Opinion: Hung parliaments – a suggestion from Denmark    

 

Why is Nick Clegg ruling out options in a hung parliament?

Firstly, he has said that he would refuse to work with Labour in a government that relied on ‘life support’ from the Scottish National Party; this is reported in the Financial Times as a  blow to the chances of a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition.  I know very well that the SNP are our most dangerous opponents in Scotland – as they are also Labour’s – but the fact remains that these three parties’ policies have more in common than any of them do with the Conservatives.

And as pointed out by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian the danger of ostracizing  the SNP at Westminster is that it simply pushes Scotland in the direction of independence.  The SNP have themselves ruled out any formal coalition, but if the main price of their tacit support for a Lab/Lib coalition were to be a constitutional convention, promoting electoral reform, and real Home Rule as opposed to the half-baked Smith Commission proposals, Liberal Democrats should rejoice: we’re not going to get that from the Tories.

Secondly, Nick Clegg has repeated his view that the party with the most votes and the most seats in this election has the first right to seek to form a Government.  I was aghast when he came out with this artificial rule in 2010, and remain aghast.  To deal with it first as describing constitutional process, it simply isn’t true.  The convention is that the existing Prime Minister can stay in office while he attempts to form a government: both Ted Heath in February 1974 and Gordon Brown in May 2010 attempted to do this, and only resigned when it became clear that they could not succeed.

As regards moral right, convention perhaps goes the other way: if a government has lost its majority, even if it is still the largest party, it should let someone else try first: this I think was the reason Labour were allowed to form their first government in 1924, although they were well short of being the largest party.  On this line of thinking,  if the present coalition lose their majority they should give first crack to Labour, whether Labour have more seats than the Conservatives or not.

But the third and most important reason to be aghast is that this thinking not only cuts down our options, but does so in a way that treats negotiations as purely a numbers game, taking no account of the alignment or otherwise of the various parties’ policies.  It has allowed Cameron to counter by saying that the electorate do not know what the Liberal Democrats stand for, and Miliband to emphasize that he will continue to campaign on the issues.

Towards the end of ‘Borgen‘ the heroine Birgitte Nyborg is challenged as to which side her small party will support in a hung parliament. Just substitute ‘Liberal’ for ‘New’ in the following exchange and you have the positive strategy I believe we badly need, both for the campaign and for any negotiations that follow.

Nyborg: “We will cooperate with whoever can help us promote our policies.”

Interviewer:  “People won’t know who they’re voting for if they vote for you.”

Nyborg: “A vote for the New Democrats is a vote for the New Democrats.”

Interviewer: “You can’t not back someone.”

Nyborg: “You bet I can.  Let me keep things simple. The New Democrats will pursue New Democrats policies, not other people’s.”

* Denis Mollison joined the SDP in 1981 and is an active member of East Lothian Liberal Democrats. He is a former member of Scottish Policy Committee and devised the STV scheme for the UK Parliament put forward by Lib Dems in Parliament (as an amendment to Labour's "Electoral Reform" Bill) in Feb 2010. He is currently a committee member for Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform.

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49 Comments

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Apr '15 - 12:46pm

    Common sense mainstream Liberal Democrat views from East Lothian (and Denmark).

  • jedibeeftrix 27th Apr '15 - 1:21pm

    I recall a series of articles here on ldv by a Kirsten titled: “what would borgen do”.

    I believe she left rather disheartened that her ‘solutions’ could not seem to gain traction even on ldv!

    I tried on numerous occasions to explain that this was not merely a procedural problem of our fptp electoral system, but results from the reality of an adversarial electorate expecting adversarial politics.

    I don’t think she understood that message…

  • @William “It would be good to hear from a pro-FPTP Lib Dem on the case for continuing in government without electoral reform, and how he/she thinks the party will survive as a political force into the future after another 5 years of being in coalition.”

    it’s not really a case of being pro FPTP, its a case of looking at the situation we’re in and what the outcome of making Westminster electoral reform a red line would be.

    The party is between a rock and a hard place on this one – fundamentally the only way STV will get through is if both major parties calculate its in their interest for it to get through.

    its starting to dawn on the Conservatives that they may never get a FPTP majority again, but Labour are a long long way from this position and I think it will take this election and possibly another two with a similar result for them to start to argue the case. At the moment, even in a hung parliament, they still win a greater share of seats than they do of votes.

    The danger, of course, is because FPTP magnifies swings they both think “one more push … next time …” and continue to hold out.

    Falling turnout bothers them not as long as it only falls in their safe seats.

  • matt (Bristol) 27th Apr '15 - 1:55pm

    I do not back single-member, 1-constituency FPTP at all.

    I would be prepared, however, to compromise on a parallel voting overlappinh-constituency system in which FPTP and STV both play a part, and I (personally) would be prepared for a bill which allowed regional referenda on this (ie an assymetric system, in which – say – N Ireland chooses parallel voting, but Yorkshire continues with FPTP). It would be interesting to see what would happen if we put htis pfroward to the other parties. Surely it might be a sight better than accepting Labour policy from a Conservative government as a deal-maker over and above anything which bears resemblance to our own policy, which, in hindsight is what we did on AV (I know, I thought it was a good idea at the time, too).

    As Labour continues to talk about electoral reform but doesn’t say what form it would take, and is surely going to be smarting hard from an SNP-bashing, this could be a way to break the deadlock. Decoupling from a unitary national arrangement also plays the Nats off against each other and prevents Sturgeon posturing as the defender of progressive politics in the UK as a whole.

    However much I would like there to be a magic bullet, however, I suspect and fear the more likely way breakthrough may be made is graduallist – depressingly – the AV referendum showed higher support for refrom in all those areas where forms of preferential voting were already in practice. STV in local councils is more likely to win a longterm adoption of STV, if we can win it out of one party or another. The problem with such a pragmatic apoproach over a more high-stakes approach is that we win no significant national kudos for a cautious policy, risk attaching ourselves further in the popular mind with the hated political establishment, and probably don’t reap any voter reward.

  • I think that Nick Clegg is trying to prevent the Party becoming boxed in by commentators and other Parties. The “the most votes and the most seats” line effectively neutralises accusations of bias; the procedure may not have constitutional authority, it is a rational prescription for the course Lib Dems can take after an election. It is the least electorally damaging line to take. Anyone who disagrees with Nick Clegg must explain the line to take when pressed on which Party would be our first choice for negotiation.

    I am not so happy with his assertion that Lib Dems cannot be in a coalition that needs SNP. I think SNP are as valid partners as Conservatives or Labour, however in practice it may be an astute move. SNP are projected to be the third largest Party, though Nick Clegg cannot at this stage state that he thinks this will be the case. I am sure we all hope not. However if they are, a coalition with Labour or Conservatives would be impossible to organise, in the circumstances more difficult than Labour or Conservative attempting to form a minority government alone. By saying that he would not participate in what would be a minority government, he is providing a narrative that enables the Party to walk away from a weak coalition and forestalling pressures that would be placed on the Party.

  • @William but the risk of making PR a red line is that another election is called (FTPA not withstanding) at which both Labour and the Tories say:

    “We didn’t want to make you come out and vote again but the Lib Dems have forced it upon us because they want to make a change to the voting system, which you don’t really care about, a precondition of any deal. Given the problems we face as a country, tinkering with the voting system, and in a way that only benefits the smaller parties and gives them a perpetual say in government, cannot be a high priority. “

  • I don’t see what authority Nick has to rule out coalition with any party. Surely any option for coalition should be discussed with the group within the party set up to do this, and then voted on at a special conference?

  • Sadly Denis, I’m no longer sure that we DO have more in common with Labour and the SNP – the party has been taken over by Cleggite market fundamentalists. The sooner he goes, the better.

  • @GP Burnell if I had a pound for every time someone on this board said ” the party has been taken over by Cleggite market fundamentalists. The sooner he goes, the better” I’d be rich enough to buy myself a peerage.

    Can we not get this straight once and for all. Nick Clegg was elected as leader. The other candidate subsequently went to prison.

    The party has not been “taken over” by anyone. All this does is perpetuate the “sore loser” image of the left who were quite happy for the right to have to support their leadership preferences and policies but wouldn’t return the favour.

  • paul barker 27th Apr '15 - 3:28pm

    Why is Nick ruling out working with The SNP/UKIP/DUP ? Because they are all extreme Nationalists, they are all nasty & all 3 are obsessed with a handful of issues that we dont care about. It seems like common sense to me.

  • So why not rule out working with the Tories? Why not rule out working with every party that’s not as simon-pure as Nick Clegg claims to be?

    This is politics. In coalitions and compromises you work together with your enemies, not with your friends. We have already established that. Purity in negotiations is the very last thing Clegg can insist on, as he is already in coalition with a Party that is extreme, nasty, obsessed with “issues that we don’t care about” and politically on the opposite side of what the Liberal Democrats are supposed to stand for.

    The Liberal Democrats brand is already tarnished; it won’t be improved by ritual rhetorical condemnations.

  • @David-1

    So why not rule out working with Labour? Why not rule out working with every party that’s not as simon-pure as Nick Clegg claims to be?

    This is politics. In coalitions and compromises you work together with your enemies, not with your friends. We have already established that. Purity in negotiations is the very last thing Clegg can insist on, as he would potentially be in coalition with a Party that is extreme, nasty, obsessed with “issues that we don’t care about” and politically on the opposite side of what the Liberal Democrats are supposed to stand for.

  • matt (Bristol) 27th Apr '15 - 4:08pm

    Paul Barker – Has Nick Clegg really explicitly ruled out working with the DUP??? I’ll be glad if he has,but thought he hadn’t.

  • “It would be good to hear from a pro-FPTP Lib Dem on the case for continuing in government without electoral reform, and how he/she thinks the party will survive as a political force into the future after another 5 years of being in coalition.”

    I suggest the acid test will be the result of the 2015 election. If the LibDems return circa 50 MP’s then I suggest they will not only survive as a politicial force, but could potentially thrive, showing that they are the real leaders in co-operative politics. If however, less than 10 MP’s are returned then changing the voting system isn’t going to magically restore the fortunes of the party.

  • @Roland “I suggest the acid test will be the result of the 2015 election. If the LibDems return circa 50 MP’s then I suggest they will not only survive as a politicial force, but could potentially thrive, showing that they are the real leaders in co-operative politics. If however, [fewer] than 10 MP’s are returned then changing the voting system isn’t going to magically restore the fortunes of the party.”

    I don’t think its as simple as this given both results are potentially possible on the same vote share, or even a higher vote share for fewer MPs.

  • William Hobhouse 27th Apr ’15 – 1:23pm
    “….Those Lib Dems that support or tolerate FPTP will come out with statements like Nick Clegg’s on never talking to the SNP or UKIP. This approach is pretty binary, almost indistinguishable from the statements that come from Labour or the Conservatives.”

    William Hobhouse sums up in one sentence the weak and shallow nature of the leader’s contribution to UK politics.
    Unfortunately so many politicians who spend most of their time in the Westmnster Bubble all sound the same and talk the same when it comes to constitutional change. Their language gives them away.
    Over the last five years the Deputy Prime Minister with special personal responsibility for this area of government policy has achieved virtually nothing.

    Maybe that explains why Nick Clegg has said to the FT what he has said, because maybe his heart was never really in it. Or maybe he never really understood.

    At the beginning of Dennis’ article he asks the question —
    “Why is Nick Clegg ruling out options in a hung parliament?”

    There is only one logical answer. He is ruling out all the options except for the one that he personally wants. Which is why we will lose seats, supporters, members and voters.
    Most voters do not want Cameron to carry on squatting in Downing St.
    Most voters want Cameron out of Downing St.
    Has anyone told Nick Clegg?

  • The DUP are a lot of things, but nationalist is not one of them

  • I support PR, but I think we’re kind of ignoring the fact that we now have fixed term parliaments so as long as party can achieve enough support it can stay in power for 5 years. The other point is that any post election agreements are going to be very careful and a new government is likely to avoid policies that can’t get a decent amount of cross party support. Now this is easy for Labour and The Conservatives be cause they can just be opposed to each other as a matter of reflex. It’s considerably harder for the Lib Dems because there are policy crossovers even with the SNP. For that matter UKIP would probably vote to end The Bed Room Tax.
    To be honest I hope electoral uncertainty forces people to cooperate in a grown up way. There is no sign that any one party can storm to power and any snap election is only likely to harden the stance of the electorate. Basically we need to go back to governing on behalf of all of our citizens rather trying to divide them.. I think even the Conservative will eventually learn they can’t win simply by gnashing and wailing their teeth in the hope it will scare people into voting for them.

  • @Dylan ROFLMAO. Post of the day.

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Apr '15 - 8:08pm

    TCO, has it come round to your watch again so soon? Still, in as much as you can, you do put up a good stand against all these pesky progressive Liberal Democrats. Even if futile, you must be admired for your dogged efforts.

    “its starting to dawn on the Conservatives that they may never get a FPTP majority again, but Labour are a long long way from this position”. Hmmm. Me thinks you view the Tories through lilac-tinted spectacles.

    My view is completely counter to this. With a strong SNP, the position of Labour is surely quite weak (even with ourselves at a very low ebb); unless UKIP rise strongly a little to their right, the Tories would appear to be in a significantly stronger position to maintain their historical stance. And even UKIP might cynically see the benefits of PR.

    Although Tories and Labour are similarly illiberal and ademocratic, the potential prize for an egalitarian centre-left grouping is, I would suggest, ultimately greater. This, taken with my strong SNP point is more likely to make the Lib Dem demand for STV PR a far easier pill for Labour to swallow than it might ever be for the Tories.

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Apr '15 - 8:09pm

    @Gareth Wilson 27th Apr ’15 – 2:42pm
    “I don’t see what authority Nick has to rule out coalition with any party. Surely any option for coalition should be discussed with the group within the party set up to do this, and then voted on at a special conference?”

    Indeed!

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Apr '15 - 8:13pm

    Glenn 27th Apr ’15 – 5:45pm
    ” … I think even the Conservative will eventually learn they can’t win simply by gnashing and wailing their teeth in the hope it will scare people into voting for them.”

    It has worked for Tories for hundreds of years. Fear is one of their stock in trade tools.

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Apr ’15 – 8:09pm
    @Gareth Wilson 27th Apr ’15 – 2:42pm
    “I don’t see what authority Nick has to rule out coalition with any party. Surely any option for coalition should be discussed with the group within the party set up to do this, and then voted on at a special conference?”

    This was put into context when Jon Snow interviewed Danny Alexander on Ch 4 News this evening.
    Jon Snow in a live interview asked if after 7th May the defeated MP Danny would become Lord Danny so as to be able to enforce the “red lines” and bar any LibDems from talking to the SNP after the election.
    As usual the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ response was less than convincing.

  • @Gareth Wilson 27th Apr ’15 – 2:42pm
    “I don’t see what authority Nick has to rule out coalition with any party.”

    Well given he is currently: the leader, a Westminster MP and is standing for re-election to Westminster, I suggest he has far more legitimacy than Nicola Sturgeon, who isn’t even standing as a candidate in the Westminster elections!
    I suspect it is to distract from the fact that Alex Salmond is. So if Alex wins his seat the potential LAbour-SNP relationship isn’t Ed and Nicola but Ed and Alex…

  • @Roland We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune! We’re taking turns to act as a sort of executive-officer-for-the-week. But all the decisions *of* that officer ‘ave to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority, in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority, in the case of more major …

  • @ Stephen Hesketh “And even UKIP might cynically see the benefits of PR”

    Given we’re likely to get a result where the SNP get 5% of the votes and 50 seats and UKIP get 15% and 2 seats, I don’t think you can accuse them of being cynical when we’ve used the same argument for years. That’s just hypocritical. If UKIP get 15% of the vote they deserve to be listened to not suppressed. Supressing them will just store up trouble for the future

  • @Stephen Hesketh as a matter of curiosity how old are you roughly speaking? I have a theory I’m testing.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Apr '15 - 3:21am

    William Hobhouse, in terms of surviving as a political force I wouldn’t join any coalition. But I get the impression that some people really want to go back into government and I’m pretty indifferent, so I just let them have their way on that one.

    I have no interest in spending twenty years in opposition, so personally I would aim to split Labour and the Conservatives.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Apr '15 - 7:12am

    TCO 27th Apr ’15 – 10:20pm
    “If UKIP get 15% of the vote they deserve to be listened to not suppressed. Supressing them will just store up trouble for the future”

    If UKIP get 15% of the vote, they deserve 15% of MPs. Not sure they deserve to be listened to though.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Apr '15 - 7:20am

    TCO 27th Apr ’15 – 11:21pm
    @Stephen Hesketh as a matter of curiosity how old are you roughly speaking? I have a theory I’m testing.

    TCO, it is a bit rich for someone who is known only by three letters to ask an openly named contributor how old they are.
    We don’t even know if TCO are your initials.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 28th Apr '15 - 9:18am

    NC is not ruling out options in a hung parliament. He is following some dumb tactics. The Lib Dems will almost certainly be needed in any combination of parties which will form the government. SNPs, if they don’t agree to a formal arrangement, will force a difficult decision on the Head of State.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks I agree. Refusing to work with others just comes across as childish foot-stamping, Nick would have done better to have been up-front on the red lines ie the Manifesto front page – and then focussed on the policies.

  • @Stephen Hesketh TCO is not my initials, though it is an acronym.

    I’m guessing you’re in your mid fifties. If I’m wrong it doesn’t matter; but I suspect I’m right.

    In the interest of fairness I’m in my mid forties.

  • @Stephen Hesketh “If UKIP get 15% of the vote, they deserve 15% of MPs. Not sure they deserve to be listened to though.”

    if you don’t listen to them, how can you understand their point of view, their grievances, and the flaws in their argument?

    UKIP raise many points that resonate with people; that immigration is uncontrolled, that illegal immigrants come and take scarce resources without contribution that were paid for by those here legally and putting pressure on wages, houses and services.

    You can either choose to ignore those points or deal with them. But if you ignore them then they are allowed to present their version of events unchallenged. And that is dangerous.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Apr '15 - 3:22pm

    Excellent observations from IainBB.

    We should be seeking arrangements which further Liberal Democrat policies and values. I fear that Clegg’s red lines are in the shape of a large blue arrow usherring us in his ultimately preferred direction. Of greater concern is that, whatever the election brings for him or this party, he is seeking to tie the hands of his successor by making all these public pre-election statements. We may yet be grateful that a Clegg promise carries a “Caveat emptor” warning.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Apr '15 - 3:50pm

    TCO28th Apr ’15 – 9:51am
    “I’m guessing you’re in your mid fifties. If I’m wrong it doesn’t matter; but I suspect I’m right. In the interest of fairness I’m in my mid forties.”

    And just to add fuel to your theories of radicalism, I see from his photograph that IainBB appears to have some grey hair!

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Apr '15 - 3:56pm

    TCO28th Apr ’15 – 9:55am
    [[@Stephen Hesketh “If UKIP get 15% of the vote, they deserve 15% of MPs. Not sure they deserve to be listened to though.]]

    “if you don’t listen to them, how can you understand their point of view, their grievances, and the flaws in their argument? UKIP raise many points that resonate with people; that immigration is uncontrolled, that illegal immigrants come and take scarce resources without contribution that were paid for by those here legally and putting pressure on wages, houses and services. You can either choose to ignore those points or deal with them. But if you ignore them then they are allowed to present their version of events unchallenged. And that is dangerous.”

    OK, point taken. I did not not however mean they should be ignored or engaged with. A poorly expressed comment on my part.

  • TCO,
    I have a theory. I’m working on. Can you confirm your age, coz I want to know if I’m right and can dismiss you on spurious grounds.

  • I expect lots of us would like Nick Clegg to say that the basis for choosing between coalition partners is how many Liberal Democrat policies we could achieve. However because of the failures of the leadership during this coalition they like to talk about the front page of the 2010 manifesto and the 2015 manifesto. Most if not all of these policies have been driven by the leadership. The more radical policies are in the next 150 or so pages.

    @ William Hobhouse
    “The alternative position of coalition, collaborative multi-party politics is the norm in other countries, and the Borgen example is a good one. We need PR for that, because this election is going to demonstrate pretty clearly that small party involvement in government under FPTP is electorally disastrous.
    It would be good to hear from a pro-FPTP Lib Dem on the case for continuing in government without electoral reform, and how he/she thinks the party will survive as a political force into the future after another 5 years of being in coalition.”

    I can’t image Nick Clegg making STV for the House of Commons a red line. He didn’t do it 2010 when we were in a strong position and he will not do it 2015 when we will be in a weaker position. The Conservatives will not support STV for the House of Commons with or without a referendum first. Labour are divided on the issue and a referendum could be their solution to this. (I am not convinced we could win a referendum unless STV was being used across the UK for local government elections.) However is it really in the interests of the SNP to support STV for the House of Commons? I don’t think so.

    If we went into coalition with Labour and made them balance “the budget” by 2017/18 then they would blame us for all the cuts and this could well destroy the party. If we accepted as we have in this Parliament that putting dates on when “the budget” is balanced is arbitrary, then we could sign up to Labour’s economic policy as we signed up to the Conservative one in 2010, then we could get some of our radical policies enacted and the party might not end up destroyed even under FPTP.

  • Alex Sabine 29th Apr '15 - 2:19am

    @ TCO
    I agree that the solution to public unease/opposition to immigration is not to ignore it. Instead those of us who defend liberal immigration policies shoukd engage with the arguments and seek to bring to bear facts and evidence. These are very different from UKIP’s hyperbole but they include things that people like me, as an unabashed supporter of immigration, have to face up to: for example, it seems to me to be a statement of the obvious that immigration contributes to population growth and therefore demand pressures on housing. There are rational supply-side policy responses to this but it does no favours to the liberal case to deny the facts.

    You’re also right to say that UKIP make points on this subject that resonate with many voters. However I don’t think that it’s mainly a question of illegal vs legal, at least I haven’t heard them stress that point recently. Isn’t their main argument – and it is this that resonates with voters – precisely that legal immigration is uncontrolled because the British government doesn’t have the legal right to limit it with respect to EU migration? And that the high level of unskilled/low-skilled immigration drives down wages? (I think the empirical evidence on this is inconclusive but the perception is undoubtedly widespread and strong.) Of course they blame immigration for all sorts of other real and imagined ills, but unlimited EU immigration = wage compression & housing/services pressure is the linkage they have the most success with as far as I can see.

  • No one here seems to be considering that Nick Clegg may be manoeuvring not to be in coalition after the election; particularly if Lib Dems emerge as the fourth largest Party.

  • @Martin I’ve been thinking that for a few weeks now.

  • @Alex Sabine thanks you’ve made my points very eloquently.

  • @Glenn already done

  • SIMON BANKS 29th Apr '15 - 9:05am

    Very obvious point: the party with the most seats may well not be the party with the most votes. So why does Nick Clegg continue talking as if they’re the same thing? Lack of thought, or deliberate obfuscation?

  • SIMON BANKS 29th Apr ’15 – 9:05am
    Very obvious point: the party with the most seats may well not be the party with the most votes. So why does Nick Clegg continue talking as if they’re the same thing? Lack of thought, or deliberate obfuscation?

    Simon, don’t discount the possibility that it could be deliberate obfuscation as well as lack of thought.

    My money is actually on lack of thought — I say that because I cannot actually remember Nick Clegg enthusing about party policy on STV as a system of voting which is better for democracy and for the individual voter. I cannot even remember him being that enthusiastic about the AV system that he produced as Deputy PM with personal responsibility for constitutional reform. In fact since losing AV and losing HofL reform he doesn’t seem to have given either of them a second thought. Can anyone remember him mentioning either in this campaign?

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