LDV readers say: mixed response to Hung Parliament scenarios

A couple of weeks ago, LDV started a new poll based on a Hung Parliament scenario floated by PoliticalBetting.com’s Mike Smithson – that the next election might result in the Tories winning the popular vote, and Labour winning the most seats. What, he asked, would the Lib Dems do in such a situation? We turned the question over to our readers, and asked: In the event of a Hung Parliament, should the Lib Dems allow the seat winners or the popular vote winners to form a government?

Here’s what you told us:

>> 38% (97 votes) – The winner of the popular vote
>> 11% (28) – The winner of the most seats
>> 35% (90) – Neither: we should oppose whatever the circumstances
>> 17% (43) – Don’t know / Other
Total Votes: 258. Poll ran: 28th March – 6th April, 2009

A bare plurality of LDV readers who voted in the poll – 38% of you – opted to allow the winner of the popular vote to form a government. Only slightly fewer, 35%, argued the Lib Dems should keep our distance from either Labour or the Tories, no matter how the votes/seats stack up. One-sixth of you, 17%, rejected any of the options on offer (or else were don’t knows). A pretty small minority – little more than one-in-ten of you – said we should back the party with the most seats, which would most likely be done by offering what’s known as ‘supply and confidence’ (an idea floated in the Telegraph, allegedly by the Lib Dem leadership, in May last year).

All in all, a mixed bag, with no single view dominating. And indeed if you read the comments thread which followed, it’s pretty clear there are very diverse opinions among party supporters – from those who disdain thinking at all about the prospect of a Hung Parliament at all; to those for whom proportional representation is a deal-breaker; to those who whould tacitly support an arrangement with the Tories / Labour; to those who would quit the party if there were an arrangement with the Tories / Labour; to those observing that Labour and the Tories have more in common with each other than either shares with us; to those stating we should vote on an issue-by-issue basis.

In one sense, this isn’t surprising – a Hung Parliament is a very slim possibility, and unknown in 35 years (since which time, politics has changed beyond recognition). As a result, Lib Dem members have not had to think about the hard reality that might confront the party in the eventuality of neither Labour nor the Tories winning a Commons mandate.

And I’m not suggesting the party should obsess about the issue: it’s a distraction – and a hypothetical one at that – from campaigning, and winning the seats that will determine the extent of Lib Dem influence after the next election. And yet, and yet… The fact that there is such a plurality of views within the party about how we might respond troubles me. For if a Hung Parliament were to happen, the Lib Dems – like it or not – would be the subject of intense public scrutiny. The last thing we need is for MPs and activists to pull in several different directions at the same time, making the party look inchoate and rudderless.

We might, just might, be able to get through a general election campaign chanting the motto, ‘maximum votes, maximum seats’; it won’t sustain us in the days after the result is known. Of course party members must decide what we do once the smoke has cleared, and we can at last judge matters on the basis of certainties rather than speculation.

But it’s my view that the party leadership needs to engage in some some calm, quiet strategising about the approach we might take, and to start sharing it’s thinking with the membership. We don’t have to get bogged down in details, but some broad-but-clear principles would be welcome. Otherwise we risk being caught like rabbits in the headlights at just the moment we actually gain the full glare of publicity.

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10 Comments

  • coldcomfort 11th Apr '09 - 4:52pm

    We should NOT enter into any formal coalition with anybody until we are satisfied that any ‘Queens speech’ emanating from the new Government contains key LibDem policies and any new cabinet contains key Lib Dem figures. I guess I’m aligning very much with Geoffrey Payne. What our leadership team should be doing on the quiet is putting together a negotiating strategy for this (maybe they are – unwise to be too open about it). The number of ‘show stoppers’ in our list of demands should be quite small. The ‘wish list’ can be much bigger & prioritised.

  • I’m afraid all the poll shows is that if you ask a poor question, with poor options, you get a poor answer. Our answer must be quite simple, we will work with any of them who will support us and our policies, not which of them we will support.

    Consequently, we would take the initiative in the debate, and don’t get sidetracked into one or the other sidelines that always end up with our spokesmen being put on the spot and being asked who will you support, making us either closet Cameroons, or closet Brownites.

    Equally, we don’t make a single policy – PR or whatever – a sine qua non for our support.

    We campaign on being Liberal Democrats, not supporters of anyone else, and definitely not as a one issue selfish party.

  • I suggest Westminster PR should be a precondition of joining the government.

    For too many years, the government has failed to be representative of the
    views of the people and instituting PR would be a step in the right
    direction.

    As to Vince Cable thinking the Tories are completely irresponsible in
    oppposing a stimulus package solution, has he attempted to argue his
    case? Can someone provide a link?

    As I recall, doubts have been expressed about the effectiveness of
    quantative easing in Japan.

  • Simon Titley 12th Apr '09 - 12:27pm

    I agree with David Evans – the questionnaire was poorly formulated and could not be answered sensibly. Our response cannot be reduced to a simple “most votes” or “most seats” choice, since those criteria are not overriding ones.

    All kinds of seat/vote permutations are possible but the issue remains a judgement about the good governance of the country and the extent to which the Liberal Democrats could win worthwhile concessions in any deal. If the party is serious about coalition government, it cannot rule in or out either of the major parties as a potential partner, but a coalition is not the only response to a hung parliament. A more limited form of support for a minority government is possible, or no support for the governing party at all if it is not prepared to make worthwhile concessions.

    Fortunately Nick Clegg has the benefit of advice from people with significant experience, particularly Jim Wallace and Andrew Stunell. He should ignore the head-cases demanding a pre-electoral deal or a coalition at any price.

    However, the Liberal Democrats should not salivate at the prospect of a hung parliament, since it is likely to present the party with more of a problem than an opportunity.

    First, if a hung parliament seems at all likely during the next general election campaign, the media will be interested in asking Nick Clegg only one question: “Which party would you support?” This question will be asked again and again, so much so that it will dominate popular perceptions of the party. Any slip-up or perceived contradiction between what different spokespeople say will be magnified out of all proportion.

    The second problem is consequent on the first. Paradoxically, the more a hung parliament seems likely, the less it becomes likely, since it will make voting Liberal Democrat will look like buying a pig in a poke. Any voter whose overriding concern is to prevent a Conservative or Labour government will not risk voting Lib Dem for fear of bringing on the result they least want.

    In the meantime, the Liberal Democrats should avoid any pre-electoral statement of preferences, never mind a pact, because that would undermine the party’s negotiating position. Furthermore, the party should never express a coalition or hung parliament as an objective, otherwise we are parading the limits of our ambitions before the electorate. Hung parliaments are merely things that sometimes happen. When they do, they should be interpreted as the will of the people, to be dealt with as the circumstances arise.

  • David Allen 12th Apr '09 - 6:34pm

    This poll demonstrates a distressing poverty of ambition. The small minority parties are likely to win nearly as many seats as ourselves. So we will probably only be able to make a viable deal, one that creates a governing majority, with the party that wins most seats. Any sort of commitment to the party winning most votes would just be a millstone around our necks, which would quite unnecessarily prevent us gaining power and influence.

    We do of course have to show the public that our actions are principled. The way to do that is to make reasonable demands of our potential coalition partners. Our demands – for example we might demand the scrapping of tuition fees – should be for specific things that would give people a good reason to vote Lib Dem. Then, if the Downright Nasty Party were to come first in the popular vote, we could nevertheless easily justify a deal with the Boring Bureaucrat Party. We might argue that our (say) 20% of the vote plus the BBP’s 35%, against the DNP’s 37%, constituted a clear overall majority for an agreed programme based on shared principles.

    As to the other well-favoured option in this poll, permanent backbench residence – well, words fail me. Why bother to get out of bed in the morning, if that’s all it’s about? Of course we should make tough demands and be prepared to turn down all inadequate deals. But, who on earth can we expect to vote for our party if it promises not to govern?

    To cap it all, there is the common suggestion in the Press – which we don’t seem to be refuting – that we have only one possible partner, the Tories. This is a disastrous impression for us to give. The more Cameron feels able to believe it, the less he will feel he needs to offer us!

    So despite Labour’s bad record, we have to make it clear that we are genuinely “equidistant”. There are ways of doing that. We should demand that to make a Liblab deal, Brown would have to go, and Labour would have to “prop up” Lib Dem policies on civil liberties, Iraq, and the environment – not the other way round.

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