Red Line

Proportional Representation for Westminster as a red line in coalition negotiations with Labour has the overwhelming support of Lib Dem members.

But a Lab-Lib Dem coalition is an extremely unlikely outcome at the General Election. Based on May’s opinion polls, Baxter’s Electoral Calculus predicts an overall Labour majority of 190. We are on 20 seats. Adding tactical voting assumptions to the calculus raises our total to 25 and gives Labour a “wafer-thin” majority of 268. And even if by a combination of “socialist” scandal and Tory re-invention, Labour do fall short, they may well choose to govern with the support of other parties or as a minority.

Still, do we not need to think about and be prepared for all eventualities, even the roughly 5% chance (my estimate) of going into coalition? We do.  But that is precisely what we are NOT doing. In fact, all the attention about possible electoral outcomes has been focused on the wished for (and feared) scenario in which we hold the balance. The problem is that the red line we have custom-designed to protect ourselves in the unlikely scenario of coalition will damage our chances in ALL electoral scenarios.

I share fellow members’ anxieties (and hopes) about a coalition with Labour. Our electoral debacle in 2015 was a pointed lesson in what can happen to a junior partner post-coalition in a FPTP system. PR might mitigate such post-coalition damage; though if our share of the vote is as bad as in 2015, we would fall below the minimum quota for a seat in the vast majority of STV constituencies.

In any case, you may say, PR is not only a prophylactic to electoral damage, it’s also our most popular policy. It certainly is! Amongst Lib Dem members, it enjoys possibly unanimous support. But the election won’t be won by appealing to party members. It’s the rest of the country we have to appeal to. It’s not even that the electorate actively REJECTS PR. So it’s not a matter of persuading the unenlightened of the superiority of PR. Voters just have other much more pressing priorities:  the cost-of-living crisis, the state of the NHS and our rivers and other such mundane matters. PR comes far down their list.

From previous experience of General Elections, we know that the media loves to talk about our stance on coalition, who we will go in with, what we want from it etcetera. Such talk absorbs a disproportionate amount of our precious broadcasting time; particularly given how infrequently we do actually go into coalition. But if we choose PR as our red line, that is what the electorate will hear about us most. They will realise that we value PR above all else. They will understand their concerns are not our concerns. And it will affect their vote accordingly.

This is, of course, unfair. And fortunately, it’s an avoidable error, once we understand that a red line intended for negotiation with a potential coalition partner is possibly the key message in our positioning at the election itself.

We must have red lines, not just one red line, and those red lines must resonate with the electorate, not just garner an indifferent approval.

All members will have their own priorities. But personally, I’d choose the following red lines, which build on our recent campaigning successes.

  1. Doubling Carers’ Allowance. Ed Davey speaks with authority on this issue. What’s more, nearly all voters will have cared and/or been cared for at some point in their lives.
  2. A large injection of cash for the ambulance service. Again, an issue of wide appeal. Everyone will have experience of the ambulance service. For good, or, too often recently, for ill.
  3. The state to take large minority stakes in private water companies. This will strengthen their heavily indebted balance sheets and allow companies to borrow tens of billions for necessary infrastructure upgrades.

And….

  1. PR for Westminster.

In the event it becomes clear we are nowhere near holding the balance, we can explicitly focus on the first three red lines and explain we will carry on campaigning for these issues in opposition. They are our top priorities. And we want the highest number of Lib Dem MPs to put pressure on the future government for change in those three areas.

This is a better strategy than putting sole or prime focus on PR, where we will be seen to value our own hopes and fears above those of the electorate.

 

* Chris Moore is a Lib Dem member who lives in Euskal Herria. He has worked in journalism and finance.

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27 Comments

  • Broadly agree with this argument.

    Personally I would go for PR for local government as the next step. This is not giving up, but it is recognising that we lost the referendum in 2011, and it therefore might be a good idea for people to see how PR actually works before asking them to introduce it in Westminster.

    Also I would suggest PR is even more badly needed in local government. Up and down the country there are one party states where one party or another is just too strong for poor performance to be adequately punished. Weak local leadership is insulated from accountability by voters choosing to vote on national issues (as they are entitled to do). This problem is magnified when it comes to mayors and police commissioners; these are sold to us as attempts to improve local accountability, but the elections for them are plurality on steroids.

    To be clear PR for Westminster is still the right policy. But PR for local government is a good red line.

  • @ Joe Otten. “Personally I would go for PR in local government as the next step”.

    Not sure whether you’ve noticed it, Councillor Otten, but this is an English problem. We already have it in Scotland, I believe it’s on the way in Wales, and it’s used in the Assembly elections in N.Ireland.

  • 1. Forget PR the public are not really interested, they have much more important fish to fry
    2. Do not mention the word coalition, let Labour and the Tories form a grand one and we will be the opposition. We have had one experience with the issue and got totally mauled, and are still trying to recover what we lost.

  • Mick Taylor 9th Jun '23 - 5:25pm

    @Theakes. We cannot forget PR (STV). Sure, it’s not the only thing we want, but in the unlikely event of being in a position to form a coalition or offer confidence and supply, we can’t suddenly demand PR if we weren’t pressing for it in our manifesto.
    I agree we were slaughtered in 2015 for going into coalition. All the more reason for insisting on PR, to avoid the same thing happening next time round. PR is not just right, for us it’s a necessary condition of survival if we find ourselves in one of the two possible scenarios where we could demand it as the price for our support.

  • Mick,
    PR was in the Canadian Liberals platform, a central pillar, for their winning election, but once they had won it was dropped. Why, because it would do them more harm than good, boost the NDP and reduce their own representation. Ideally it sounds great but realistically it would mean us being overtaken by the Greens at the end of the decade. We have to be very sensible what we would wish for, hide it somewhere in the manifesto maybe but one for the very very long grass!. Best to be honest and let the issue lie.

  • Rif Winfield 10th Jun '23 - 8:45am

    As some of you know, I have been consistently campaigning for STV elections for over half a century. But I urge you to be realistic. Whatever the outcome of next year’s general election, THERE WILL BE NO NEGOTIATIONS. Period! Labour has made it perfectly clear that, if they are the largest Party in the Commons but fall short of an overall majority, they will not contemplate any coalition government under any circumstances, but will instead govern as a minority administration, challenging the disunited Opposition to vote against them. Whatever LibDem wishes might be won’t play a part. Please remember the 2010 election negotiations, where Labour CHOSE to put the Tories into government rather than compromise on a Lab-Lib coalition; if you don’t remember, re-read David Laws’s “22 days in May”.

  • @David Raw – That’s why I agree with Joe; PR for local government is simply a case of bringing England into line with the more (democratic?) regions, nothing for Westminster politicians to worry about. Leaving a smaller second step for Westminster. Additionally, it gives the opportunity for other (small step, but still important) institutional reform of Westminster; discussed in a previous article by William Wallace.

  • Denis Mollison 10th Jun '23 - 10:22pm

    Am I the only one that thinks the suggested alternative red lines utterly lacking in ambition?
    We should be looking to reverse the privatisation drift in the NHS, and fund it properly instead.
    We should be taking water companies back into public ownership – as we still have in Scotland – and probably the rail companies too.
    We should be sorting housing with a programme aimed at making affordable rented housing available to all – which probably requires breaking up the big builders stranglehold on developable sites.
    And we should be demanding real progress on climate change, not just greenwashing or subsidising new oil developments.
    These are all policies that are massively popular with the general public – except possibly the last and most important one, and with the effects we are now seeing of an overheated world that should change soon.

    But above all, we should explain that all these popular and progressive policies would be easier if we had a better, more collaborative political system, and the fundamental change required there is a parliament elected by fair and equal votes – proportional representation (preferably of course in a system that empowers voters – STV).
    The great majority of Labour supporters are in favour of proportional representation: we have to continue to try to help them convince the dinosaurs in their party, who sadly at the moment seem to include their leader.

    Unless and until we are clear and convincing on the real major issues, we will remain stuck at 10% in the polls.

  • Three cheers for Professor Denis Mollison.

    If Liberal Democrats are to have any sort of future, they need to be radical and clear, as Denis is in his comments. There is no future in focussing on one comfortable part of the UK, and there is no future in timidly having an inoffensive and deliberately fuzzy line on Europe.

    Thankfully now that the Chief Brexiteer has gone (hopefully for good), it’s time to get rid of his awful Brexit legacy.

  • The UK is one of the few remaining counties in Europe to use the first past the vote system. I think Belarus may be one of the holdouts for obvious reasons Which European countries use proportional representation?.

  • Martin Gray 11th Jun '23 - 5:22am

    PR never gets mentioned . The voting public is not the slightest bit interested .. Ultimately they are creatures of habit . It’s difficult enough to get them to change thier vote let alone contemplate constitutional electoral reform …Unless labour adopt it, it’ll continue to be seen as a liberal pet project …

  • Nigel Quinton 11th Jun '23 - 6:04pm

    What Mick and Denis said. And to those who say PR never crops up they clearly knocking on different doors to me. Political reform is vital if we are to change Britain for the better.

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Jun '23 - 6:26pm

    @Nigel Quinton
    If PR crops up when you’re knocking on doors – is that on the voters’ initiative or due to the way you frame the discussion?

  • Peter Watson 11th Jun '23 - 8:14pm

    It is widely known that Lib Dems want proportional representation and that the party would benefit from it. This was a major weapon for opponents in the AV referendum when trust in the party had been trashed and voters were encouraged to punish it.
    Prioritising the push for PR without first restoring the popularity and reputation of the Lib Dems would seem to me like putting the cart before the horse. And with the party’s strategy of softening it’s pro-EU stance and positioning itself as a nicer alternative to the Tories in a relatively small and affluent part of the country, I think it’s still along way from achieving that.

  • Martin Gray 11th Jun '23 - 8:33pm

    @Martin….
    Ive never been a member , supporter , or voter of ukip.
    As regards pr it doesn’t even make the top ten in voters concerns ….Economy , Health , Immigration, Housing, Environment, Crime , Education, tend to dominate with the top three hardly changing & being a considerable distance above the rest …
    Unless labour adopt it – it won’t be happening anytime soon ..Bit like rejoining the EU unless the main parties adopt it – it’ll continue to be fantasy politics…

  • Denis Mollison 11th Jun '23 - 9:32pm

    @Peter Watson 11th Jun ’23 – 8:14pm
    “It is widely known that Lib Dems want proportional representation and that the party would benefit from it. ”

    So we should wait until those who benefit from an unfair system show more enthusiasm in campaigning to end it? I know this is a common argument, but it’s a ridiculous one. If the working class and suffragettes had accepted it, they’d probably still be waiting to get the vote.

  • Peter Watson 12th Jun '23 - 8:13am

    @Denis Mollison
    There’s a huge difference between campaigning for the single issue of the right to vote and a political party which is presumably defined by more than one thing (though it’s hard to be sure these days! 😉 ).
    To achieve PR, the party needs to be trusted and supported because of its other policies and the benefits they would bring to the country, and then voters would see that PR would be the only way to get all that good stuff.
    Support for PR should be a given, but if the Lib Dems were to prioritise talking about it, why would anybody vote for the party? Sadly, I don’t think that “PR would prevent Tory majority governments” and “We’re not the Tories” are sufficiently compelling reasons for voters to get behind the Lib Dems and a campaign for electoral reform! 🙁

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jun '23 - 8:48am

    @Peter Watson
    “It is widely known that Lib Dems want proportional representation and that the party would benefit from it.”
    Actually it’s for the benefit of the people! So that the government of the day is not longer chosen by a minority of the people and hence able to operate as an elective dictatorship.

  • Denis Mollison 12th Jun '23 - 10:41am

    @Peter Watson
    If you look at my first comment above, you’ll see that I am far from suggesting we campaign on the single issue of electoral reform.

  • Peter Watson 12th Jun '23 - 8:27pm

    @Denis Mollison “If you look at my first comment above …”
    I agree very much with that first comment! Visiting this site reminds me that there are plenty of Lib Dems whose party I could vote for again. But then i look at how the national party presents itself and think, “Maybe in another 13 years!” 🙁

  • @ Peter Watson It’s a bit more than just how it presents itself, Peter. It’s what it did and didn ‘t do (and didn’t stop) when it had an opportunity.

  • Peter Watson 14th Jun '23 - 12:13am

    @David Raw “It’s what it did and didn‘t do (and didn’t stop) when it had an opportunity.”
    Indeed, though it surprises me (and makes me feel so old!) to realise how long ago that opportunity passed! Five years in Coalition but eight years subsequently failing to establish a clear identity as anything other than an anti-Brexit movement (and even that is no longer so clear!) 🙁
    Though the party’s current strategy – and the way it presents itself – gives me the impression that the Coalition was not an aberration and that the party is more comfortable as the nice wing of the Conservative party than as something more radical and to the left of the political centre. Given that Starmer’s Labour also seem unwilling to offer anything like that, I can’t help but feel that whoever forms the next government, by dragging the political centre ground to the right, the Tories will have won! 🙁

  • Chris Moore,

    Our priorities have to be existing party policy. I don’t think Doubling Carers’ Allowance is party policy. I would like to think party policy is to increase it by £44 a week, but I think it is only to increase it by £20 a week.

    I think the problem with ambulance arrival times in not the lack of ambulances but it is that they have to wait at hospitals for a bed to be made available. Therefore increasing spending on the NHS and social care funded from putting a penny on all the rates of Income Tax is a better priority.

    I don’t believe it is party policy to take large minority shares in the water companies.

    In the preamble to the constitution we say no-one should be enslaved by poverty. Therefore one of our priorities should be the policy we agreed at York; to replace Universal Credit with a Guaranteed Basic Income which will be 50% of median income within the decade and so end deep poverty in the UK.

    Another priority should be increasing Statutory Sick Pay to the equivalent of two-thirds of the National Living Wage and extend it to the 2 million workers who are currently excluded because they earn less than £123 a week, which we agreed as policy at the Spring 2021 Conference.

  • Also social care needs sorting out and as Martin points out it is a concern of voters. Therefore we should have as another priority – introducing free personal care based on the system introduced under the Labour-Liberal Democrat government in Scotland. Hopefully as Labour supported this in Scotland they would support this in England and Wales.

    I agree with Joe Otten and Roland, that STV for local government should be one of our aims. Against as Labour supported this in Scotland hopefully they would support this in England and Wales.

    Theakes,

    You make an interesting argument and perhaps you can convince the Manifesto Group and the Federal Policy Committee if you start now, but I don’t think you will convince the majority of party members. However it is the two above groups who decide what is in the manifesto.

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