5 reasons Nick Clegg should rule out a coalition now

With most polls showing the next election could result in a hung parliament, there has been various speculation about what the Lib Dem position would be. I think it’s time for Nick Clegg to make an unambiguous statement that the party would not enter a coalition with either Labour or the Tories. Here are my five reasons why Nick should spell this out clearly and simply now …

1. A coalition is a non-starter, so let’s just rule it out now

It’s quite simple: the majority of party members will not for a single moment entertain the idea of a coalition with either Labour or the Tories unless they commit to a fair voting system – and that quite simply isn’t going to happen after the coming election (though it’s conceivable after a second inconclusive election).

Remember: the party membership, along with the party’s parliamentary party and federal executive, all have to approve any coalition (it’s what’s known as the ‘triple lock’). Even if Nick and Vince were to recommend a coalition – and I’ve no reason to believe they would – the party would almost certainly reject it. How could we keep this Labur Government in power for a fourth term of authoritarian rule? And how could we hand the keys of Number 10 to David Cameron and his right-wing Tories? We just couldn’t. So why spend the next two months pretending either option is a possibility?

2. The Lib Dems need a clear, simple answer

Let me put it this way, which headline do you want to read:

The first: strong, clear, decisive. The second: weak, ambiguous, waffly. Both are news headlines from the same day, 15th February. We might be able to get away with the latter in pre-election times; the media will hang us out to dry if that’s the best we can come up with in the heat of a general election campaign. We’ve had fair warning (see above). We’ve been here before (the 1992 campaign, when speculation of a Lib-Lab pact helped John Major sneak a surprise victory). Let’s get the message nailed down now.

3. Nick and Vince need to say the same thing

It’s fantastic that the party has such a strong, popular leadership team in Nick and Vince, a perfect blend of energy and experience. But a dual leadership team poses problems: anyone who remembers the 1987 ‘Two Davids’ election campaign, and the way the media continually probed their policy differences, will know what I mean. True, I don’t expect Nick and Vince to clash on big issues: but even the slightest hint that they appear to have different views on the party’s hung parliament strategy will be pounced on. There’s no room for nuance, with Nick seeming to hint one thing, Vince another. We need a clear statement both can confidently repeat.

4. We need to kill the question and focus on Lib Dem issues

The moment we say, ‘The Lib Dems won’t go into a coalition’, the media will have to ask us something else. Until we give that answer, and for as long as the polls point to a hung parliament, every interview Nick and Vince give will include a question on whether the Lib Dems will go into coalition. That is a real waste of our opportunity to broadcast the Lib Dems’ four key messages of fairness: fair taxes, a fair start for children, a fair, sustainable economy, and fair, transparent and local politics.

5. The public needs to know the Lib Dems can’t be bought

There is of course a risk in ruling out a coalition: the Lib Dems are a party committed to pluralist politics, to constructve engagement with other parties – so why rule out a coalition? The answer’s clear: we don’t need a formal coalition to exert influence, the votes of our MPs are all we need. As I put it here last month:

By remaining outside of government, however, the Lib Dems can command considerable influence, both by blocking unpopular measures and by working with both parties to deliver positive reforms.

What the party absolutely cannot do is look eager to trade in its votes and independence for the perks of ministerial office. Ruling out a coalition is the clearest possible demonstration that the Lib Dems and our senior MPs are putting national interest above self-interest.

Those are my five top reasons why Nick should rule out a coalition now, and get over and done with what is in any case inevitable. You’ve got an important speech coming up this weekend, Nick: no time like the present …

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  • Grammar Police 10th Mar '10 - 10:37am

    LFAT – fairness is a key part of what people want in terms of the economy, NHS, schools, immigration and crime.

    As for the main post, Stephen is quite right – let us rule this out and get on with the election!

  • the short march to irrelevance continues.

    No 1. Well, you got one good reason – the ludicrious triple lock is so cumbersome that everyone will die of boredom waiting for the result. In the meantime, the self-indulgent image of Lib Dems proving they can’t take a decision will send our poll ratings plundging.

    No 2 – A clear simple answer is – in the event of a hung parliament we will work to get our 4 fairness priorities into a govt progamme. Just to remind you they are …. The mmore MPs and votes we get, the more change there is of that happening so if you wnat to see ….. then vote lib Dem. An unclear answer is we belive in proportional representation which is likely to mean colaition government – but we don’t belive in coalition governemnet cos the other parties are so awful, Gordon Brown smells and Camerons got bad breath.

    No 3 – the dual leadership – whatever. Is Vince leader ? will he be in the leaders debates ? Bit of a non-issue.

    No4 – It won’t kill the question – it will just make the answers more tortuous and rambling. People won’t stop asking just cos the Lib Dems rule out a coalition – and if they do stop asking, they won’t be asking many other questions.

    No 5 – the most bonkers of all. All the blame and non of the gain. You only have influence if the votes stack up.
    Will a defeated Labour party be harrying Cameron in the commons, as they are broke, posibly in the middle of a leadership election and fearful of Dave dashing to the polsl to secure a majority ? I don’t think so. As in the 1964-66 and 1974, opposition MPs will be told to miss key votes rather than turn up.

  • LFAT, if you actually read past the line that you selectively quote, you would note that three of the four messages are about the economy and schools.

    As for coalitions, it may be tactically sound to rule them out, but there is a problem: the party is committed to PR, and at some point, it’s going to have to explain how a national coalition would work. PR without the prospect of coalition would be disastrous.

  • ‘Letters from a Tory’ claims to have ‘sympathy for the Lib Dems’ but dismisses the Liberal Democrats political programme, with its emphasis on fairness, as largely irrelevant to voters concerns. I’m in no doubt that fairness is an irrelevance to Conservatives such as Lord Aschcroft. And recent Conservative polling results should make it apparent that broad swathes of the electorate share this view.

    The comments, from ‘Letters from a Tory’, exemplify a political outlook which makes entering a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour parties a deeply unattractive prospect for any party that seeks a radical change of course. Coalition politics which depend upon parties that are culturally hostile to radical political change will simply reinforce the attitudes that have become the greatest obstacle to vital and radical reform.

    I agree strongly with Stephen. Liberal Democrats shouldn’t equivocate. Rule out coalition. Those who want to change our electoral and our parliamentary system need to begin by making parliament the place where, after years of whipped votes, public policies are debated and accepted or rejected on their merits. An ironclad parliamentary majority – especially if it is delivered by an unprincipled coalition – is inimical to good government. Liberal Democrats should vigorously oppose the idea that strong parliamentary majorities are either a necessary or a sufficient condition for good government.

    If we elect a new House of Commons in a few weeks time in which no party has an overall majority then we are entitled to expect our representatives to do the best that they can with the materials they have been given. What could be healthier politically than a Prime Minister and a Chancellor keenly aware that they have to persuade the House of Commons, because they cannot whip the majorities needed to pass legislation our approve their policy.

    To democrats, Liberal, Labour and Conservative, I say ‘reject all attempts to truss up the House of Commons if the electorate refuses to deliver an overall majority to any single political party’. And to Liberals Democrats I say don’t willingly fetter your discretion by entering a coalition in which you simply hand power to those whose political values, aims and instincts you do not trust.

    If electors deliver a balanced parliament in a few weeks time the challenge for Liberal Democrats will be to show – as publicly as they can – that it is possible challenge and change British political culture. Liberal Democrats should not confirm or reinforce a discredited political system by entering a coalition that can only serve as a crutch for parties and political practices that have failed repeatedly in government and that continue to debase our politics.

  • The great advantages of coalition are, first that we can actually see whether our partners are sticking to the terms & spirit of any agreements; & second that our ministers keep popping up on the news. All the evidence suggests that our support rises whenever we get publicity. Our biggest problem is that voters find it hard to imagine us in Government, it has been 96 years since the last Liberal administration after all.
    I accept the problems of coalition are real but so are the opportunities.

  • More Lib Dem MPs means more chance of Lib Dem policies, but more Lib Dem votes? It depends which seats they are in and from whom are they coming. Votes coming from the ‘wrong’ opponent in Lab-Con marginals will make all this hung parliament talk irrelevant.

  • David Allen 10th Mar '10 - 4:53pm

    The last time Nick “ruled out” a coalition is reported in:


    It won’t do to argue that this was just a story in the Guardian. It was not denied.

    Presumably Nick wants to rule it out, Vince wants to rule it in, and on that basis (shades of Steel and Owen) we are going to put up two leaders with opposing views, and watch our opponents take us apart?

  • David Allen 10th Mar '10 - 6:20pm

    OK Stephen, I stand corrected – I think! As you point out, we really need clarity now.

  • Given the Clegg article in the independent today – (also reported on Lib Dem Voice) he must have read my earlier post 🙂

    Remember the plan to double the number of lib dem MPs ?

    If the party is serious about gains – say 85 MPs after the election, then a hung parliament is almost a certainty.
    This would be no net losses to the Tories and 20 gains off Labour – all of which looks distinctly possible – but only if we have something worth saying to voters.

    as a party we must never talk about putting Labour or Conservative in power, it must be about putting Lib Dem policies into effect.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Mar '10 - 9:49am

    The obvious line to me is:

    6) The Labour Party and the Conservative Party are closer to each other than we are to either of them, so in the event that we do not win a LibDem majority in Parliament, a Labour-Conservative coalition is the most natural outcome.

    Also, I think:

    7) The electoral system gives us a much lower representation than our proportion of votes, and therefore lesser influence in a coalition than we would have if that coalition were based on number of MPs in proportion to votes. We cannot accept to be part of a coalition where our influence is lessened by this distortion.

    The danger with the “we won’t join a coalition” line is that our opponents will label us as people who are scared of power. They will say that we are letting down those who voted for us because when we were offered the chance to have real government power, we refused it. The other two parties have both reached the point where they are accepting a no-majority Parliament is quite likely, so they are already preparing the ground for this. Both of them have put out “We are the best partners for the LibDems to form a coalition in a hung Parliament” messages.

    Given our support for PR, we have to accept that holding out forever against involvement in coalition is silly. But that does not mean we should accept coalition which is not on our terms. To me, pushing the “Grand coalition” line seems to be the best strategy – it’s “them or us”, “Labour&Tory v. LibDem – which do you want?”. The campaign then has to be centred round the idea that Blair essentially took over the politics of the previous Tory governments, and we are campaigning against all of that. It shouldn’t be that difficult, given that the problems this country faces now are largely due to the long-term effects of Thatcherism.

  • Objectively, Geoffrey Payne must be right. To seek election, while ruling out the option of taking any share in power, is simply bizarre – unless you are Sinn Fein at Westminster.

    We have always kept open the option of coalition. Why do different this time? Especially now, when the pound is under threat if Britain cannot form a stable government. If we are not prepared to help avoid the risk of uncertainty and instability, then we are simply issuing an open invitation to our opponents to point out that risk, and to the voters to reject us.

    I can think of only one really good reason to rule out coalition, and it’s Stephen’s number three. It could save us from internal feuding. It will be the least bad option, I suppose, if it is the only way we can avoid an open split between those whose position is to the right of David Cameron, and those whose position is not.

  • Douglas McLellan 12th Mar '10 - 12:58am

    I am lucky, I live in a country that for 8 years saw real Lib Dem Policies being enacted in every parliamentary year. In a coalition.

    With regards to the orginal post:

    1. A coalition will be the only real way to get our policies enacted instead of being happy to stop the policies of other parties that we dont like. Have some ambition man!

    2. Agree that a clear message is required but a far more nuanced answer than an Iain Paisley style No! No! No! will be treated with more respect by voters.

    3. A clear party line is needed.

    4. If we say we wont go into coalition then they media will look at other ways of trying to work out what will happen in a hung parliament. It is really conceited to think that the issue about us being in a coalition is the issue. The real issue about a hung parliament and how the UK will be governed. If rule ourselves out of any future governance and legislative process then we may as well buy lots of badges for our candidates with the word – Irrelevant across them.

    5. A clear and easy to understand coalition agreement achieves both the delivery of our policies and the blocking of legislation that we dont even want to see presented in Parliament. If the Tories win there will be at least two factions in government, the Labour Party will also break apart and the Nationalists are already forming a block. Why reduce our status by making us no stronger than one of these factions? Why not aim for something bigger and form part of the Government?


  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Mar '10 - 9:30am

    Douglas McLellan

    A coalition will be the only real way to get our policies enacted instead of being happy to stop the policies of other parties that we dont like. Have some ambition man!

    Yes, ambition is the reason I am suggesting caution on coalition. I agree we should not rule it out completely, but we should not be looking as if our main aim is to be a junior coalition partner with comfy jobs for a couple of our senior MPs.

    Geoffrey Payne puts it well when he would “hate to see the party go the way of the German FDP”. It seems to me the German FDP became just that sort of party – comfy jobs for a couple of its senior members, but a loss of much of a distinct identity. The party became a meaningless makeweight rather than something anyone (apart from those at the top who got jobs out of it) could feel much attachment to. It stumbles along on a small proportion of the votes and hardly any active members, hoping every time that a tiny few will go for it on the grounds “We need that sort of makeweight”, or by deliberately misrepresenting Germany’s silly electoral system (the list vote is the one that counts because that’s the one that give the party balances in the Bundestag, but many Germans – I have spoken to Germans about this and they tell me this is how it is – think of the list vote as some secondary vote so can be fooled into thinking that a FDP list vote is a “second choice rather than what it really is – the only vote that counts).

    If we make it clear that what we are about is the wish to change politics completely in this country, and that we see elections as Labour/Tory versus us, is that “lacking ambition”? I am suggesting that our line should be “If we don’t come out top, we will say to the Labour and Conservative parties ‘You have won the election, so you form the government, both of you, you are so alike that you are the natural coalition partners'”. Where is the lack of ambition in that? The ambition is in saying that we are in it to win, and in holding out because if what we suggested took place, we would win the next general election. Look at how the FDP prospered in the times when it was the opposition to a SPD/CPD/CSU grand coalition.

    What I am suggesting is in line with what the Labour and Conservative parties say they prefer – elections being a binary choice, with just two alternative governments on offer. So if they will not form a grand coalition in the event of us not being the largest party, we will tell them “We take you at your word – you say it is better to have a single party government than a coalition, and you support an electoral system which distorts party representation away from being proportional to votes in order to make this outcome more likely. Now, you have won, so we will give you what would have been delivered had we not existed – single-party government by whichever of you has the more MPs. It is the clear logic of the position of both of you that you would rather we did not exist. Following from that, the clear logic of both of you is that you prefer the other one to have absolute majority government if you do not get it yourself. You say you hate the horse-trading and uncertainty and coalitions which proportional representation gives. So we will accept that you have won with that position and we will not engage in it. That is why we shall not vote down a minority government by whichever of you has the most seats, nor will we oppose whatever policies such a government puts through. Given your position on the desirability of single-party government, and your support for an electoral system which is designed to twist us out of fair representation so that you two can take untrammelled power in turns, it would be hypocritical of whichever of you has the smaller number of seats to criticise us for that”.

    We should, of course, reserve the option to vote down anything grossly illiberal. Not voting against something does not mean we should not criticise it. If we feel it wrong, we should make quite clear, using the same lines as given above, why we will not actually go into the lobbies against it. An excuse to pull the plug will, of course, be found when that government reaches the nadir of unpopularity, as it will given these tough times and the uselessness of the top brass in the Labour and Conservative parties. Then we win the ensuing general election.

  • Douglas McLellan 12th Mar '10 - 10:34am

    LibCync – I can only go by personal experience. The hardest Lib Dem policy to explain on the doorsteps in 2007 was the clear position that we had on a referendum. Our position was to deny the voters a chance to vote on a referendum. *Every* doorstep that I said on resulted in a question that was hard to answer – why not? The real answer was that we wanted a clear and non-nuanced answer and in the end it caused more problems that it solved. Every TV appearance by a Lib Dem included the question – ‘why dont you want a referendum?’. Saying to a coalition will not make the issue of a coalition go away.

    Matthew – You clearly know more about the German situation so I cant honestly comment on that. However, in Scotland there is a feeling amongst senior Scottish Labour people that the Lib Dems were far more than an irrelevant junior partner and the expression ‘tail wagging the dog has been used more than once. I support PR and see a natural consequence of PR being the end of a single party dominating a parliament. Coalitions are seen as as inevitable consequence of voting reform and have been used as an argument against it. Why not step up and say that a coalition can be a good thing – say the economic recovery is key and we offer that?

    I dont really follow your argument about the Tories/Labour forming a coalition. It just seems an approach based on ‘cutting your nose of to spite your face’. I still think imperfect power is better than no power.

  • Harold Philbin 14th Mar '10 - 11:49am

    Oh dear, no one can agree even in a situation where there is no answer, first bake your cake and then eat it, I am an orginal Liberal in all but signed up membership, YET.
    But with a United Front, Liberal Votes will increase drastically,
    I , don’t like repeating that selfish little word but the Royal we does not always fit does it? The Liberals now have the best Leaders I have ever known, many ears ago I was asked by Cyril Smith to stand in the Council Elections as a Liberal and as per present status I was not even an official member of the party at that time.
    Then in came the self made star, made up with make up actually and I walked out.
    The result of the election being a victory for myself and Cyril, because I unseated the sitting Conservative, and that my friends is Politics in the raw.

  • Harold Philbin 14th Mar '10 - 12:11pm

    I am fairly certain in my own mind, that most probably we are going to get a hung Parilament, this could quite easily be a good result for Liberals and Independants because they will hold the balance of power, O.K. it will not be an easy matter to implement new laws, rules and regulations, but I ask the simple question, “Is that not a very good thing?

    If Blair had been honest and played the rules properly, “Would we be fighting Wars one after the other in pursuit of nothing more than oil and foreign assets, where are Saddam’s cash assets now? And does any one really believe that there will be any left for us when the present confict is ended, and does anyone else think that Cameron resembles another Blair in many ways?

    With a hung Parliament Blair could never have got away with it, and hundreds of our soldiers would still alive and ready to defend our country and our people (The Voters at the next election, as and when required.)

  • Harold Philbin 14th Mar '10 - 12:21pm

    Sorry about the typo’s, and of course I should have mentioned that the Iffy leader who attempted to sit by my side at the Liberal meeting in Manchester plastered in make-up, was actually Jeremy Thorpe.

    Cheers H.

  • “We should value internal disagreement as the means to develop better solutions.”

    Up to a point, Lord Copper. The internal disagreement we had back in 1987 took rather a while to develop a better solution.

    That little trouble stemmed from two decisions by Dr David Owen. The first was to stand for the leadership of the SDP on a false prospectus. He described himself as a “radical” and a “socialist”, thereby claiming a position well to the left of his original opponent, Roy Jenkins. Once elected, he rapidly moved a long way to the right. The second decision was to walk out when the membership finally decided it was not simply prepared to follow his every move.

    Let’s hope history will not repeat itself.

  • Great. I always knew the Lib Dems will come into Power.
    I’m from Pakistan, and I can now look forward to my Mum and my son living here in Britain.
    The Lib Dems call that a fair and just society, and even if they deny their intentions regarding asylum seekers entry into the UK at this point, once they’re in power, make no mistake, the Power and might of Pakistan will fill Britain in droves. All our nearest and dearest will be allowed to come and live with us. That’s BRILL!!!

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