Clegg asserts Lib Dems’ ‘hung parliament’ equidistance. (The headline you won’t read in today’s papers).

It’s a long time since LDV has carried a ‘Media Moron Watch’ feature … but if we were still running it, the spoils today would be shared by pretty much every newspaper. Here are the headlines from the so-called quality press today:

From which headlines a disinterested reader would conclude the following: Nick Clegg has categorically ruled out doing a deal with Labour and opened the door to a deal with the Tories.

Now let’s compare those headlines with what Nick Clegg actually said on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show yesterday:

I think it is an inevitable fact, it is just stating the obvious, the party which has got the strongest mandate from the British people will have the first right to seek to govern. I start from a very simple first principle: it is not Gordon Brown or David Cameron or Nick Clegg who are kingmakers in British politics, it’s the British people. Whichever party have the strongest mandate from the British people … have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others.”

How any thinking journalist can translate Nick’s crystal clear statement of equidistance into spurious Clegg-backs-Tories mis-reporting is beyond me.

Personally, I am delighted with Nick’s statement. It has long baffled me that the party has declined to adopt what seems to me the simplest approach for dealing with the interminable ‘hung Parliament’ question – to say we’ll respect the decision of the electorate and talk to whichever party wins the most votes.

‘Maximum votes, maximum seats’ might be a good slogan for a party conference, but it just sounds evasive when tested in media interviews. The new, common-sense approach is, to my mind, to be warmly welcomed. Even if it has been distorted by a media with its own agenda.

  • Lib Dem Voice has polled readers of the blog and party members signed-up to our Forum about this in the past. Links to the results below:

    LDV survey: What Lib Dem members actually think about a hung Parliament
    LDV readers say: mixed response to Hung Parliament scenarios

  • Read more by or more about , or .
    This entry was posted in Op-eds.


    • Herbert Brown 23rd Nov '09 - 10:56am

      But in a sense the papers are reflecting accurately the likely implication of what Clegg said, because in statistical terms it’s very unlikely that there would be a hung parliament if Labour got more votes than the Tories.

    • “Personally, I am delighted with Nick’s statement. It has long baffled me that the party has declined to adopt what seems to me the simplest approach for dealing with the interminable ‘hung Parliament’ question – to say we’ll respect the decision of the electorate and talk to whichever party wins the most votes. ”

      I note that Clegg carefully didn’t determine what he means by “mandate”. I trust he means “votes” and not “seats”; a likely hung parliament scenario is one in which Labour are the largest party in terms of seats, but the Tories in terms of votes.

    • Herbert Brown 23rd Nov '09 - 1:30pm

      Of course, unless the party does quite a bit better than current projections indicate, it’s unlikely that it would really have a choice of which party to work with.

      If the Tories fell short of Labour in terms of seats, they would probably require more than just the Lib Dems to give them a Commons majority. It may well be that Nick Clegg would prefer to deal with the party with more votes, but if Labour won more seats that might not be possible.

    • I felt that Nick’s comments at Liverpool Federal Conference in 2008 made the party position clear – no unthinking coalitions which “annex” the party onto another, working on a policy-by-policy basis to achieve the best results the Liberal Democrats can achieve, particularly in terms of electoral reform. While I can see that his comments yesterday have been misrepresented, I still feel they were confusing compared to his original clarity.

    • “A coalition with the Tories would be a nightmare when it comes to relations with the EU, supporting unwinnable wars in the middle east, unconditionally supporting Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, supporting nuclear weapons we do not need and a harsh policy on immigration. It could tear our party apart.”

      A coalition with Labour would be a nightmare when it comes to the erosion of civil liberties, supporting unwinnable wars in the middle east, over-wheening centralisation, supporting nuclear weapons we do not need and a harsh policy on immigration. It could tear our party apart.

    • David Allen 23rd Nov '09 - 2:04pm

      “Strongest mandate”, the words that Clegg actually used, could mean either votes or seats, or indeed something more nebulous. Stephen, you have taken it to mean votes. If that is the correct interpretation, then the Press have also made a correct interpretation.

      If Labour were to win one more vote than the Tories, then they would be almost certain to have an absolute majority in terms of seats, so there would be no hung parliament. That is of course a result of an unfair and unjustifiable electoral system, but, it is fact. In consequence, a pledge to support the party with the most votes in a hung parliament amounts to a pledge to support the Conservatives in a hung parliament.

      Nick didn’t actually make that pledge, however. His words were ambiguous.

    • Herbert Brown 23rd Nov '09 - 4:22pm

      Hmm. I see the Independent thinks he meant most seats:

      We seem to have ended up with a typical Clegg muddle.

    • Herbert Brown 23rd Nov '09 - 4:53pm

      Looking at the programme again, the bizarre thing is that Andrew Marr initially asked Clegg whether he would back the party with “the biggest number of seats, or votes, or what?” Then Clegg waffled on about the “strongest mandate”, and then without making any effort to clarify what that meant, Marr commented that his answer was “very straightforward” (!).

    • David Allen 23rd Nov '09 - 5:57pm


      “We seem to have ended up with a typical Clegg muddle.”

      Well, the prize for muddling goes to the Independent. The article you cited says “most seats” in its paragraph 1, but it then says “most votes” in its paragraph 4!

      Frankly I would not blame Clegg for being ambiguous here. Sometimes it is just wrong to make a clear unambiguous commitment which then proves to have been a mistake in the light of later events. If Clegg said “mandate = seats”, he would be open to ridicule for abandoning our belief in fair votes. If he said “mandate = votes”, then we would have become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Conservative party, since we would be committed to favouring no other.

    • Herbert Brown 23rd Nov '09 - 6:26pm


      “Almost certainly that will mean who’s won most votes; and almost certainly that will also mean they’ve won most seats.”

      You know as well as I do that it’s simply not the case that the party with most votes would “almost certainly” win most seats. In that MORI poll, the Tories were 6 points ahead of Labour, but it was projected that they would have almost exactly the same number of seats.

      From your post above, it seemed that you understood Clegg to mean “most votes”. Now you seem to be saying that it might mean something else, and that what it did mean might not be apparent until the result of the election was known. That’s not exactly my idea of a “crystal clear statement”!

    • “So I think Nick’s quite right to say that it will be clear once all the votes are counted who has the ’strongest mandate’.”

      Not necessarily. Who had the strongest mandate after February 74? That was far from clear.

    • Paul Griffiths 23rd Nov '09 - 7:43pm

      He meant seats.

      Coming up next on LDV: Exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    • Bill le Breton 23rd Nov '09 - 7:55pm

      In 1974, the outgoing Tories sat on their hands to allow Wilson into Number 10 rather than doing a deal with us. I see every reason to expect that, similarly if the first election of 2010 were to give no single party a majority, one of them will let the other govern rather than give us the credibility of a deal.

      But if we are playing games, then, the most important thing to negotiate is a fixed term parliament. Without that we should be at the mercy of a PM able to ‘end the deal’ and dash to the electorate at his convenience. At which second general election we shall be annihilated as a political force.

      However, my model from the recent past is still 1970, rather than 1974. And our job is to keep campaigning for a programme to rebuild Britain’s battered democracy and its battered economy rather along the lines of Clegg’s speech to the CBI today.

    • Herbert Brown 23rd Nov '09 - 8:36pm


      “Coming up next on LDV: Exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

      If your implication is that this is a pointless academic discussion, you need to think again.

      If your interpretation is right, and if there are polls during the next election campaign anything like that MORI one, in Lib Dem/Con marginals the Tories are going to be screaming at every opportunity “The Lib Dems will keep Labour in power!”

      That could have a devastating effect.

    • Paul Griffiths 23rd Nov '09 - 9:18pm

      It’s a pointless academic discussion because (a) he meant seats and (b) the Tories will be screaming whatever we do.

    • Malcolm Todd 23rd Nov '09 - 10:12pm

      What everyone seems to be missing is that Clegg said that “Whichever party have the strongest mandate from the British people … have the first right to seek to try and govern” – so even assuming (as is still almost certain) that the Tories have both the most seats and the most votes, he is only saying they should be given first shot at governing, or trying to create a coalition, and by no means pledging to support them, or refusing to do a deal with Labour if the Tories don’t come up with an acceptable deal. Some here will continue to call that classic Clegg fudge; I’d call it a sensibly restrained and realistic approach to what remains a relatively unlikely scenario.

    • Can we please drop the ridiculous idea the so-called popular vote offers some sort of automatic mandate. This isn’t a US presidential election where voters just straightforwardly vote for whom they want to win, it’s a FPTP parliamentary election where local considerations will cause a huge number of people to vote tactically, and a great many more to rightly conclude that there’s no point in voting at all. The popular vote tells up absolutely nothing about the wishes of the electorate. Not a thing.

      The idea that the Lib Dems should feel some sort of duty to work with the one party that fully supports the continuation of this awful system just because they happen to have won more individual votes is just absurd.

    • Herbert Brown 23rd Nov '09 - 10:54pm


      “It’s a pointless academic discussion because (a) he meant seats …”

      Actually, I think it would be useful if you could explain why you think that’s what he meant, rather than just repeating the assertion, because of course that’s precisely what’s at issue.

      If you can manage to persuade anyone in addition to yourself, then you’ll be able to congratulate yourself on having played a small part in shortening the discussion.

    • Bill le Breton 24th Nov '09 - 10:16am


      Forgive me for not replying sooner – I seem to keep different hours to the majority of contributors. It was really useful to get your insider’s view. I do hope you make contact with the Leader’s Office or Andrew Stunell to offer to share that experience.

      I recall the Humber scene and some Liberals including Cyril skipping down the street but I was celebrating in the streets of Liskeard at the time.

      It would be helpful if you could confirm my recollection that Heath abstained in the Queen’s Speech. He could have voted it down (or signalled that he would do so and that he would move an immediate vote of no confidence), which would have brought Wilson to the telephone. That he did not, I think, strengthens my assertion that keeping us ‘out’ is one of the most important of considerations for the ‘other two’.

      But you are right to remind us of the pressure it places on the Party. In 1997, under the Presidency of Bob Maclennan, a system for consulting local Party Chairs was put together. I hope Ros Scott is constructing something similar.


    • Who knows what Clegg means by what he said? Utterly unclear. I had hoped that the Leader of the Liberal Democrats would have come up with something an awful lot better than this.

      If saying we’d put Labour in or we’d put the Conservatives in is a vote loser, then saying we don’t know and we don’t care is the quick march to electoral irrelvance.

      Would it be really to much to ask that Mr Clegg carried on the logic of the his preceding comments in the interview, to paraphrase: that Briatin faces enormous problems on the economy, on the environment, on foreign policy on trust in politicians and the entire political system.

      The very worst result in a hung parliament would be for one party to assume it had the “stongest mandate” based on either the number of votes or number of seats it got on a low turnout in a discredited electoral system which creates huge distortions such as tactical voting, etc etc.

      Obviously it was too much to ask.

    • Malcolm Todd 26th Nov '09 - 4:21pm

      Perhaps it’s me, but I thought Clegg’s answer was clearer than what you’re suggesting. What are you trying to say?

    • Bill Hampson 11th May '10 - 11:27am

      Nick Clegg came as the New Messiah to cleanse the Temple but he has shown that far from overthrowing the money changers table he has simply looked around for the best exchange rate. I and I am sure many more Brits will not vote Liberal in future elections.

    2 Trackbacks

    • By Lib Dem HQ: read what Nick said, not what the press reported! on Mon 23rd November 2009 at 10:26 am.

      […] Mobile « Clegg asserts Lib Dems’ ‘hung parliament’ equidistance. (The headline you … […]

    • By The LDV Friday Five (ish): 20/11/09 on Fri 27th November 2009 at 8:56 pm.

      […] Dems cleared by Electoral Commission over Michael Brown’s £2.4m donation (33) by Stephen Tall 4. Clegg asserts Lib Dems’ ‘hung parliament’ equidistance. (The headline you won’t read in toda… (28) by Stephen Tall 5. Prime Minister removes all Christmas imagery from official Christmas cards […]

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