LibDems can make government work for them

The recent election must have been a major disappointment to the Liberal Democrats but that doesn’t matter because they have the ‘whip-hand’ in government formation. The party has ‘walk-away value’. If they don’t like a deal with the Conservatives they have other options (Labour & LibDems, with SDLP and Alliance brings you to 320). The Tories on the other hand don’t really have other palatable options other than a minority administration which Cameron has already indicated he doesn’t prefer. This makes the LibDems (despite their size) much stronger than any other party. This is akin to the position the Irish Labour party found itself in 1992, where Dick Spring could choose between the two larger parties both desperate for power.

But government is a difficult place for a party, particularly a small party. Parties in government (big and small) usually suffer electoral knocks from governing. Small parties are especially vulnerable. They tend to be more ideological and so the compromise of government is harder to take for them than for the larger, more pragmatic broad-church parties. And partly because of their size, this makes small parties are continually closer to extinction and so a small percentage point drop can be a large percentage drop.

But this isn’t always the case; some parties in government (big and small) achieve electoral gains from government. If we look at what differs between the ones who do well and the ones who do badly we can identify one major feature. The ones who achieve some major and clear policy achievement that has an immediate impact on voters and especially their own supporters can survive and even thrive. A good example is from here in Ireland. The Progressive Democrats, once a sister party of the Liberal Democrats, had tax reform (read tax cuts) as the main plank of their political agenda. This had a huge impact on people and crucially the party managed to be associated in the public mind with this policy. By contrast in the party’s 2002-2007 coalition with Fianna Fáil, the PDs didn’t have any clear, achievable policy priorities that it could push. Or at least it failed to achieve these, in part because, whereas in 1997 the PDs were crucial to the stability of the government, from 2002, Ahern could have conceivably governed without them.

The best case scenario for the LibDems might be to stay out of government and be free to oppose on any issue it chose to, but get electoral reform. But this is unlikely to be achieved. And even if they stay out of government in the form of a ‘supply-and-support’ pact, the LibDems will be associated with the government, and could still suffer.

They should go for full coalition – something Cameron is clearly offering. This would be more stable and ensure that the LibDems actually get into the policy making process. Remember constitutionally the cabinet makes the decisions, and if you are not there, you’ll find it hard to shape policy.

If I were Nick Clegg and had a relatively free hand within my party and trusted David Cameron I would consider these points;

1. Insist on at least five seats in cabinet. You need these numbers to have a useful input to cabinet discussions and influence on policies beyond those portfolios you hold.

2. Make sure you take a light workload portfolio (even minister without portfolio). But don’t look for symbolism like becoming Deputy Prime Minister. It’s just a title, you will have all the power of a deputy prime minister. There’s no need to rub it in the Tories faces by saying so. And don’t go to the Foreign Office – you’d be out of the country too often.

3. Try to get as many Tories with similar policy priorities into the right place in cabinet. Push for Ken Clarke in the Treasury (he’s politically close on most issues) and Cameron might be relieved of having someone to blame for not appointing the unconvincing George Osborne.

4. Be clear what your policy priorities are and get written commitments on these. You don’t need a very long document. Many coalitions work well with just a few points of principle set out explicitly. The more important factor is the working relationship between the party leaders, but if there are red-line issues then get them on paper. Lots of coalition governments have 30,000-word documents, but very often these are just PR documents that confuse aspiration for policy and slogans for ideology. In the current situation and quick government is more important.

5. Don’t push for policies that cannot be delivered. So accept a guaranteed referendum on Alternative Vote. It’s more likely to pass and in fact will benefit the LibDems more that you think (it is STV with single seats).

6. Be aware of Cameron’s needs. If you push them on issues you know will be very hard to deliver it will upset the relationship between the leaders and increase tension between the parties. Make compromises that aren’t really compromises. Allowing that there are no major shifts in power to Europe is not really a compromise (most pro-Europeans probably think it’s more important to get the current system working rather than try to push for new powers) but it will allow Cameron to claim he’s extracted a major concession. But the LibDems can, if they are in government, change the rhetoric the Tories use about Europe.

7. Conversely make sure there is some degree of tension in government and that there are clear policy areas that you are getting your way. Make sure these are policies that affect voters’ lives – so the tax exemption of the first £10,000 seems like a good one.

8. Quietly drop policies that weren’t that popular. The policies on immigration and Trident were sensible, but were unpopular with voters who were fed idiotic lines from other political leasers and the press. Despite the good arguments in favour of them, just forget about those policies.

Finally, the party will be getting a lot of attention; don’t look like you are enjoying it too much! Serious statesman plays better than wheeler-dealer.

7 thoughts on “LibDems can make government work for them

  1. All useful thoughts but it is putting the cart before the horse to some extent. I would put the guaranteed referendum on PR whether STV or Alternative Vote first. After all if the LibDems get a form of PR they are almost guaranteed to win in the long run. As David pointed out in the previous post, the LibDems won only 9% of the seats with 23% of the vote. The Tories, however, won 47% of the seats with 36% of the vote. The Tory party will noo allow Cameron to give away that advantage. With PR, which means probabaly STV, even if the Liberal vote falls to 15% backing an unpopular government their seat share is likely to grow and it will be a game changer for UK politics. Stephen Fry has an excellent piece on why the Tories will simply never deliver PR. I also believe I heard the editor of the Spectator (Tory leaning) on radio this morning saying it would be simply laughable if the LibDems were to believe any Tory assurances on the matter. If Clegg wants to look to the long term viability of his party he simply must have PR as the first non-negotiable part of any deal.

  2. If this morning’s media speculation is anything to go on, then a Con-LibDem deal looks very much on the cards. The obvious missed opportunity will be serious electoral reform. The Tory DNA — particularly now — abhors PR of any form, so this is simply not going to happen (however, they might dress it up with some cosmetic exercise of a parliamentary review, speaker’s conference, or other such vehicle). The best chance for serious electoral reform is a Lab-LibDem coalition, with a new Labour leader — someone like Alan Johnson who has made his views clear on this. Maybe this can still happen, but this morning’s media speculation suggests not. A pity.

    If the electoral reform agenda does survive all of this, then we can only hope that it is PR, NOT AV. AV is just as disproportional as FPTP. If the UK is to avoid future electoral disasters like the one that has just happened, then they have to insist on a PR electoral system.

  3. Cleggs problem is surely that voting reform is not high on the agenda of voters. He has though to get some form of voting reform though or else there is no point in going into government.
    As for AV whilst its by no means ideal it would be far more palatable to the Lib Dems than no change at all. Indeed if there was a FPTP system with regional AV then the likelihood is that it would only be the Lib Dems that would profit and the feared swathe of UKIP and BNP MPs would not happen.

    Re the Progressive Democrats 2002 to 2007 time in government, their clear difference with Fianna Fail was supposedly as ‘watchdogs’ which was a task they failed to carry out.

  4. The Lib Dems cannot insist that any other party back PR but they can insist, as the price of forming a government, that any coalition partner commit to putting the issue to a referendum. If they do not get such a commitment then, regardless of what other policy concessions they secure, they run the serious risk of being left after the next election without any impact on government for the next 36 years just as they have been since 1974. And the next election could be along pretty soon: Paddy Power offers evens that there will be another 2010 election.

    If their coalition partners are concerned that a move to PR would be irreversible, the bill providing for a referendum could also provide for another one after the passage of three general elections. While in theory this commitment could be reneged on by a future parliament, that would be electorally costly for the party responsible as the law would be seen as de facto a part of the constitution.

    Agree with David F that a move to AV is a change that shouldn’t be dignified with the word ‘reform’. Even if the Lib Dems did not lose out badly under it, there’s a good chance that someone would; smaller parties certainly, and larger ones if the other two allied against it. Australian election results are not noted for their proportionality and can deliver capricious results. Take the 1996 election, when both Labor and the Liberals won 39% of votes (Labor being slightly stronger): Labor ended up with 33% of seats and Liberals with 51%.

    As for whom the Lib Dems should coalesce with: an additional argument against a coalition between Labour and Lib Dems is that the arithmetic seems to mean that it would need some kind of support from at least one of the NI parties – the DUP being able to offer the most votes in the Commons. And if any crisis arose in the NI peace process (not unknown), a British government would be highly constrained and compromised in its behaviour if it was reliant for its survival on one (or even several) of the NI parties but not all of them.

  5. The Guardian provides the full data for the election along with estimations from the Electoral Reform Commission on likely outcomes under AV and STV. Its at
    (Edit: Eoin has a much ncier bar graph in post above)

    I could not copy full tables over but rows are by region London, Wales, W Midlands, Scotland, E Midlands, N East, S East, N West, South West,
    Eastern, York & Humber, N Ireland

    The estimations in descending order of proportionality are:

    the STV results:
    Con Lab LD

    27 28 18
    10 16 10
    26 20 13
    7 28 11
    22 15 9
    8 13 8
    50 11 23
    25 33 17
    25 6 24
    25 19 14
    21 18 15

    246 207 162

    and the AV
    Con Lab LD
    27 39 7
    6 25 6
    31 25 2
    1 41 12
    27 15 4
    1 26 2
    74 4 5
    20 47 8
    31 4 20
    46 6 6
    17 30 7

    281 262 79

    and finally FPTP…
    Con Lab LD
    28 38 7
    8 26 3
    33 24 2
    1 41 11
    31 15 0
    2 25 2
    75 4 4
    22 47 6
    36 4 15
    52 2 4
    19 32 3

    307 258 57

    So for Liberals STV implies 162 seats, AV 79 seats and FPTP 57.

  6. Donal: What’s wrong with paying attention to political reform debates in other countries?
    1.) We can learn a lot about the pros and cons of other ways of running democracy by looking at how others do things
    2.) We can learn a lot about the dangers and traps of certain ways to reform from looking at how others have reformed or are reforming
    3.) We can help to keep political reform on the agenda by showing just how prominent this theme is elsewhere

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