Hung Parliament cross roads

Can the Lib Dems can overcome their first-past-the-post mindset

Be careful what you wish for is an adage always useful to keep in the back of your head. I’ve been wishing for a hung parliament for months now. And, at long last … here it is! But it has come about in the circumstances of the Conservatives being well in front of the other parties in both votes and seats, and believing as a consequence that they have the moral authority to run a minority government. But can they do so without at least the tacit support of the Liberal Democrats that would allow them to get a budget through the House of Commons? And will it bring about the reform to the electoral system that we so urgently need if British democracy is to be more than the sham it presently is?

The question now hovering in front of the minds of politicians and pundits across the spectrum is which way the Liberal Democrats will jump. Another way of putting the question is to ask whether Nick Clegg and his colleagues are operating within a first-past-the-post mindset or feeling their way into coalition territory.

This may be a curious question to ask of a party which has sought proportional representation for nigh on a century in the full knowledge that it is more often than not accompanied by coalition government. But take a look at Wales. In the wake of the last Assembly election in 2007 it was the Liberal Democrats who pulled the plug on the possibility of their entering the Rainbow coalition with Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives. As Welsh Labour’s strategist Mark Drakeford put it, writing in the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, “The failure of nerve by the Liberal Democrats in May and June 2007 remains one of the great mysteries of contemporary Welsh politics”.

Part of the answer to Drakeford’s ‘mystery’ is that in the wake of the 2007 Assembly election the Liberal Democrats were still stuck in the furrow of the first-past-the-post constituency campaign they had just fought. One part of them couldn’t face doing a deal with the Tories. Another part couldn’t contemplate working with Labour. And yet another couldn’t face lying in bed with Plaid Cymru. The result was paralysis and the 9 to 9 split vote in their executive, which met in Llandrindod on 23 May.

It was this that prevented them endorsing the ‘Rainbow’ All-Wales Accord that was negotiated by Jenny Randerson AM for the Liberal Democrats, David Melding AM for the Welsh Conservatives and Adam Price MP for Plaid Cymru. In short the Liberal Democrats weren’t thinking coalition politics. In this they were behind the popular curve, which was enthusiastic for a Rainbow coalition. An ITV 1 poll carried out in late June 2007 found it to be the most popular option: 41 per cent supported the Rainbow, compared with 28 per cent backing a Labour-Plaid coalition, and 21 per cent a deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Moreover, 57 per cent thought a coalition government would be good for Wales compared with 27 per cent who thought it would be bad.

I fear that despite the profile he achieved in the campaign, largely on the basis of being neither Labour nor Tory but a new figure untarnished by old two-party politics, Nick Clegg is still stuck in a first-past-the-post mindset. Especially given the relative weakness of his own position, he will see the force of the Conservative’s argument that they have most votes and most seats. Indeed, he flagged this up during the campaign, declaring that whoever had the most votes and most seats would have the moral authority to lead a government. But this is first-past-the-post rather than coalition thinking.

I fear that in their thirst for power later today or tomorrow the Conservatives will present Clegg with an offer he will conclude he cannot refuse. First will be an undertaking that spending cuts will be put on hold until there are clearer signs of an economic recovery. Cameron will say that he’s looked at the Treasury books, taken advice, and that as Prime Minister the responsible course will be to put the country first and not risk the recovery that, as Gordon Brown has been saying all along, is still too fragile to withstand an immediate deflation in public sector demand. Secondly, the Conservatives will offer the Liberal Democrats something that will persuade them the door remains open for electoral reform – maybe a Royal Commission to examine all the options and lead a ‘national debate’ (into the long grass).

I hope I’m completely wrong. I hope that Labour will say to Clegg:

“Lets agree a stability pact for two years to create a consensus for the actions we need to take to pull Britain safely out of the recession. Then let us agree to have a multi-option referendum on either retaining first-past-the-post or going for electoral reform and a system of effective proportional representation. If the answer in the referendum is yes to PR, over the following year we will put in hand the constituency changes that will be necessary to make that happen. We’ll then have a general election based on the new electoral system. If the referendum results in a vote to keep first-past-the-post, then we’ll have an immediate general election on that basis”.

That’s what I hope Labour will say to Clegg, and I hope he responds with the side of his brain that should be thinking in terms of coalition politics. But I’m not holding my breath.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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