Opinion: Is there grand gesture to reform which would make coalition with the Tories acceptable?

I am not someone you might expect to back a deal with the Tories. I come from a traditional Labour-voting background, and I am more suspicious of the Tories, and their motives, than many in our party.

But while this makes me cautious – almost to the point of paranoia – about a deal with Cameron’s Tories to form a majority coalition in the new Parliament, it does not make me rule it out altogether. The Parliamentary arithmetic alone – the lack of a majority for a Lib/Lab pact – and Labour’s internal division over voting reform means it deserves serious consideration.

Cameron’s initial offer on Friday, as Mark Pack has said, contained very little besides the warm words of a snake oil salesman. His speech had interesting titbits, but the real meat was missing.

He seemed to touch on most of our four key priorities. He agreed broadly on fairer taxes at the bottom end. Cutting income taxes attracts him. But how keen is he about the necessary shift towards clamping down on tax avoidance at the top end, or towards green air taxes, designed to pay for it? He seemed keen to co-operate on education, and supports our pupil premium to give disadvantaged schools extra funding. He could perhaps even get behind green job creation, as part of tackling the deficit.

Reports suggest that the parties might well be able to negotiate compromises on these issues. These will be the subject of the delicate negotiations this weekend.

But the Tories will need to treat the Liberal Democrats seriously. The absurdity of our voting system, means that the parliamentary arithmetic – our 57 seats to his 306 – is merely a quirk of fate, the thing that makes a deal possible. It is the relative proportions of the vote – our 23% (an increase, let’s not forget!) to their 36% – which give us our moral right to significant leverage. Our voters, through our MPs, deserve roughly two-thirds of the policy influence in any coalition. And this is what makes the Reform Agenda such a stumbling block.

For the Reform Agenda is where Mr Cameron’s initial offer scores woefully short of the minimum for which our party should be fighting.

He made a nod in the right direction, but it was the merest flick of the forehead. He suggested he was in favour of ‘voting reform’, offering (listening to the radio, I held my breath….) ‘equal sized constituencies’. I laughed out loud! It is hardly an effective answer to the manifest unfairness of Thursday’s result. And an all-party inquiry into further reform of the system? It was not nearly enough.

Mr Cameron wants – indeed needs – first-past-the-post for the House of Common. Because so, with visceral hatred of the very thought of voting reform, do his new backbenchers. It seems impossible to square the circle. If we insist, he will claim we are insisting on our own narrow party advantage, though he too is insisting on narrow party advantage, by wanting to keep it. Mr Cameron may well be politically lynched by his own party if he tries to override them.

Put simply, it ain’t gonna happen.

So we need to insist on something he may be able to offer. But it needs to be something considerable.

Some other big reform.

If his backbenchers will not accept reform of the Commons then – whisper it – what about the Lords?

Here is an historic opportunity to do away with the unelected Lords. An opportunity to replace it with an elected second chamber, with enhanced powers to scrutinise legislation, and to block it. Permanently, if necessary. An opportunity to have this New Chamber fairly elected by the Single Transferable Vote.

We, the people, will get our say about who is in it, significantly reducing the power of political parties. In elections for this chamber, we will get to choose not just between parties, but between candidates of the same party. So you can pick your favourite, not your local party’s favourite. And you can rank them in order of preference. You can put the BNP, or your lazy cheating MP, last. You can decide an order of merit among the candidates each party offers you.

This would be a big deal for Mr Cameron. His party has dug in its heals over almost every piece of progressive legislation for 250 years! They delayed Grey’s Great Reform Act by 50 years at least. But they do give in sometimes. When their backs are against the wall. And only ‘in the National Interest’, you understand?

Tory Prime Ministers have made historic capitulations ‘in the National Interest’ before. They have seen that the game was up, and a concession needed to be made. Peel gave in on the Corn Laws in the 1840s, and Disraeli extended the franchise in the 1860s.

Now, in 2010, to bring about the stable national oalition Mr Cameron himself says is desperately needed to deal with the country’s economic problems, he might have the chance to seal the deal by enacting a historic Reform Act. Whilst leaving his backbenchers’ hides conveniently alone.

There is a toxic effect of supporting the Tories on many of our voters. Many of them have posted on this site, threatening never to vote for us again if we ‘get into bed with them’, as if a Tory-only Government and a Tory/Liberal Democrat Government – split roughly 3 to 2 – were the same thing.

They are not the same thing at all.

But if Liberal Democrats are to convince our supporters in the country, we need a grand gesture from Mr Cameron to make it worthwhile, and strong guarantees that he will push it through, within a year, come what may. (There is no need for a referendum, incidentally. We promised that only for reform of the Commons.)

Is Mr Cameron big and open enough to offer this grand gesture, in the national interest, so that we can get on with tackling the national debt? Or would he prefer to govern alone, at the head of a weak and vulnerable minority government? It the very outcome of which he professed (before last Thursday) to be fearful. And who among his supporters could disagree, after his arguments of the past couple of weeks?

Personally, I don’t think the Tories have their backs against the wall yet. But they might surprise me.

* Terry Gilbert is a former Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate, and has been a Lib Dem member since 1983.

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48 Comments

  • Terry – a very thoughtful and cogently argued piece.

    Everyone needs to be mindful that we are an independent party with our own views. Too many people seem to think we are some sort of “progressive” (whatever that means) adjunct to the Labour Party.

    We are not – and this is our chance to prove it.

    In many ways it would be far better if the sort of reform that PR would bring did come from a Conservative / LD coalition, precisely because it could not be described as a “lefty stich up”, but a piece of serious reform that commands widespread support.

  • What arrogant twaddle! The only party that stood on an explicit electoral reform platform were the Lib Dems and they were soundly defeated. To start talking about holding the rest of the country to ransom for the delivery of a set of changes that only 23% have voted for and claim this is in the national interest perhaps begins to explain why the Lib Dems did so poorly. You’re in this trading position not because the whole country is on your side but because of the idiosyncracy of our voting system. Thankfully Clegg and Cameron appear to take a more pragmatic and non partisan view of what is in the national interest .

  • Green Otter 8th May '10 - 3:05pm

    Yes, reform of the House of Lord would do it imo as an alternative to PR for parliament. I can see it working a bit like the Lib Dem triple lock – a democratic check on policy that still allows FPTP in the main parliament. It’s not ideal, but it could work.

    And importantly – it would be a check on Tory power if they accepted it, and would make them look silly and unreasonable in negotiation if they rejected it.

    It’s a good idea.

    I was thinking this morning that the Lib Dems would have looked at all the possible scenarios and have some aces up their sleeves for situations like this – I’m pleased to see that I seem to have been right.

  • Apologies for cross-posting:

    All the people saying, “I’ll never vote Lib Dem again if you do x” really does underline the bankruptcy of our electoral system where people have to vote tactically for the “least worst” option rather than for policies and parties they truly believe in. A political party cannot survive on such flaky support and probably doesn’t deserve to.

    Secondly, Labour have behaved in the least progressive way of any government since Thatcher and yet suddenly we can form an alliance with them? After Iraq, the non-action over political reform and all the attendant baggage, it doesn’t wash!

    Thirdly, I think some people are looking the prospect of us being in government at this backwards. what if we get some decent policy concessions that really benefit people in this country? We could then point to a record for the first time in over 80 years! Think of how the Lib Dems in Scotland trumpeted the abolition of tutition fees when they were part of the Lab-LibDem govt there.

  • Wakey ! Wakey!

    It is time to stop re-arranging the deckchairs (electoral reform) and attend to real world events and save the ship (THE NATIONAL INTEREST). EVEN with electoral reform the Libdems will still be a minority party (at least for a while yet).

    What David Cameron has offered the Libdem’s is an “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”; an opportunity to:
    1. Demonstrate that they are capable of acting and working collaboratively in ‘the national interest’;
    something they will have to do under a PR system.
    2. Deliver on “It is time for something different. It is time for something better.”

    If the Libdems are unable accept the (very real) challenge to work with David Cameron and the Conservatives (yes I have deliberately drawn a separation) and thus put the national interest first then electoral reform becomes academic.

  • Donny Rathbone 8th May '10 - 4:26pm

    I just saw this vidoe, and it appears to sum up the reallt impossible situation Nick is in … I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes today.
    http://www.beehivecity.com/buzz/hung-parliament-comedy-clegg-chooses-cameron1524052010/

  • Interesting idea, I even considered this myself for about… seven seconds this morning. Interesting as this is, I can’t see the Tory party considering PR for the Lords, they would possibly be even more hostile to that than if you suggest it for the Commons. The Lords has always been fairly independent of the party and politics, the Tories will view it as the politicisation Lords, electoral considerations will come into play when people are voting. Then you have the problem of what will happen to the cross-bench peers? I don’t think it works to be honest. Clegg is in a very difficult position. Your best bet, sadly, is to throw your lot in with Labour (with a new and ahem… unelected… leader) get a referendum on FPTP or AV+ or PR and then go from there. Bear in mind I don’t speak as a party member, I am a libertarian, not a Lib Dem.

  • I have argued for an elected Upper house as well. I think it would make a viable alternative to PR for the Commons, with the added benefit that it’s success would likely rub off on the Commons in future and drive momentum to change the voting system there too. A ‘trial run’, if you will, and perhaps a less bitter pill for the Tories to swallow (though their aristocracy would not be happy at all).

  • I think a PR elected beefed up House of Lords is a good idea . Mind you with so manyLib Dem votes being tactical anti votes I amnot sure it us a good idea for the Lib Dems

    Why are there not more Rolands ?Do you think I as a Conservative like the idea of Lib Dem policies …? You have to trade and in the case of Europe it would be on my part an especially bitter pill. I think you underestimate how well Clegg has done here and ( judging by some of the comments) how well he has hidden the true Party. To retain that many seats in a genuinely down to the wire election is what has given you the power. I think its time someone started to see just what Clegg has achieved here

  • On the face of it this seems a logical compromise. But wouldn’t we have a truly desperate constitutional mess if a FPTP Commons majority was repeatedly blocked by an STV anti-government coalition Lords? Could the Commons really force through their agenda when the Lords was essentially more legitimate than an executive elected by a minority of the electorate? Until we resolve the checks and balances I’m very wary of transforming the subordinate role of the Lords in our political system. And I can’t see the Tories ceding this either.

  • Lib Dem strategy

    1) Try to deceive Labour voters

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-yes-we-can-19224.html

    2) Usher in a Tory government (see above)

    Vote Clegg, get Cameron indeed.

    And this is why your party is now doomed. You have no core bedrock of support and the progressives that flocked to you are now running away as fast as they can.

  • On 1st May, talking about a strategy to bring Labour voters into the LD fold, Terry Gilbert wrote:

    What especially appeals is the prospect of keeping the Tories out!

    Now read the above. And to think Lib Dems portray themselves as a party of high principle.

    (I voted LD, before the accusations of Labour troll start flying)

  • “Labour have behaved in the least progressive way of any government since Thatcher ”

    With all the governments we’ve had since Thatcher, this is a truly damning statement.

  • As a Tory I would whole heartedly agree with you concerning concerning reform of the HoL. I find it just as offensive to have appointed members of Parliament as I did concerning heriditaries. The idea that parties can have patronage in this way is not part of a 21st C democracy. However the details of the upper house must be worked out first. I would suggest 6 year fixed terms with half the house being elected every 3 years. Whether we change the powers of the upper house might need to be considered. I personally would increase the powers in order to decrease the power of the executive but pigs fly on that one!

  • David Allen 8th May '10 - 7:51pm

    Interesting idea. A snag: the timing.

    If Cameron gets it all done and dusted in a year, what’s to stop us kicking him in the teeth and chucking him out of office? He will of course be very unpopular by then, because of the cuts he has made. We won’t want our own popularity dragged down too, and we will probably see an opportunity to make gains.

    So – Cameron won’t want to get it all done and dusted in a year. And then, of course, we won’t be able to trust him to do it at all.

  • Tony Butcher 8th May '10 - 7:57pm

    I believe that the Lib Dems should not press for PR to strongly at present but embrace the opportunity that partnership offers them – huller explaination in blog: http://wp.me/pRHY4-C

  • Peter (above) is spot on. The Lib Dems probably attracted many votes from those who might otherwise have voted Labour, for precisely the kinds of reasons outlined in Terry Gilbert’s 1 May post. If Clegg now supports a right-of-centre Europhobic party in minority government or coalition, the betrayal of these voters will be total. They will never, ever trust the Lib Dems again.

  • We have been well and truly trolled…..

  • Sunder Katwala 8th May '10 - 9:52pm

    “our 23% (an increase, let’s not forget!) to their 36% – which give us our moral right to significant leverage. Our voters, through our MPs, deserve roughly two-thirds of the policy influence in any coalition”.

    if you wanted two-thirds of the coalition influence for 24% of the vote that would leave the Tories with one-third for their 36%.

    So to the extent that this is a sensible metric, I think you mean the LDs would deserve almost two-fifths (23/59) of the policy influence within the coalition, or about two-thirds of the amount of influence the Tories would have.

    Though that 40% of governing power would give you disproportional power in terms of your 23% voting strength if we were to be purists about it.

  • @Cogload

    Calling someone you disagree with a troll. The last refuge of those without an argument. Entirely expected but still very, very sad.

  • The Tories will lie to Nick, then screw us over. I don’t wanna say I told you all so!!!
    Labour are the best move even with the complications

  • I don’t think the tories will agree to changes in the house of commons electoral system.

    But they might agree to a PR house of lords, with much more power, and more generally a comprehensive system of checks and balances, perhaps even a written constitution.

    The real aim should be the end of our elective dictatorship which has produced such poor quality government for such a long time. There are other ways of achieving that than PR in the house of commons.

  • Andrea Gill 8th May '10 - 11:16pm

    This is a big chance to

    a) Stabilise and balance an otherwise possibly dangerously right wing government, which many had expected to arrogantly take charge and try to rule as a minority without anyone’s consent before and

    b) Actually become involved in active day to day government, rather than be a party of permanent hecklers, as some seem to perceive us, and instead work actively on a workable solution to solve many of the issues that lie at the heart of our manifesto and that our society needs to deal with ASAP.

    Some grass rooters at either side may be unhappy about this, but if we can’t work together on this and reach a workable compromise, then our goals of proportional representation etc are not worth pursuing, because this is the reality of such a system – it forces parties to work together rather than giving one party full power. And that can IMHO only be a good thing. But we now have to prove that we are up to this task, and I do have full trust in Nick Clegg et al to pursue these discussions logically, passionately and level-headedly.

    This is a big chance for the Lib Dems to actually become actively part of a government again, and prove to any doubters that we are more than just a negligible bunch of oppositional critics, but are instead someone worth listening to, and working with.

  • Chris Mills 9th May '10 - 2:14am

    I’m adopting wait and see.

    Nick at the moment is doing no more than keeping his word that the party with the biggest mandate has the first opportunity to form a government.

    I suspect in the end there will be no agreement and the negotiations will then start in earnest with Labour.

  • James Woodward 9th May '10 - 9:29am

    As a labour voter, I changed my vote in favour of the party promising electoral change. Please do not form an alliance with the Conservative Party.
    What will the party do about those voters who were denied a vote by maladministration of the current system?

  • James Woodward 9th May '10 - 9:53am

    We hope that Nick listens to his voters and sticks with his most important promise of electoral reform. The subject still seems to be open. As a supporter. I look for a party that I can trust, but to drop the electoral reform which was promised, would be a dissappointment.

  • Lorna Langdon 9th May '10 - 10:28am

    I don’t beleive it is the ‘national interest’ to give the keys to no. 10 to the Cons. If Nick Clegg gives David Cameron the key to the door, he will go down in history as the man who destroyed the Liberal Democrat party and the man who sold us down the river, all for a couple of bums on ministerial seats for the blink of an eye. What a traitor! I will feel absolutely conned! I might as well of spent all those hours in the rain delivering leaftlets for the bloody bigotted and homophobic tories instead! I’d rather have Gordon Brown as PM than that twat!

  • The fact that Tories have to turn to LibDems because they can’t get another parties to make a coalition for the extra 20 seats shows the country does not want a right wing government. There was a progressive vote, divided in many parties, but still adding up to more than 50%. The right wing, no reform party was concentrated but much lower.
    NO DEAL WITH THE TORIES for this LibDem voter!

  • Terry Gilbert isn’t a Lib Dem Member since 1983. The Lib Dems haven’t been in existance that long!

    FAIR VOTES NOW.

    Otherwise we will be waiting a century like we have for House of Lords Reform. Its all very cosy, all public school boys together negotiating a cosy deal and “being reasonable” in the “national interest” but that is just blackmail being deployed. THe Conservatives aim has to be a second election in short order with the blame landed on the LIb Dems and their giant financial advantage deployed to crush Labour and the Lib Dems.

    The Conservatives are now in the minority opposing fair votes andour minimum position must be a referendum to allow the people to decide their voting system.

  • Nicola Gibb 9th May '10 - 1:54pm

    I am in Kent and a LibDem member for over 20 years and have been a local gov. candidate – but if we support Labour at this time I will sadly leave the party. One thing we have to offer is integrity and having made the statements prior to the election in support of whoever gets the most votes/seats (the same thing as it happened) Nick cannot now go back because Brown offers a better carrot. Most LibDem voters round here feel strongly this way and support would disappear for any future election, ammnd also probably for local elections.

    The suggestion of a compromise position involving the Upper House looks well worth persuing.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 9th May '10 - 2:30pm

    “One thing we have to offer is integrity and having made the statements prior to the election in support of whoever gets the most votes/seats (the same thing as it happened) Nick cannot now go back because Brown offers a better carrot.”

    But of course Clegg was very careful in his choice of words, and never said any more than that the larger party would have the right to seek to govern.

    He made no pledge of _automatic_ support. And indeed, a pledge of _automatic_ support for either of the other parties would obviously make the Lib Dems redundant.

  • passing tory 9th May '10 - 3:17pm

    Why do those posting here assume that Tories would be against PR in the house of Lords? Have they actually followed any of the Conservative internal policy debate on this??

  • passing tory 9th May '10 - 3:18pm

    @Ben, could you explain why you consider AV (the Labour position) to be “fairer” than FPTP?

  • passing tory 9th May '10 - 3:21pm

    @Keith; What sort of increased powers did you have in mind? I am not sure that a HoL elected through PR and with power of to veto (rather than just delay) legislation would work particularly well.

  • Terry Gilbert 10th May '10 - 8:20am

    Thanks, passing tory. Can you point us to the internal debate to which you refer? If they were elected they would have more legitimacy? Even more than the Commons, perhaps? The whole idea seems to me that any legislation would need to be acceptable to BOTH Houses – a moderating influence that reasonable Tories would surely favour?

  • Alternative voting (AV) is another suggested fudge by the Tories. The whole voting system needs to be reformed and the voters need to have their say in a referendum. Electoral reform is overdue. Our country needs a much fairer system for voters to choose from individuals who can act independently of the party whips.
    We need to see the end of Party politics in which a few influential individuals set rules to benefit themselves. The Internet provides potential candidates with a means of expressing their views and entering into dialogue with the voters.

  • @passing tory

    Well, how about the reforms DAVID CAMERON himself suggested in this excellent article for the Guardian from 2003:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/jun/23/davidcameron.politicalcolumnists

    They would go a very long way towards curbing the excessive power of our elective dictatorship.

    In summary:

    1. Lords’ reform
    A majority elected house with no ministers. A single term of 15-year duration. Defined powers to reject, delay and question in clear detail.

    2. Independence for the Commons
    The central problem is the government’s complete control of the Commons timetable. No balance between the government’s right to get its way and the Commons right to scrutinise….all-party committee, elected by MPs, to adjudicate.

    3. Voting by secret ballot on standing committees.
    Sounds insignificant, but goes to the heart of the problem. We debate laws line by line, but votes are then whipped. During the criminal justice bill Labour MPs would make valiant speeches about why a clause was wrong-headed, only to vote for it as soon as a division was called. Even if amendments were overturned in the chamber, the government would have to explain why it was going against the considered opinion of MPs.

    4. Election of select committee members
    Guarantee places for all parties, including the minor ones and then let backbenchers vote for their colleagues.

    5. Referendum provision
    Elected representatives should not give up the powers they were elected to wield without asking the people who elected them first.

    6. Fixed-term parliaments

    7. Limits on ministers, bills and taxes.
    Limits so that ministers are suitably embarrassed if they have to come back and ask permission to break them.

    8. War powers act
    No going to war without a vote in the Commons.

    9. A written constitution

  • David Cameron in Guardian 2003 stated that
    “Our one-member, one-constituency system ensures excellent representation for every part of the country.”
    This assumption is AGAINST electoral reform. It seems to preclude any other voting system from being considered by his party. There are other voting systems which are fairer and do not allow too much centralisation of power in the elected Government. One voting system, used by Australia, has many more advantages than the highly misused current system. The current voting system has led to the problems to which David Cameron’s Guardian statement referred.
    We need ‘Electoral reform’ to move away from the “One-member, one-constituency system ” and consider other systems to replace it.

  • Terry Gilbert 13th May '10 - 12:24am

    Answer to my question (in the title) would now appear to be ‘Yes’. The Tory negotiators have truly surprised me. I hope their party comes with them.

  • Hello Mr. Gilbert

    are you the same mr. Gilbert who taught at Birmingham High School?

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