Opinion: How the Prospect of a Hung Parliament could bolster a Liberal Democrat Election Campaign

Discussion surrounding “Hung Parliaments”, prospective coalition deals and the Liberal Democrats are as familiar to supporters of our party as any issue of policy or leadership.

In an attempt to add something new to this longstanding debate, this article outlines a strategy for how the party could tackle the question of how it would act in a Hung Parliament in the next General Election campaign. I am convinced that, if managed correctly, drawing attention to the prospect of the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power could prove to be an electoral asset, as opposed to an issue that causes confusion and fracture.

As far as I understand it, the leadership’s current line is that we are aiming for the “maximum number of Liberal Democrat votes and seats” and that any prospective “deal” can only be sensibly discussed after an election has taken place. This is a perfectly reasonable and justifiable stance, but under the intense scrutiny of a General Election campaign, I can envisage difficulties arising.

Imagine the scenario… the opinion polls are closing (ideally with an improvement in the Lib Dem share!) and the press are convinced that a Hung Parliament is the most likely outcome. What would surely follow is that Nick Clegg would be hounded at every media appearance over the “coalition question”. Irrespective of the fact that we were holding a briefing on environmental or health policy, the media would hone in on this single question.

Our policies would be starved of the attention they deserve and the more our spokespeople stick to the line of “no discussion till after an election” the more the press would speculate about our intentions in the absence of any firm commitment. Moreover, this could play particularly well for the Conservatives – who would no doubt push the line that we “had not ruled out” propping up another Labour Government, and that the only way to guarantee change would be to vote Tory.

My alternative scenario is one in which the party makes an upfront statement on how we would act in a Hung Parliament. My proposal is as follows:

1. Rule out having a formal coalition with BOTH parties unless they include in their manifesto a firm commitment to introducing a constitutional and electoral reform bill in the first year of a new Parliament.
2. In the very likely case that this commitment is not forthcoming, guarantee that the Liberal Democrats will not become part of a formal governing coalition, emphasising that we work best as an independent political party. Instead of a formal coalition, state that we would be willing to work on a pragmatic issue-by-issue basis with whichever party has the most seats. Further to this commitment, the party could highlight 5 priority policies that we would expect to see pursued over the course of the Parliament. (As for the make-up of these five issues, this can hopefully be a spark for further debate…)

I believe that a strategy along these lines has two clear advantages to maintaining the position of “no discussion until after the election”. Making our intentions clear upfront and at the start of an election campaign will prevent the media or our rivals from speculating and misconstruing how the Liberal Democrats might act in a Hung Parliament.

Secondly, as we commit to working on a pragmatic basis with whoever is the largest party, the media will not focus on the question of “Labour or Conservative”, but will be forced to turn to a discussion of the policies that are of importance to the Liberal Democrats.

Moreover, the idea that the Liberal Democrats could play a vital role in influencing the policy of the next Government would be a compelling reason to vote for the party. It would certainly be a powerful retort to the age-old charge that a Lib Dem vote is a “wasted” one.

I do hope that this article sparks some debate, perhaps even amongst the senior party figures currently considering the coalition question by exploring game theory!

* Andrew Lewin is a Lib Dem member and activist in Hertford and Stortford.

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28 Comments

  • “guarantee that the Liberal Democrats will not become part of a formal governing coalition, emphasising that we work best as an independent political party.”

    No-one would believe you. The vehemence of anti-Tory views of a large proportion of your members (though not necessarily your voters) will guarantee that anti-Labour voters (of whom there will be many come the GE) will assume you’ll break that promise (you have form on that) and jump into bed with Labour.

    Result: you get battered at the election

  • Stanley Theed 25th Apr '09 - 8:16pm

    I think we are right with our current approach. I cannot anticipate any Labour recovery, if anything their position will worsen. As things stand we can anticipate a Tory victory but I sense there is little enthusiasm for this. If there is a ‘hung’ parliament in prospect I believe it will be because the Lib.Dem.prospects have improved. Why should we therefore enter into any deals with either of the other parties if this were the case. Far better to await the peoples verdict. The economy is very likely to dominate the election and there is still a lot to play for.

  • Stanley Theed – you left out the apostrophe is “people’s”
    Darrell – you put in a grocer’s apostrophe (i.e. NOT needed) in “career’s”

    Yours –
    the apostrophe police…..

  • I agree with the thrust of the article. What the lib dems commit to do or whom they commit to support in the event of a hung parliament should be secondary to spreading the idea that there could easily be a hung parliament. After all, with labour on track to get turfed out at the next GE the protest vote is pretty much gone, so the big challenge for the lib dems is to convince the electorate that there is some point to voting for them. Pointing out again and again that the lib dems might be in a position to deliver something is surely a good election ploy, even if they don’t commit to exactly what they’re going to deliver.

  • Oh dear. I’m afraid Mr Staines is right, this sort of undergraduate game theory posturing is exactly the sort of thing that loses us votes hands over fist. The Tories say ‘a Lib Dem vote is a vote to prop up Labour’ and Labour say ‘a Lib Dem vote is a vote for the Tories’. Net result we get tonked as waverers return to their oringinal fold for fear of letting their least favoured party in.

    It also seems to be tilting at windmills – I was under the impression that the leadership line was ‘no deals regardless’ – which is far more sustainable anyway.

    I also have a problem with your policy suggestion of highlighting constitutional issues (shorthand for Lib Dem self interest). Given people are losing their jobs, homes and families in the recession do you really think we’ll get any credibility for banging on about PR?

    What we need to say is simple – a Lib Dem vote is for honest and effective policies to get us out of the enormous hole that Gordon Brown has got us into and that Cameron and Osborne have little credible solution to.

    We are in favour of cutting back on government waste (and MPs expenses), putting money where it matters most – reflating the economy and giving people (particularly on low and middle incomes) something back in desperate times. If the others want to support us all well and good, but if not we’ll carry on campaigning for these because they’re the right things to do and we are confident Clegg and Cable will be proved right on this (as they have been before).

  • Sadly, I fear your proposals would be reported in the press as:-
    1) We will only work with anyone else if they offer us electoral reform, which is of no interest to anyone in the real world, and would be of benefit only to ourselves.
    2) If we don’t get it, we won’t work with anyone.
    or more simply “Give us what we want or we will throw our dummy out of the pram,”

    As I said in a similar thread, “Our answer must be quite simple; we will work with any of them who will support us and our policies.”

  • As a civil libertarian
    Labour need to go

    I’ve voted Lib Dem in the last two elections I could vote in

    The opposition to Iraq was great
    but basically if there’s any chance Labour will win I’m voting conservative

    I hoping for a Lib Dem/Tory hung parliament

    but basically getting rid of labour has to be the priority

  • David Morton 26th Apr '09 - 1:42am

    The proposals set ot n the article are bonkers and wuld derail the enire general election air war.

    1. Your deal breaker is a Constitutional Reform Bill wich *nobody* cares about still les in a recession. You’ll look out of touch and self interested trying to make STV a priority when there are 3 Million plus o the dole.

    2. You are making electroral reform a priority but then make seat numbers not vote share the determinant of who you deal with!

    3. your position leaves open the posibility we’ll prop up Labour. A hated Labour party that wll hve just lost a gneral election and maybe even the popular vote ! We’d be slaughtered.

    4. Its Fantasy politics. Hung parliaments are rare enough. one where we magicaly have enough seats to put either party automatically into government are even rarer!

    5. the whole thing is venial and self absorbed. Oh lets talk abo me and ow important I might be my political Dungeons and Dragons world where I live.

    6. sory to mention this but if we are havin this discussion…. a big chunk of he Lib Dem coalition are protest voters and people looking for a “Local Champion” MP. Start talking about being in power and many will run a mile.

    7. and finally. Todays You Gov/Sunday People is Con 45 (n/c) Lab 27 (n/c) LD 17 – 1

    Isn’t all this a bit presumptuious when the pols are pointing to anything other than a hung parliament ?

  • Lib Dem supporters in Con-Lab marginals should be encouraged to vote for whichever of the other two parties can win each seat without winning a Commons majority, ie voting Tory in seats they hold from Labour, or trail Labour in by less than 6 points; and voting Labour where their lead over the Tories is over 11 points. In this way a majority FPTP govt is no more likely than a majority PR govt.

  • Mr Evans.

    I am in the real world and am interested in electoral reform.

    Part of the problem in the economic crisis is a lack of scrutiny
    of a blind belief in the markets.

    If we want to overturn this belief which has been in place since 1979,
    electoral reform would seem to be a step in the right direction.

  • Its not right to state our intentions for what we would do in a hung parliament as it would without a doubt drive more voters of the other side to the polls.

    For example, if we announced now that we would be willing to prop up another Lab government, the Tory communications team would use it to increase turnout dramatically on their side.

  • David Allen 26th Apr '09 - 7:29pm

    If we state that our price is immediate electoral reform, what is the best game plan for our Labour and Tory opponents?

    It’s very simple. They should race each other to see which can be the first to say ” No chance, you useless bunch of opportunists! There’s a crisis on, hadn’t you noticed? We need strong government! We’ve got better things to do than messing around with the voting system so as to let you nobodies get in on the act! ”

    So we would undoubtedly get a contemptuous refusal from both sides on Day One of the campaign. And then what would we do? Sit around looking silly, that’s what.

  • You say the Lib Dems would look silly for failing to get electoral
    reform.

    Well, that would depend on who would be looking.

    I imagine I would personally be pleased that one of my big issues
    was being addressed by one of the three parties. The parties that
    refused to embrace reform would be reduced in my eyes.

    As for the charge of opportunism, good government can be
    an advantage in difficult times and electoral reform might help
    produce good government.

    There is always a crisis of one kind or another. If we wait for
    a clearing before taking action, nothing will be achieved for years.

    I am not a professional political strategist but it would seem to
    me that a lot would depend on how the case for electoral reform
    was made. If a persuasive case can be made, then those who refuse
    to embrace it might suffer electorally and the Lib Dems might
    be boosted.

  • David Allen 26th Apr '09 - 8:04pm

    Voter,

    You would be pleased because we would be prioritising what to you is a big issue. Sadly I fear it is a minority interest, and your one vote would be swamped by all those more interested in jobs, money, etc moving in the opposite direction. (I wish this wasn’t the case, but, I fear that it is!)

  • I actually think the voting issue is a big issue for most people. It could easily be used in the next election: I mean people are losing their jobs and everything, and on top of all that, they realise that the party who gets the most votes won’t necessarily form a government. I can easily imagine people being angry about that.

  • Green Party Supporter 26th Apr '09 - 9:56pm

    I’ll say this simply because my own party has its head up its arse and isn’t doing anything serious on a national scale, and someone needs to do something:

    The message you need to go with is, Tories and Labour are just as bad as each other so it doesn’t make a difference who wins. The only way to make your vote count in this election is to vote for the party you believe in. If you don’t vote or you vote for either of the corrupt parties, it will just encourage them. But vote for us, and it will stop them from getting away scott free.

    (Of course, trying to portray yourselves as the party people can believe in is a task of a different order. Good luck – we might not agree on everything but the more successful you are the better chances smaller parties like ours have of being part of a coalition government)

  • Mr Allen.

    Well, I would want any strategy to include finding a way to present Lib Dems as the party for jobs too.

    If that is not done, then the Lib Dems would be devalued and thus PR would be devalued as a consequence.

    How many constituencies are two horse Lib-Lab races? In those constituencies, the LDs should find a message and use it to beat Labour with.

  • Robert Smith 27th Apr '09 - 8:34pm

    I agree in the most part with what is an extremely interesting article.

    The Lib Dems must surely be looking primarily at picking up anti-Labour votes at the next election. People towards the political left who could never vote Tory but are stick to the teeth with the current government and feel unable to support it. In effect, 1997 in reverse.

    Suggesting in a election that they would prop up a Tory government could indeed then prove damaging – these voters do not want a Tory government and may revert to voting Labour to avoid it. Nevertheless, hinting at supporting Labour would also fail to endear these voters, who are (unstandably) anxious to avoid another authoritarian Labour administration.

    Such a voter may seem fickle, but I believe in exist in significant numbers. The Lib Dems must ensure that voter who are anti-Labour AND anti-Tory end up voting for them.

  • rantersparadise 29th Apr '09 - 12:40pm

    @ Robert Smith

    “Such a voter may seem fickle, but I believe in exist in significant numbers. The Lib Dems must ensure that voter who are anti-Labour AND anti-Tory end up voting for them.”

    Exactly.

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