Coalition politics: why the public is the winner

Amid all the chatter and speculation in the last few days, one point has been repeatedly uttered by those in the Labour and Tory parties opposed to electoral reform: that the fact that politicians have spent the past few days talking to each other to work out where they agree will mean the public will never vote for a proportional system which is likely to lead to regular coalition government.

I’m not too sure where they draw their conclusion from – most non-political friends I’ve talked to have been quite enjoying the spectacle, finding it all quite fascinating.

Now that might be mere novelty value. But I think it’s also because the public appreciates seeing their politicians having to work hard and seriously to draw up a programme for government.

(It might also, I concede, be because they’re amused by politicians looking confused and uncertain, rather than projecting mythical confidence that they know best always).

It looks like today will be the day when we find out what will actually happen to the government of this country. Until then, all those of us who aren’t directly involved can do is watch and wait.

But I’ll hazard a guess that some form of agreement will be reached, most likely between the Lib Dems and Conservatives (whether full coalition or ‘supply and confidence plus’). And what we’ll find if that does happen is that the programme for government drawn up will be a compromise, one which will test the loyalty of the Lib Dems’ and Tories’ respective party members. Policies to which we are wedded will have failed to make the cut. Policies to which we are opposed will be part of the deal. It could all get quite messy. Or people might just recognise that the art of politics is compromise, and never more so than when no one party has a majority.

But I’ll also hazard a second guess: that for every party member (whether Lib Dem or Tory or potentially Labour) who looks at the deal and says, “I just can’t stomach that“, there will be a member of the public looking at it and thinking, “That looks sort of sensible”.

And that’s the point of consensual politics. Many of the hobby horses of political parties which are not mainstream, and do not command majority public support, are jettisoned. Instead politicians learn to focus on those policy areas which they know the public will like, and on which there’s widespread agreement. Parties hate it – they like to be in control – but the public is the winner.

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  • Liberal Neil 11th May '10 - 10:05am

    Wise words mate.

  • Peter Hodges 11th May '10 - 10:09am

    I don’t see how the public has won anything. We have seen Clegg call on Cameron to act in the national interest whilst whoring himself for party interest. We have seen politicians tear up their manifestos, behind closed doors, for power’s sake. We see the Labour Party demonstrating that hatred of the tories is its sole raison d’etre. Those of us outside of the bubble don’t find it fascinating to see our politicians gazing at their own navels whilst debts rack up by half a billion per day. We want a government.

    So, this is the “new politics” of which Clegg speaks. No thanks!

  • Peter – I doubt that this is Clegg’s doing. If it was up to him, the Lib/Con coalition may well have been a done deal before the start of this week.

  • I agree. As a Libdem-friendly Tory voter, I favour a LD/Con deal, but I don’t think Nick Clegg can convince the MPs.

    Ashdown, Campbell, Steel, Hughes and Cable have all made pronouncements clearly against working with the Tories. And they are very well respected.

    If you turn down Cameron’s offer, then I think the party will clearly have moved from the centre into Labour’s ground – which would be a shame.

    With a lot of public grumbling from the Labour backbenches (and some have said they will vote against any electoral reform), it is odd that the Tory right wing seem to be very disciplined.

  • Look Peter Hodges your view is infantile – your chosen party (and Labour) have pulled a fast one for too long – you say that with 36% they should govern in absolute control. Why? It’s time for the Tories to grow up and compromise and stop using terms like `whoring` that really reveal your own angsts.

  • Paul Griffiths 11th May '10 - 10:19am

    Forming a government in an era of multi-party politics is difficult. But so it should be.

    Until now, we have tried to sidestep the difficult decisions by using a voting system that effectively dumps the votes of thousands of people in order to create an unrepresentative and emasculated parliament. That’s too high a price to pay.

  • There is undoubtedly a lot of compromise happening behind closed doors. William Hague’s acceptance of a referendum on AV is one publicly admitted example. Whatever happens, it will be the result of hard fought negotiations and will necessarily be a compromise between to two party’s political positions. There will be losers and some of each party’s principles will have been set aside for the sake of agreement. This is right and proper for coalition government.

    Nick Clegg and his team are right to negotiate with both the Labour and Conservative parties. Neither of them have the right to form the next government on the grounds that neither won the election. Our parliamentary system of government requires that the elected MPs choose a Prime Minister from amongst themselves. The one with the largest support is asked to form a government. Since we have a strong party system in government and one party or other usually has a majority of MPs, the choice of PM is clear. In a hung parliament, there is no clear majority and we have to accept that the parties will negotiate a coalition if possible. This is not a “disgrace” as some commenters have said but a necessary part in forming a strong government. We have to allow Nick Clegg and team choose the best government and place our trust in their good judgement.

    I for one am quite energised by this process. It is a demonstration of democracy at work by the fact that the major parties are willing to hold genuine negotiations and offering genuine compromise. This is an opportunity to show that coalition government can be strong and stable, unlike the previous attempt in 1974.

  • A Lib/Lab government will soon be run by Ed freaky eyes Balls, get those lifeboats ready for the sinking ship!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th May '10 - 10:30am

    I’ve just heard Malcolm Rifkind whipping himself up into a righteous fury on the basis that Nick Clegg had said he would talk to the Labour party only if talks with the Conservatives failed. Did he really say that? All he said on Friday was that the Tories should have the right to seek to govern first. Perhaps Rifkind is confusing Clegg with Gordon Brown, who said he would be willing to talk to the Lib Dems if the talks with the Tories failed.

    I ask only because so many inaccurate claims are being made about what Nick Clegg said about this during the campaign, that it wouldn’t be surprising if people were also misrepresenting what he has said since the election, to suit their own purposes.

  • Peter Russell 11th May '10 - 10:38am

    I agree that the Conservative option is the best and most likely, and that neither sides priorities will be completely met. However I hope at the end of the parliament (three years?) both parties will look at the changes they have made to the country and think that on the whole they are proud of what they’ve done. There’s certainly the potential for that to happen.

    I really hope that they get there quickly though – In my opinion “Giving the Conservatives the first chance to form a government” should mean that when they make us an offer we can live with, they have succeeded. It shouldn’t really matter if Labour are making a superficially more attractive offer too. For my money the offer on a referendum on AV is sufficient electoral reform, and if everything else is viable then lets get on with it!

  • Great song in favour of electoral reform by Thea Gilmore, available on youtube –

  • This sorry charade can be endlessly spun – but Clegg is now seriously damaged and the Lib Dems losing credibility.

    As for PR, this dance and demands by minorities will bring home to many the flaws and will ensure any referendum will be lost.

    Lets remember the issue for the country is the need for stable government to deal with the economic problems.
    PR may be a big issue for activists but is not the national problem.

    An unstable coalition of losers will not be acceptable in the country or last for very long – in the election following its demise the Lib Dems will be decimated.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th May '10 - 10:44am

    “I really hope that they get there quickly though …”

    Of course, one possibility is that it may be necessary for Clegg to demonstrate that Labour cannot deliver its own backbenchers (which looks to be the case) before he can convince his own party to deal with the Tories – even at a “supply and confidence” level.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th May '10 - 10:47am

    “This sorry charade can be endlessly spun – but Clegg is now seriously damaged and the Lib Dems losing credibility.”

    I take it that’s your spin on it, anyway?

  • So, we’re whores and harlots now? What marvellous hypocrisy. No less than we should have expected from the old parties and their media mouthpieces, I suppose, when we finally achieve the ability to influence the outcome. You can see them squirming at the the Power Club having been forced to admit new members.

    I agree with Stephen: personally, I have found it fascinating to watch the process of politicians learning to talk to one another, rather than just shout with closed minds. This is the transformation to consensual politics I have been awaiting for decades. Anyone who thinks that a party’s manifesto is a tablet of stone is just not living in the real world: it’s a road map, and there are always choices to be made along the way. Dogmatism will get us abolutely nowhere in the current circumstances.

    It’s a shame that even the interior design of the House of Commons is predisposed towards confrontation, rather than consensus, and is a constant reminder of two-party duelling, rather than multi-party decision-making. A more circular arrangement would seem appropriate from now on. Perhaps they could borrow the O2 arena…

  • Libs signing their own death warrant propping up a disgraced Labour party and will be punished at the next election.

  • Rome burns whilst the LibDems choose which sandals to wear

  • Mandi Abrahams 11th May '10 - 11:02am

    The “Orange Book” New Liberal Party is going to win through is it? We must always remember history and watch the moves. New Labour, New Liberals. Always tempting to go for the chance for real influence but at what cost? Anyone who was there in the Lib-Con Coumbira County Council administration will feel that pain. I say a plague on all their houses. Let a minority government stand or fall on its own policies and abilities.

  • Mandi Abrahams 11th May '10 - 11:03am

    Sorry for typo – I meant Cumbria CC

  • Tom,

    “Rome burns whilst the LibDems choose which sandals to wear” – Oh do come along! The UK is not on fire, even metaphorically. It is far better to take one extra day to decide the right outcome than to choose in haste.

    Andy Anson

    “Libs signing their own death warrant propping up a disgraced Labour party and will be punished at the next election” – Hardly. Remember that the Conservatives are not all that popular either. If the coalition works well, it could be an epiphany in British politics.

  • A Lib Dem coalition would inevitably lead to a Conservative landslide at the next election, and more pertinently, a Lib Dem wipeout. It’s inconeivable that a Balls or Milliband-led LabLib administration could be seen as a success. And I assume LabLib would repeal all authoritarian legislation and seek to reduce taxes for the lower paid would it? This has to be about more than just PR and party self-interest.

  • Colin,
    if there is another election within a year and after allowing the squatter to sit in no.10 for another 4 months and then prop up another unelected PM in the eyes of voters – it’s simple. The Libs will lose all the floating voters they gained at this election and there is no alternative if you want a ramshackle government out but to vote Tory.

    It will be a landslide. Labours stench will take you down. Not only that Clegg will look stupid, all his outbursts at Brown now make him look a total hypocrite.

    National interest before party interest? Rubbish!

  • Rod, the Liberal ‘Democrats’ aren’t interested in anything but their party. They would rather get AV forced through parliament than put it to a referendum if it suits them.

    ‘Democratic’ indeed. A coalition of the defeated looking to stitch up power between them yet only a week ago we heard that the Libs were trying to replace Labour as the progressive left party. Now they’re proping them up in power.

  • I must have missed the bit where the pound collapses, the economy lies in ruins and the wolves are at the door. Ah it ahsn’t. Business as usual. Weird that a lot of countries carry on quite happily with a transition period, funny that we can’t…hold on we are.

  • Anyone who has a commitment to the Libdem cause AND more than half a brain cell must recognise that a commitment to Labour will be a suicide note.

    2 or 3 months of squabbles with the SNP and Plaid Cymru deciding policy, followed by collapse, and another election. An election which the party does not have the financial resources to fight effectively and for which it will be blamed by the electorate.

    If Brown goes ( did anyone actually listen to his speech? He left himself wiggle room if no “stable governement” emerges), the actions of the LibDem party grandees will give the country a PM elected 1/3,1/3,1/3 by 200 Labour MPs, 15 or so Union leaders, and 160,000 party members. Given that the party is near bankruptcy, the most likely candidate is Ed Balls, who will be the clear choice of the Public Sector unions. The result will be to polarise Left-Right support in the election, and completely trash the LibDem vote.

    For heaven’s sake (and the Country’s) let us allow Clegg to do what he always said he would. Make a deal with the party with the most support.

  • I reckon that if the Social Democrats force Clegg into Labour’s arms he may well resign so we might have two elections for new party leaders

  • The British public didn’t even get ‘ Vote Clegg get Brown’

    We got ‘Vote Clegg, get Brown and then as a Brucey Bonus we’ll give you another unelected PM’

  • Andy Anson

    “A coalition of the defeated” would be apt for a Con – Lib government too.

  • Exactly Jon, the LibDems are about to collaberate to allow the Unite union responsible for the upcoming widespread strikes (just watch) to elect our next prime minister.

    Anyone who cares about the LibDems will know they’re cutting their own throat.

    Ed Balls as the next prime minister is a gift wrapped present to the Conservatives.

  • Good to see Tories here pretending top be LibDems as usual. It fools nobody.

  • Colin, not everyone who disagrees is automatically a Tory…

  • Who is a Tory? I’m a green. I hope Caroline stays out of this mess. You should let the Tory govern in a minority and let them drown in their own stew.

    Interesting that you can’t dispute any of the facts, however. It’s going to be a very interesting time, normally a new government gets a honeymoon period. The press is going to be against this coalition from the start. Prepare for a big fall.

  • Cllr Duncan Clark 11th May '10 - 11:38am

    I am very proud of how the party leadership are handling the talks with both parties. A bit of credit would not go a miss for how they have brought the polictical agenda forwards on possible electoral reform. Time spent now is well worth it in order to reduce the pain of rushing into a bad deal over the next few years.

  • Malcolm Todd 11th May '10 - 11:39am

    I agree. But I suppose it’s a change from the screaming Labour trolls of the weekend. 😉

  • Anthony Aloysius St
    Posted 11th May 2010 at 10:30 am

    Well said, I have been getting extremely cheesed off with the BBC for the way they are wildly speculating this and that instead of concentrating on the facts, it seems now there is a BIG PUSH by the BIG society Cons and the mainstream media telling Nick it’s the do or die moment, why the rush?
    Also this blog appears to be filling up with posts from cons and lab supporters treating this libdem blog as if it’s a battle ground, you can almost smell the hate, very sad lol.
    Man the barricades the yuppies are on the hill!

  • To paraphrase The Who, “meet the New Politics, same as the Old Politics”.

    The revelation of secret Lib/Lab talks over the weekend and the fact that he instantly fell for Brown’s resignation ploy has been deeply damaging to Clegg. He looked like a statesman on Friday – he now looks like a duplicitous opportunist.

    The Social Democrats cannot be allowed to hold the party to ransom – Labour cannot even deliver on its promises (the Scottish Labour party is going nuts about PR). For God’s sake we don’t even know who the next Labour leader will be! What if it is John Cruddas? He is no liberal.

    These are very dangerous times for the party and I fear we are in the process of going from hero to zero.

  • “the Liberal ‘Democrats’ aren’t interested in anything but their party. They would rather get AV forced through parliament than put it to a referendum if it suits them.”

    The Lib Dems don’t support AV, neither do the Conseravtives so why are the Conseravtive proposing a referendum on a issue where they will campaign against and no one will campaign in favour?

    Mr Cameron has supported referendums on the EU Constitution, the Lisbon Treaty, any transfer of further powers to the EU, on elected Mayors for the 20 biggest cities but not on a proper protional voting system.

    It’s really decison time for Mr Cameron. Is he in favour of change or the same old voting system from 1832?

    Is he a moderniser like he says he is or someone who thinks that 7 million Lib dems votes can be ignored?

    Has he changed his party or do they still think they have a devine right to power on 36% of the vote?

    I think we are getting our answer. He offers a referendum on a tiny change to the voting system and will campaign against even that change. The man is an utter pratt

  • Can we at least give up this pretence of wanting ‘stable government’ – a rainbow coalition is anything but.

    I see another winter of discontent on the horizon, Libs to be held responsible

  • As a Lib voter in the South West of England, if my party ends up making me pay more than the Scots,Welsh & Irish in terms of cuts as a result of joining this coalition i’ll never vote for them again.

    We want to replace Labour as the progressive party, not allow them to cling to power at all costs.

  • What’s rather pathetic is the tendency (especially in the media, where I imagine it matters more than in blog comments) to substitute self-righteous indignation (negotiations? compromise? by politicians? Oh, dear, I have the vapours, fetch me my smelling salts…) and rotten puns (“stitch-up”, “coalition of the losers”) for reasoned political thought or any discussion of the merits of the various coalitions on offer.

  • rotten puns?

    ‘Squatting in number 10’ was a Cleggism if you’ll recall.

  • Just a thought – Given the issues surrounding the Labour negotiations are pretty clear, and the negative view of the wider public.
    I wonder what Mandleson and Cambell see as the long term benefits for the Labour project from all this.
    Clegg and the Lib Dems credibility is damaged, – the viability of a PR voting system is losing support – is this part of a plan – now is there more, something darker still?.

  • It appears to me that we’re in a damned if we do, damned if we do the other situation. Either coalition risks our erasure at the next election. Failing to become partners risks the same fate. Without PR I feel we’re in for a squeeze. I hope Nick (et al) are smarter than I!

    I’ve gone from giddy excitement, to despair to hope to wondering what the heck is going to happen so far this election.

    What a ride!

  • For a successful future for the party and to make a convincing case for a change to a system of PR based on coalition government, the LibDems must be open enough and flexible enough to work with either Labour or the Conservatives.

    They have had formal discussions with both parties, which is correct, but now it’s time to make the right decision.

    The ‘rainbow’ coalition is clearly not a stable option and there is serious opposition to it within the Labour party.

    Nick Clegg and his team should do the deal with the Tories, take their place in government and get on with the job of running the country.

  • We are told that if the Lib Dems don’t accept the Tory option, they will be “punished by the electorate”. Why?
    Why should the majority of voters who were against the Tories take umbrage if Nick Clegg accepts what is now evident: that propping up the Tories in government will not be accepted by the Lib Dem MPs, Executive and members?
    David Cameron will not and cannot deliver on electoral reform. The Tories are desperate to get any sort of Tory government in place, using the blackmail of “the national interest” to persuade the Lib Dems to support them. If they don’t achieve this, the Conservative Party will face meltdown, with Cameron and Osborne the likely first victims of Tory fury. Bring it on……! We can ignore any amount of huffing and puffing by Tory bigwigs, MPs, activists and Tory voters, and their lickspittle allies in Fleet Street, These people would always belittle and libel the LIberal Democrats — and have done during the election campaign– when they realise we are not going to fall for their blandishments.
    Does anyone seriously believe that nationalist MPs from Scotland, Wales or N. Ireland are going to support a vengeful Tory opposition in bringing down a “Progressive alliance” government now in prospect? Clegg should ensure that both electoral reform and deficit reduction are the priorities of a newly-formed LD/Labour coalition.
    The formation of any Tory administartion at this stage would ensure that the prospects for electoral reform are greatly damaged, possible for the longer term. Tories CANNOT BE TRUSTED and once in government would cut-and-run at the earliest opportunity to ensure that a second general election was fought under the unfair and undemocratic FPTP system. We must prevent this at all costs!

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