Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Conference Mischief making (1 of many)

So The Independent on Sunday has done a poll that shows that activists from a left-of-centre political party would prefer a parliamentary coalition with the Labour Party.

According to the poll for The Independent on Sunday by the respected grassroots website Liberal Democrat Voice, four out of 10 party activists want the Lib Dem leader to form a coalition with Labour in 2015, while a further 15 per cent would like to see a Labour-Lib Dem “confidence and supply” agreement, whereby the third party is free to vote against the Government but agrees not to bring down the Government or vote against its Budget.

In a major blow to some senior Lib Dems close to Mr Clegg who are planning a second term of coalition with the Conservatives, only  15 per cent want to see this deal, while 6 per cent would back a Conservative-Lib Dem “confidence and supply”.
The Independent website 15 September 2013 Exclusive poll reveals activists would want to form a coalition with Labour in 2015

How very illuminating and depressingly typical of the sort of stirring that is done around the party conferences. It just provokes more stupidity.

In response both Clegg and Ashdown have said that the determination of coalition partners is up to the electorate “as at the last election”. Again a bit stupid.

It is probably sensible to say that in a hung parliament, the third party would normally talk to the leading party first. But that is rather different from saying that the electorate determines the make up of any future coalition.

Leaving aside whether the results of an election (in terms of seat count) actually represent the views of the electorate, the logical conclusion from Clegg’s and Ashdown’s “get off the coalition hook” line is that if the Conservatives were to come out ahead of Labour – and the Liberals held their third place, they would be forced by their commitment to go into coalition with the Conservatives. That does not give them a very good negotiating hand, because if they do not like what the Conservatives are prepared to offer and trot off to talk to the Labour Party, they leave themselves open to the accusation of “breaking an election pledge” immediately after the result is known.

Saying that it “up to the electorate” precludes any coalition between the second and third parties. Such a coalition might be a hard-sell – except possibly where the second party is the previous opposition (Labour) making large gains at the expense of the previous government (the Conservatives) and there is a sense that, despite the numbers, the previous government party has “lost” (a lot of support).

If the Liberals were not able (hypothetically) to form a new coalition with first place Conservatives, arguably they should (according to the logic of the Clegg/Ashdown line) just walk away. This might open up the opportunity for a Conservative plus odds and sods coalition (UKIP, Ulster Unionists etc. – not saying which is odd and which is sod!). The electorate might feel that that is worse than a Lib-Lab coalition – particularly if there are significant hostages to fortune in European and Irish policy given to keep the Conservatives in office.

The media needs to accept that the Liberals are “not saying” when it comes to future coalition partners (and the Liberals should not give the media any excuse to run the story). The Liberals then need to privately plan their strategy – which I guess will involve putting in their manifesto those policies that they feel they must have in some form and those policies of their opponents which are unacceptable. Such a list will have to be fairly modest if it is not to rule them out of any coalition. The electorate have to be more mature than previously in accepting the modesty of such a list – and in challenging the other parties to indicate which of their policies are “non-negotiable”.

Will the media allow the electorate to make such a demand or will the Pro-Tory and Pro-Labour press just support the line of “we are in it to win it – any talk of coalitions is hypothetical and therefore we will not be drawn”? If the big parties are not willing to give some indication of  which policies are up for negotiation in a coalition, they should also accept that if they do not achieve an absolute majority at a general election, they are precluded from being part of a government because they have failed to achieve what they set out to achieve in their “all or nothing” manifesto.

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