The dance of coalition

Nick Clegg and David CameronSteve Richards, writing in the Independent, has a thoughtful analysis of the three main parties and their level of unity. He claims that the Liberal Democrats display “the greatest sense of unity and discipline” and yet they have the greatest level of internal differences. I like to think that is because we are a broad church that tolerates and even celebrates differences, because we do unite around the fundamental principles of fairness, liberty and equality.

But, according to Richards, those differences make it unlikely that the party will agree to another coalition with the Conservatives, hence his headline: “There will be no Con/Lib coalition after the next election”.

Although some senior Conservatives dare to hope for an overall majority, quite a lot accept that their best chance of serving a second term is in coalition once more with the Liberal Democrats. I can see why in some limited ways Cameron might prefer this arrangement compared with winning a small overall majority, an outcome that would empower his backbenchers to give him hell over Europe

I do not believe Cameron will get a chance to renew the Coalition, even if the Conservatives are the largest party in a hung parliament. This is less to do with the mood of unruly Tory MPs, although it is possible that some of them will announce on the all-night BBC election show their intention to remove Cameron on the grounds that he had twice failed to secure a majority. The bigger obstacle is the Liberal Democrats. Clegg will struggle to get agreement from his party for a renewal of this partnership.

Admittedly, it is possible that quite a lot of the Social Democrats have left the Lib Dems since the election, and those who remain are closer to Clegg’s politics. But the views of those who have attended recent party conferences suggest this is not the case. Although there is always the familiarly impressive discipline, and no appetite for insurrection, I have heard relentless concerns about the NHS reforms, economic policies and the rest from activists. A party conference that was to the left of new Labour has not entirely changed.

Even if the membership has moved rightwards, it is hard to see Clegg forging a new coalition agreement with the Conservatives as he did fairly easily in 2010, partly because of the policy areas where the Lib Dems are ideologically united. They include Europe, immigration and civil liberties. These are precisely the areas where some Conservatives ache to do more, especially Europe.

Paul Goodman in The Telegraph claims that David Cameron knows that the political arithmetic works against him and his only hope of a second term as Prime Minister is to go into coalition again with the Liberal Democrats. He builds a scenario in which this is quite likely, hence his headline:  “David Cameron can’t say it, but the PM is set on another coalition”.

The movement towards a second coalition will be undertaken to a kind of two-step dance, as Mr Cameron moves first away from Mr Clegg, and then back towards him. It is in neither leader’s interests for the Coalition to break up before the 2015 election campaign: this would undermine the picture they want to present of two parties working together for the national interest. But the ties that bind them together will be loosened. Watch for Tory MPs moving Commons motions and Bills proposing a tougher benefits cap, a lower immigration limit, an end to ECHR membership.

The Prime Minister will back such proposals vigorously both before and throughout the 2015 campaign – on the hustings, in interviews, in the leaders’ debates, in the Conservative manifesto.

But what he does will be watched as closely as what he says. Will the party really strive to turn David Laws out in Yeovil, when his offices could be integral to a second coalition? Will the manifesto contain Liberal-Democrat-friendly policies, such as a further rise in tax thresholds? Will Mr Cameron risk a break in relations by throwing the rhetorical kitchen sink at Mr Clegg’s party?

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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26 Comments

  • Whilst Steve Richards makes some thoughtful points, he really does not understand Lib Dems. He persists in the strange notion that the SDP element represent the ‘left’ in the party, then expresses some bewilderment that Ming Campbell, Archie Kirkwood and David Steel display uneasiness with the coalition partners.

    However, he is certainly correct to predict that a coalition will not be formed so readily. One factor he neglects to mention is the consequence of a possible decline in the % Lib Dem share of the vote. If Lib Dems lose out more than other parties, there must come a point at which the Lib Dem leadership would have to acknowledge that there is not sufficient mandate to justify a coalition.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Jul '13 - 5:29pm

    Or the arithmetic is wrong – ie a majority one-party government.

    Apart from the nonsense about the current spectrum of the LDs having anything much to do with Liberal/SDP differences in the 1980s (when the Liberals were often to the left of most of the SDP) this is a perceptive article.

    Tony Greaves

  • David Allen 23rd Jul '13 - 5:51pm

    Interesting. Both Richards and Goodman (particularly Goodman) explain very well how important it is for Cameron and Clegg to make another deal. Goodman thinks they will get their way. Richards thinks not, apparently because he believes that any worm will eventually turn. Well, I hope he’s right…

  • Paul Holmes 23rd Jul '13 - 6:19pm

    For my money Steve Richards is one of the best political journalists around -and not just because like me (although a few years later) he studied History at York University and lived in Alcuin College. This is yet another very perceptive article from him, written as usual without the hype and bias that distorts so much of what passes for political journalism.

    But his shorthand of ‘the Social Democratic wing of the Party’ is misleading as Tony Greaves notes. I joined the SDP in 1983 and spent the next 5 years working entirely amicably with the Liberals in Chesterfield. Merger following the 1987 Election held not the slightest problem for us so I was shocked at that time to learn of Liberals like Tony Greaves who said the SDP should have been strangled at birth! Yet years later, both now and when I was in Parliament, it quickly became clear that whatever tribal loyalties and misconceptions existed back in the 1980’s Social Liberals such as Tony Greaves and myself had far more in common with each other than we did with the Economic Liberals.

  • Tony Dawson 23rd Jul '13 - 7:24pm

    Political journalists love this ‘angels on a pin head’ stuff. Helps the vodka and tonics go down.

    The Conservatives will not be the largest party after the next election. They will also not have a prospect of majority when combined with the Lib Dems elected in that Parliament.

    The only interesting thing is when ‘Coalitionista’ Cameron will recognise that the writing is on the wall because, to some extent, his only chance of maintaining a decent sized opposition party will be to turn against the Lib Dems and try to win some of our seats on a “It woz the Tories wot really governed during the last five years” tack.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Jul '13 - 7:24pm

    The person who said that the SDP should have been strangled at birth was Cyril Smith. But it’s true that some of us were a lot less happy with the Alliance than others were. But it’s all past history now.

    Tony Greaves

  • The assertion by Steve Richards that we have the widest ideological range of the 3 major parties is utterly barmy. Labour includes everything from small c conservatives, through Social Democrats & all the way to Communists. Where are The Libdems who hold a comparable breadth of opinion ?
    Perhaps he is confused by our willingness to debate ideas ? You could reasonably argue that we are the most ideological of the 3 main Parties since we are held together by an agreed range of principles.
    The glue that holds Labour together is a vague workerism while for Tories its a general dislike of change. Neither is really about ideology.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jul '13 - 8:04am

    Tony Greaves

    The person who said that the SDP should have been strangled at birth was Cyril Smith. But it’s true that some of us were a lot less happy with the Alliance than others were. But it’s all past history now.

    Much of the disagreement was about presentation and organisation rather than policies (though on policies, yes, the Liberal Party tended to be to the left, not to the right, of the SDP). What we have in the presentation and organisation of the Liberal Democrats now is very much the SDP way of doing things, just what those of us who were unhappy about the Alliance were concerned about.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jul '13 - 8:17am

    The article still puts the idea that the formation of a coalition will be a matter of choice for the Liberal Democrats, that the Liberal Democrats will be “kingmakers”. Of course the distortions of the electoral system still make a one-party majority very likely. However, even if this was not the case it depends on the willingness of the other parties, and on the balance. As in 2010, if a coalition with one party has a clear majority, while with the other it requires pulling in smaller parties, then the coalition with the larger party is the only really sensible option unless there are very strong reasons to oppose it.

    I would regard a coalition with the Conservatives again as a disaster, it will probably destroy the Liberal Democrats. Yet it will be hard to argue against it if the parliamentary balance is as it was in 2010. If we want to avoid it under those situations, it will only be done if there is a big difference between the other two parties in their attitude – it will require the right-wing of the Conservative Party to act in a way that enables us to say coalition is not viable, and all of Labour to be so accepting of it that a coalition with them that has a small or no majority is still workable. So that is why in the next general election, the answer to the inevitable question “Which party would you form a coalition with?” should be “Why don’t you ask them?”.

  • While I expect Labour to squeak in with a majority next time round, simply on account of our ridiculous voting system which would put them back in government with a bare 35% of the vote (thanks to the Tories and their AV machinations) the possibility of the Tories being the largest party can’t be excluded.

    If we have enough MPs to form a majority with either party (a huge ‘if’ given current polling) , this would put us in a real dilemma: do we do what we said last time and seek to back the party with the largest number of MPs, or do we switch sides and if so, on what grounds. Allying ourselves with the Tories would be almost certain death for voters’ already limited understanding of us as an independent party. Furthermore, Cameron would certainly be defenestrated for not getting a full majority and we would end up with a right wing leader, making any potential divides within a coalition even bigger than they are now. Yet switching to backing Labour would leave us looking like flagrant opportunists, even supposing Labour actually behave like grown ups this time round and bother to negotiate properly rather than throwing their toys out of the pram.

    I seriously hope Nick Clegg is doing some serious wargaming at present to consider the various outcomes next time round, because if he (or a successor leader) gets it wrong again, the consequences will be even more disastrous.

  • Like Paul Holmes I was a founder member of SDP and the Liberal Democrats. I find Liberator the publication I most enjoy in contrast to some of the Economic Liberal contributions to LD Voice.
    Lord Greaves will be pleased to note that I wear sandals with socks with pride!

  • Both articles are fishing in the right waters, but make it look like the Lib Dems chose to go into coalition with the Tories on a whim. But it was the electorate who dealt the numbers that made no other partnership (apart from Ian Sanderson’s grand coalition and never say never because it happened in Germany 2 elections back) possible. The only other option was a second election in 2010 which would have likely been disastrous and we’d have achieved nothing compared to what we have. So there was very little choice involved from our side; the choices we made were about the policy areas to compromise on.

    The swing needed to generate such a choice next time is so precise and narrow that it has a tiny chance; the key thing is to ensure that relations with both big parties are such that we could close the deal if it was the hand we are dealt by the electorate, and to begin to understand what the shared big ticket priorities would be in either case.

  • Political journalists have bought a line from the Orange Bookers that they are liberals and that social liberals are social democrats and have tied it to the Liberal/SDP alliance. It’s just Orange Book spin.

  • As a member (yes, not altogether happy – but who is?) of the Lib Dem party, I have no way of knowing how things are exactly in the Conservative and Labour parties – wish I did!

    Three points:
    (a) a future Lib Dem/Tory coalition is far from my ideal outcome – once bitten, twice shy;
    (b) a much reduced vote, even if by very clever tactical campaigning results in us still holding many of our existing seats, will not give us the moral authority internally as a party, with any coalition party or, most importantly, the country as a whole; and yet
    (c) under any circumstances, I would argue that we should do what is in the greatest interest of the country. I still feel that we made the right decision on this basis in 2010 (I am of the strong opinion that otherwise the Tories would have formed a minority government, fallen, calling a subsequent election that they would have won outright … much of it as a result of many Lib Dem MPs losing their seats. This will require much wisdom from all of us should we be called again to form a coalition, or not, following elections in 2015!

  • David Allen 24th Jul '13 - 2:39pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    “What we have in the presentation and organisation of the Liberal Democrats now is very much the SDP way of doing things”

    You’re trying to wind me up again, aren’t you? Look, the old SDP had faults, so did the old Liberals, but both those parties are a generation ago. We should forget them now.

    As Richard Gadsden comments, the Orange Bookers like to falsely identify their opponents with the SDP, because claiming the Liberal heritage bigs them up and hides the fact that they are more a bunch of latecomer entryists. Heaven knows why you should want to falsely identify YOUR opponents with the SDP instead, but that doesn’t wash either.

    Sure, the SDP were better organised centrally than the Liberals, but at least in the Mark 1 SDP under Jenkins, they also listened to their own activists and didn’t bludgeon them into accepting policies they didn’t like. Running roughshod over activist and voter opinion is the big fault of the Clegg cabal – not the centralised organisation as such.

  • Patrick Smith 24th Jul '13 - 6:58pm

    It is hard to imagine that either the Tories or Labour will secure the required 40% mandate of the popular vote that would give the clear water and absolute majority in MPs to govern in 2015.

    If this is so, than the future rise in the ascendant numbers of Liberal Democrat MPs would have been better served by the passage during this `Coalition Government’ of PR : even AV would have been fairer to the third and smaller parties.

    I hope that the Electorate will be able to understand that Nick Clegg as DPM and the L/D Coalitionists are deserving of support for making a real difference in the quality of life : for children benefiting from help from the `Pupil Premium’,the `20 million’ benefiting from lower taxes and the seniors who will enjoy a better retirement with higher State pensions.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jul '13 - 8:55pm

    David Allen

    You’re trying to wind me up again, aren’t you? Look, the old SDP had faults, so did the old Liberals, but both those parties are a generation ago. We should forget them now.

    No, it’s not about winding you up. It’s about rubbing in just how WRONG those are who try to make out the divisions in the party now still reflect a Liberal-SDP division, with the Liberals being on the economic right and the SDP on the economic left. That is shown by the way people like us who were on opposite sides then are on the same side now.

    The attempt to link right-wing economic policies which in those days we called “Thatcherism” with the old Liberal Party is an attempt to rewrite history, to get people to believe something that simply is not true for political reasons – because it makes those policies look more acceptable if they can be falsely linked to what the old Liberal Party used to stand for, and hides the fact that those in favour of then are infiltrators rather than carriers of established party traditions.

    I am sorry if it seems like rubbing it in, my real point, I assure you, is to make clear what people who called themselves “Liberal” and were proud to do so in those days REALLY stood for.

    The REAL arguments from those days are still relevant – about how the party should be organised, should it be a party oriented around local community campaigning trying to look like a party of ordinary people, or should it be one which tries to look like and be part of the political establishment because that’s what makes people think it’s worth voting for.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jul '13 - 9:04pm

    David Allen

    As Richard Gadsden comments, the Orange Bookers like to falsely identify their opponents with the SDP, because claiming the Liberal heritage bigs them up and hides the fact that they are more a bunch of latecomer entryists.

    Yes, that’s what I’m as as well, so we’re in agreement. I agree, however, with Michael Meadowcroft’s concern with the use of the term “Orange bookers” to mean this stream, because the Orange Book was a mixed collection of essays, and not all their authors are ideological right-wingers.

    Remember, for many years the word “Liberal” was almost banned in our party, it was considered a sign you were some anti-mergerist who yearned for the old beards-and-sandals days if you still used it. So the way it was brought back to mean something completely different is to me another sign of Orwellian manipulation of language.

  • @RC and others: we can debate the chances of being in another potential coalition situation, but what is extremely unlikely (verging on almost impossible) is that we would be in a position to make a workable coalition with either the Tories or Labour (because of the ‘other’ MPs and because it would require the two parties to be almost exactly equal in seats).

    So, just in 2010, there won’t really be any “Labour or Tory” choice for the LibDems – at best the choice will be between coalition, confidence & supply, minority government (all three of these for whichever party is largest) or another election.

  • Matthew,

    “It’s about rubbing in just how WRONG those are who try to make out the divisions in the party now still reflect a Liberal-SDP division”

    Totally agree. Much better post second time around!

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jul '13 - 11:25pm

    Patrick Smith

    It is hard to imagine that either the Tories or Labour will secure the required 40% mandate of the popular vote that would give the clear water and absolute majority in MPs to govern in 2015.

    So where’s the other 20+% going? Not all to the Liberal Democrats, I think. Perhaps more of it will be scattered around UKIP, the Greens etc, but I doubt that’ll win them many seats.

    As the referendum on AV shows, most people just aren’t bothered by this. They don’t seem to think it unfair that Labour or the Tories can win a majority on well under half the vote – indeed, they seem to think this a good thing. The main thing is that it seems to be all much to mathematical for most British minds, starting with those who write political commentary in the media.

    If people scatter their votes amongst small parties so Labour or the Tories can win a majority on 35% of the vote, who will care? Well no-one much cared when Labour did it in 2005.

    If people don’t vote, so the winning party has a tiny share of the actual electorate, what will happen? A popular revolution? To bring in WHAT exactly? Ask anyone who says “I’m not voting, they’re all as bad as each other” the question “OK, so how would you have this country governed?” and all you will get is a blank look, because they’ve never thought of it that way.

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