospects for the Lib Dems can not be doubted, but these opportunities are fraught with dangers. The British electorate and the media are unaccustomed to the political complexities of power sharing and hung parliaments and, while in an ideal world negotiations would be calm, considered and patient, the economic realities and media pressures mean that talks are taking place in a regrettably rushed and scrambled fashion.

Nick Clegg finds himself in a position denied to his most recent predecessors; Steel and Ashdown in their times would certainly have welcomed the opportunity to help form an administration. But the peculiar circumstances mean that Nick Clegg’s situation is far from enviable. Whichever course of action he takes is potentially risky, with potentially disastrous consequences for party unity and Clegg’s standing in the country.

And yet this opportunity has to be taken. Failure to do so will result in our being condemned to yet more disappointment and national irrelevance. The moment must be seized and with it the chance for the Liberal Democrats to positively influence British politics.

Clegg has been right to stick with his strategy of dealing firstly with the party which has the most seats. He has to avoid being perceived as willing to prop up an unpopular Labour government. Furthermore, he must be careful to be seen to respect democracy and the wishes of the electorate by – at the very least – not preventing the Conservatives from governing.

The strategy itself was sound in advance of the election; the likely political ramifications less so. As I write, talks are ongoing between the Lib Dems’ and the Conservatives’ negotiating teams. I would not wish to pre-empt the outcome, but as an instinctive liberal I would have huge concerns with the concept of our party entering into any kind of formal agreement with Cameron’s Conservatives. As a pro-European, multilateralist and a pluralist, I would find the Conservatives’ stance on a number of policy issues – for example immigration, the EU, taxation, defence and social policy – almost impossible to reconcile with that of a party committed to creating a more liberal society.

I strongly believe that many of our members and supporters feel similarly uncomfortable at the prospect of a Lib Dem-Tory pact. From Westmorland to Torbay, countless voters deliberately voted Lib Dem in a bid to keep out the Conservatives. Such voters did not vote yellow to get blue.

Cameron has indicated that he wants to “make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats”. It is difficult to know what to make of this in the absence of concrete promises. There is speculation surrounding the potential inclusion of senior Lib Dems in a Cameron-led cabinet; while I am too pragmatic to suggest we should reject such an offer in favour of ideological purity, it would be unwise to base negotiations on anything other than policy. Only when agreement has been reached on this level should front-bench line-ups be discussed.

Clegg is not likely to sell out his principles for a ministerial limousine. But, like his predecessors, he years for the opportunity to “break the mould” of two-party politics. This in itself makes any deal with the Tories more unlikely as, even if Cameron was sufficiently insincere to offer his personal support for political reform, he will surely be unable to win over his rank-and-file.

For any deal with Cameron to be effective will require significant concessions from the Tory leader which go beyond the insignificant and superficial (and flatly insulting) offers of “an all-party commission of inquiry” into proportional representation. He has to make a solid pledge on constitutional reform and should soften his tone on a range of issues including Europe and social policy. Irresponsible references to “Broken Britain”, the most shamefully deceptive slogan of the election, must be dropped from Toryspeak.

Of course, for Cameron to even consider genuine compromise would risk splitting his party just as Clegg risks dividing the Lib Dems if he allows himself to enter into any agreements without firm policy commitments.

There remains the possibility that, if the talks between the two parties fail to deliver agreement, Cameron could lead a minority government. Alex Salmond has been reasonably successful to date in heading a minority administration in Holyrood, seeking support from other parties in a day by day basis. Although technically feasible, even this arrangement will in all likelihood require Lib Dem support for a Queen’s Speech likely to include proposals for significant spending cuts.

The key to any deal therefore lies with the 57 Lib Dem MPs. They will realise that the party is in just the position its leaders have hoped for for decades. If Cameron genuinely wants to make a “comprehensive offer” he is going to have to provide Clegg with a convincing policy package with which to win over MPs who have, in fairness, a well-deserved reputation for indiscipline – as Jim Wallace discovered in 1999. The anarchic tendencies of Liberal Democrats who have for years fought against Conservatism – and are, after all, fresh from electoral hostility with the Tories – will not be overcome easily.

My own view is that, short of Cameron offering concessions that would threaten to tear apart his own party, our MPs will not only find a formal agreement with the Tories unpalatable, but will find it virtually impossible to lend sufficient support to even allow a Cameron-led minority government to operate effectively. At a time when the country urgently requires strong government it is vital that – if talks come to nothing – alternative possibilities are explored.

Clegg was not only right to speak to the Conservatives first; he was also right to state that it is “for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of...govern[ing] in the national interest.” The onus is on Cameron to win over the Lib Dems. A failure on his part to deliver a policy platform acceptable to Lib Dem MPs will force Clegg to open discussions with Gordon Brown, who to date has been waiting patiently in number 10 for his opportunity to entice the Lib Dem leader.

I was unnerved by Clegg’s previously stated unwillingness to work with Gordon Brown. There were two reasons for this: firstly, that this was said in advance of the election result being known and, secondly, because I believe negotiation and co-operation should be determined by policy rather than personality.

Understandably, no Liberal Democrat wishes to prop up a failed and unpopular government. But the alternative may be less agreeable. The Labour Party has much to recommend it and – on policy at least – has more in common with our progressive vision for Britain than do Cameron’s Conservatives. There is also the fact that Brown has mean making positive noises on the subject of electoral reform. Labour and the Lib Dems have also worked effectively together in the recent past, most notably in Scotland where they were in government for eight years. Granted, the relationship between Brown and Clegg is not that shared by Wallace and Dewar, but it remains true that there would be less ideological difference to overcome.

There are potential problems with any prospective Lib Dem-Lab coalition. Firstly, there will be the inevitable accusations from sections of the media that democracy itself has been compromised. Secondly, the electoral arithmetic is such that the combined forces of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would not provide an overall majority. Thirdly, and most crucially, there is a risk of the Lib Dems becoming tainted by association with labour in return for a referendum on PR that may not be won. Some will no doubt argue that a referendum would not be won if Clegg and Brown are seen to have “stitched up” a deal.

These difficulties can be overcome. The argument that a Lib Dem-Lab pact would run counter to democracy can be rebuffed if the leaders can demonstrate that a Conservative minority can not operate in a House of Commons that lacks confidence in it. If the Lib Dem-Tory talks come to nothing, Clegg must make clear the sticking points and reinforced the need to pursue the stable government Cameron alone can not provide. There is little doubt in my mind that a Lib Dem-Lab coalition, while lacking a majority, could provide stronger government than either a Lib Dem-Tory coalition or a Conservative minority. Political strength comes not from mere numerical advantage but from a unity of purpose unlikely in any agreement with Cameron.

The lack of an overall majority may not be the disaster for a Lib Dem-Lab coalition as it would be for the Tories. Alex Salmond has already expressed an interest in enabling the SNP and Plaid Cymru to join labour and the Lib Dems in a “Progressive Coalition” and, while that outcome is unlikely, it is not altogether unrealistic to imagine the nationalists would be more likely to lend support to a Lib Dem-Lab administration that to the Conservatives. It should not be impossible to work with nationalist MPs on an issue-by-issue basis.

PR is the prize Nick Clegg desires most. If Labour is honest in its offer of a referendum on a genuine system of PR (e.g. either STV or one conforming to the recommendations of the Jenkins Commission) then Clegg can ill-afford to spurn the opportunity to make overdue electoral reform a reality. The short-term political damage will be more than outweighed by achieving permanent change to the electoral system.

Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian on Saturday, stated that “it now falls to [Clegg] to choose the next Prime Minister”. He is not entirely correct. The nature, structure and philosophy of the Liberal Democrats mean that ultimately the parliamentary party will decide which route to take. Lib Dem MPs will not be easily persuaded to follow their leader out of mere loyalty, as David Steel knows too well.

Our party has some difficult and potentially painful decisions to take this week. Not since 1989 have such questions about the future direction of our party been asked. We must not be afraid of the answers, even if they mean exchanging short-term popularity for long-term achievement.

There remain other possibilities in a hung parliament. David Marquand, also writing in The Guardian, calls for a “grand coalition” of the three major parties. As someone whose politics favour co-operative and collaborative approaches, I find this idea attractive and it would certainly be of benefit in tackling the economic issues. However, it may lack the capability to deliver on electoral reform as the Lib Dems’ role and influence within it would be less significant. It is also possible for Nick Clegg simply to do nothing and allow the Conservatives to rule without our providing any commitments; there is also the tantalizing potential of a “progressive alliance” evolving between the Lib Dems and Labour in opposition.

As a Scottish liberal, whose instincts are firmly progressive rather than Conservative, I am concerned about our long-term future if our party enters into any agreement with the Conservatives. Such a partnership would not represent a “marriage of principle”. It would not even represent a marriage of convenience, but a sop to those in the media who delude themselves that Cameron somehow won this election. We should not fear those who misleadingly would refer to a partnership of progressives as a “coalition of the losers”. We must remain true to who we are: liberals, internationalists and progressives. Our identity and long-term aims can not be compromised for an unprincipled alliance with a Conservative Party whose only interest in our party is to make their own task of governing easier.

The Liberal Democrats have a genuine chance to make permanent and far-reaching changes, while taking further steps towards creating a more liberal society. This can be most realistically achieved in partnership with Labour, however awkward the creation of such a partnership may be. We can not afford to indulge in ideological purity or empty populism when the times call for dynamic pragmatism.

From a purely Scottish perspective, identifying ourselves with a Conservative Party which has virtually no electoral base and remains widely mistrusted could prove to be an electoral liability. The old questions of the Tories’ electoral legitimacy in Scotland and the perceived “democrat deficit” may re-emerge with potential to damage the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

The complexities and possibilities of the current situation require considered, responsible and visionary leadership – not only from Nick Clegg but also Lib Dem parliamentarians. For all the difficulties, exciting and unprecedented opportunities are there for the taking. We must have the courage to realise them.

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