A reply to Tom Harris: Lib Dems wait for the voters to speak. (It’s called democracy, and we kind of like it).

Labour MP Tom Harris, bless him, is clearly feeling a little bit insecure, as the Lib Dems enjoy a successful conference with a spring in their step and the full glare of the media spotlight. Tom’s blog is a good, fun read – but like his Tory equivalent Iain Dale, he has a bit of a tribal blind spot when it comes to the Lib Dems.

Here’s what Tom has to say about Lib Dem shadow schools secretary David Laws declining to take the media bait asking whether the party would back Labour or the Tories in the event of a hung parliament:

David Laws, the LibDem MP, said on Any Questions on Friday that any such decision would not be taken until after polling day. Thank you, David. Thank you for confirming what I’ve been saying for years about the undemocratic nature, not only of the LibDems but of their most precious policy – proportional representation.

It’s entirely consistent of Laws to say that the public will not be consulted before the LibDems make a decision. That’s the essence of PR: let the little people have their vote, then ignore what they say and start bartering away the very policies they voted for behind closed doors and without reference to them.

There’s some bizarre and twisted logic contained within Tom’s rant-ette, so let’s try and unpick it. First, Tom states “the public will not be consulted”, which is an odd way of talking about a general election result. After all, it won’t be the Lib Dems’ decision if we end up with a hung parliament: it will be the consequence of the way the public has voted.

What Tom prefers, in fact, is for the public to have a vote, and then for Labour to ignore it. In 2005, almost two-thirds of the voting public (and almost three-quarters of the electorate) did not vote for Labour. The result? Labour formed a government with a majority of 67 seats over all other parties.

As for “bartering away the very policies they voted for”, what could be clearer than Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems saying at this stage that the party will stand by its four key policies in any negotiations which might prove necessary of the public declines to give any of the three parties a clear-cut victory?

And Nick is quite right to refuse to indulge mischief-making Labour/Tory MPs (and the media) asking him to define the undefinable of what precisely constitutes the “strongest mandate” which will give either party the right to seek to govern alone, or with the Lib Dems.

As Nick has made clear, a ‘photo finish’ is highly unlikely: almost certainly there will be a clear-cut winner (at least in first-past-the-post terms). More importantly, the general election campaign hasn’t even started yet. Given how the political narrative has transformed in the past two months, who’s to say it won’t change again in the coming two months? Who knows what will be thrown up by the leaders’ debates, for example?

It would be remarkably daft of Nick, or any Lib Dem, at this stage to try and second-guess the electorate, or ignore the fact that how things look on May 7th will be very different to how they seem on 14th March. Remarkable daftness is, of course, just what Tom Harris and Iain Dale are hoping for. Nick, wisely, is not going to give them what they want.

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This entry was posted in General Election and Op-eds.


  • My comment to Tom
    There won’t be a coalition govt. that much is clear… Listening to Clegg it sounds like he will allow the party with the most seats to form a minority govt. if they are willing to sign up to the four key party pledges.
    I know to a member of the Labour party this may come as quite a shock, but we Lib Dems actually have a say in what we do, it’s called democracy and we kind of like it (a bit more than either of the other two parties)… I can tell you one thing I will not stand by and allow my party to side with the horribly illiberal Labour party nor the horribly vacuous Tories, so no I can’t see a formal siding with either Labour or the Conservatives and I believe that you know this in your heart, you’re just playing on peoples worst fears for your own political gain and it is pathetic.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th Mar '10 - 8:21am

    “There won’t be a coalition govt. that much is clear… Listening to Clegg it sounds like he will allow the party with the most seats to form a minority govt. if they are willing to sign up to the four key party pledges.”

    The trouble is that it’s _not_ clear there won’t be a coalition government. If you remember, it was rumoured in the press a few weeks ago that such a policy was going to be announced, and then the story was officially rubbished.

    And in his recent comments about early public spending cuts, he said he could not agree to them if “we were involved in government”. Something of a vague phrase, like most of what he says on this subject, but not one that makes me think he has relinquished the idea of Lib Dems round the Cabinet Table.

    Frankly, whatever the strategy over the Lab/Con question, I think the benefits of a clear statement that there will be no formal coalition would far outweigh a small reduction in the room for manoeuvre (and the room for manoeuvre is still likely to be determined by the parliamentary arithmetic above all).

  • Tom what would Labour do if they are the largest party without a majority? Would they go into coalition with the Tories? Would they try and do a deal with the Lib Dems? What Lib Dem policies would they take on?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th Mar '10 - 10:07am

    The ridiculous thing is that for decades the Liberals and later the Lib Dems have been pointing out quite rightly that a party even with around 42-3% of the popular vote doesn’t have a mandate to govern at all – and now we have all this guff about “strongest mandates”, with reference to popular votes in the mid-30s. It really is quite surreal.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th Mar '10 - 10:34am


    Where’s the contradiction? I’m not sure how I can explain it any more clearly.

    (1) For years the party has been rightly saying that a party with less than 50% of the popular vote doesn’t have a mandate at all.
    (2) Now we have all this discussion about how strong the mandates of the other parties would be in various scenarios in which their popular votes would be somewhere in the mid 30s.

    This isn’t just an academic point, because Nick Clegg has started to talk about the “moral right” of minority parties to try to form governments. I think it’s nonsense. A minority is a minority, and it doesn’t confer any mandate whatsoever to govern.

    And in any case, I believe the constitutional position is that the sitting prime minister will have first crack of the whip.

  • I’m not sure why Mr. Harris has such a problem with the use of a small number of promises in a condensed manifesto. After all, that is the essence of the Labour pledge cards, which have been used in the last three elections, two of which he was elected at.


    And a perfectly good tactic it is too, for us and for democracy, and one which I’d be quite happy to admit we’d ripped off from Labour.

    What you’ve got to realise is this: the other two parties hate us more than they hate each other. If you mention the Lib Dems on somewhere like UK Polling Report, you’ll get a tirade that goes something like this:

    ‘Bar charts! no policy whatsoever except for their INSANE EUROPHILIA!!!! Unprincipled! Hate the Constitution and want to destroy it and replace it!!?! Bar charts! Unprincipled dutbin. Bar charts! They should be EXTERMINATED, and Britain restored to the state of two-party government which is the NATURAL ORDER!!!’

    Apart from the massive internal contradiction there (we’re either unprincipled bastards or crazed idealogues, but not both), there is the arrogant presumption that if one has any principles, they can be neatly reconciled in the two party system, and that anyone who chooses to work outside it is automatically unprincipled. I actually think that large sectors of the rank and file, particularly in the Tories, would prefer a Lab-Con coalition rather than working with us unprincipled careerists (and our eevul bar charts).

  • Philip Peake 15th Mar '10 - 11:44am

    “Well. it’s not up to me, sadly, but my guess is that GB would do the same anyway – form a minority government and then call another election after a short period.” – looks like Tom doesn’t understand the system he defends so enthusiastically. Gordon doesn’t get a second bite of the cherry (GE as PM) if he loses his majority: if he goes to the palace to ask for a second dissolution within a short period asking for a dissolution, the Queen has to refuse, sack him and appoint someone else, (probably the leader of the Opposition). That PM would then be given a dissolution if he asked for one.

  • Foregone Conclusion 15th Mar '10 - 11:46am

    An example, if you don’t believe me. I didn’t have to look too hard!


    The partisan twaddle is from the Lib Dem commentator, by the way. That’s apparently all we’ve got to fill the void where our policies should be.

  • Ah, to prevent confusion that post by ‘Foregone Conclusion’ is by me. I have decided to give up the use of pseudonyms, since they are a little dishonest/confusing, but the LDV comments form hasn’t caught up.

  • I probably have something for a preference for the Tories at the moment simply because they are serious about the fiscal problem, but frankly both are pretty unappertising.

  • I completely agree with you, Dane, about Tory unfairness in so many ways. As I say, I find both parties unappetising for different reasons, although if we can extract concessions I would be willing to see some sort of deal with either of them.

  • “I am reliably informed that the party will not necessarily campaign for a Yes vote.”

    An interesting comment, since it must clearly have come as a piece of reassurance to restive Labour backbenchers from a minister of senior whip, and just goes to prove that the promise of a referendum on AV was simply yet another of Gordon Brown’s supposedly clever bits of politicking, either aimed at making the LibDems more sympathetic to the prospect of backing a minority Labour government, or at allowing the Tories to portray the LibDems as being more likely to support a minority Labour government.

    Incidentally, the one option that would not sensibly be open to a prime minister of a minority Labour government would be to call a second election within a short space of time: it would be committing political suicide.

  • Coming a bit late to this….and clearly it is quite right that we should maintain a certain tactical equidistance. Tom’s efforts to force us off the fence clearly indicates it is the right place to be.

    Indeed, the benefits of not making foolist committments is indicated by Tom’s post above in which he suggests that the Tories as largest party would govern alone “(provided that Labour is stupid enough to threaten to bring them down in a vote of confidence….)”. This seems utterly bizarre to me – is Tom really saying that if a minority Tory government proposed savage cuts for deficit reduction, the Labour party would just sit on its hands and let them do it? Can’t see it myself although it would be pretty interesting to see a minority Tory government being opposed by Lib Dems with Labour presumably abstaining……

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