Why a Conservative—Lib Dem coalition may not be a bad thing

No doubt, election night was a very disappointing one for me. I was involved in the Liberal Democrat campaign in Dunfermline, and I attended the count.

There was disappointment in Dunfermline — but we always expected it to be very difficult to hang on there. So while it was very disappointing to lose in Dunfermline, I was, in a way, braced for it.

The national story was, however, different. I first heard news about the exit poll at about 22.10. I was crestfallen, but hoped that the poll was wrong. By the time I emerged from the count just after 2am, it was clear that nationally the picture was pretty bleak for the Liberal Democrats.

It was a real blow given that there was so much to be hopeful about during the campaign. Even though the Lib Dems had clearly fallen back to third place in the opinion polls in the last week of the campaign, it was still a very strong third place in comparison to what the Lib Dems will have been expecting before the first televised Prime Ministerial debate.

Even taking into account the perverse voting system used in Westminster elections, I thought a good result would be more than 80 seats, and I was expecting some sort of gain at the very least. For the Lib Dems to actually lose seats absolutely shocked me.

Voters have crude tools to send out complex messages

It is clear that lots of people voted for complicated tactical reasons on polling day. From what I have heard, it was clear on the doorsteps in Dunfermline on Thursday that even hard Lib Dems were switching to Labour on the last day.

Even among voters for whom the Lib Dems are their first choice, it seems as though waking up on Thursday with David Cameron’s posh face on the front page all of the Conservative-supporting newspapers calibrated people’s minds back to the old-fashioned mindset that an election is a two-way contest between the Conservatives and Labour.

That is why the opinion polls in the run-up to the general election came out with such a different message to the final exit poll. Essentially the polls ask two different questions. When you are asked about the general election before polling day, you tend to think of it in more abstract terms. People think about their genuine favourite.

But for some people standing in the polling station holding the stubby pencil under the spotlight, it all seems a bit different. Voters aren’t stupid. They know that the voting system really makes the contest a fight between Labour and the Conservatives. So many people were voting on the issue of who they disliked least between David Cameron and Gordon Brown, rather than who was their favourite candidate on the ballot paper.

That is certainly what happened in Dunfermline and West Fife. Labour’s leaflets made much of the fact that the general election was a contest between Labour and the Conservatives. Despite the personal popularity of Willie Rennie, the SNP’s voters shifted en masse to Labour.

Willie Rennie’s share of the vote went down only slightly, from 35.8% to 35.1% on a much higher turnout. But the SNP collapsed — going from 21.0% in 2006 to just 10.6% on Thursday. Nationalists switched to Labour to send an anti-Tory message.

It seems as though the picture was the same across the country, with tactical voting winning out. The swings were all over the shop across the country, as voters attempted to send out a complex message with only the crude tool of the inadequate first past the post voting system available to them.

Electoral reform must now be at the top of the agenda

This is why electoral reform is essential. It is not just about the fact that the parties’ share of the seats bears little relation to the share of the votes. It is that it fundamentally alters the behaviour of voters, forcing them to vote for what they don’t want more than what they do want. Voters must at least be given the opportunity to express more than one preference.

It is no surprise that the big story of the day has been about the demonstrations for electoral reform. With a result like this, and a hung parliament, there has never been a better chance to change the voting system. It now must be the top priority. We must not allow it to be swept under the carpet once again, as Labour did in 1997.

But there are bigger hurdles to negotiate than just the voting system. It has become clear to me in the past couple of days that major cultural change is also required.

Many people have a poisonous obsession with “strong government”. Strong government is not what is needed. In fact, strong government is dangerous government. For some reason, the idea that someone can just push through their policies without having to seek the agreement of others is not really on. Why cross-party support is supposed to be a bad thing is beyond me.

Clegg correct to consider Conservative coalition

Then we come to the hoo-ha over the potential that the Lib Dems might reach an agreement with the Conservatives. I find it most odd that Liberal Democrat voters, who are in favour of some form of proportional representation, should be getting into a flap about this.

It seems like a straightforward equation. If you want proportional representation, you expect to need coalitions to form a government (or have a minority government). This means potentially having to work with parties that you may not agree with. It’s called compromise. We need to be grown up enough to accept it.

In this instance, it has always been made clear by Nick Clegg that he would talk first to the party that had the most seats in the House of Commons. That is the Conservative party, and it is right that he should explore the option.

The alternative option of propping up Gordon Brown, a deeply unpopular Prime Minister whose party made significant losses on Thursday, would in turn expose the Lib Dems to accusations of being undemocratic. It would also make them deeply unpopular among non-Labour voters.

Not only that, but the arithmetic doesn’t really add up. Labour plus the Lib Dems wouldn’t have enough seats, so you need to throw in some other parties too. There is talk about bringing in the SNP and Plaid Cymru and other yet smaller parties. But it seems like some desperate scraping of the rusty barrel.

Liberal Democrats — and the electorate as a whole — should be mature about this situation. True, the Lib Dems should not just join up with the Tories unless they make significant concessions — and electoral reform must be at the very top of the agenda. But the option should always be considered.

Otherwise, the Lib Dems risk becoming a mere appendage of the Labour party. That is what has happened in the Scottish Parliament, with the result that they have become completely impotent; an electoral irrelevance. If you think the Lib Dems should only ever consider talking to Labour, then you would probably be better off joining the Labour party. The Lib Dems need to be brave and flex their muscles, otherwise they will become Labour’s lapdog.

The Liberal Democrats is not just a “left wing” party. It is a liberal party. But Labour has a fundamentally illiberal ideology. While there are many areas of agreement between the two parties, Labour is also the party of ID cards, illegal wars, points-based immigration systems and biometic anal probes (I may have made one of those up).

While it is true that the Conservatives can happily outpace Labour in an authoritarianism competition, the Conservative party does at least have a liberal wing, the sort which simply does not exist in the Labour party. So a liberal party should not be frightened of teaming up with the Tories, as long as their more authoritarian elements can be reined in.

While it is clear that the Conservatives are the one party in Westminster most opposed to electoral reform, they are at least principled in their opposition. Labour changes its mind based on its self-interest. If they genuinely wanted to change the voting system, they had 13 years in which to do it — but they didn’t.

Labour’s “support” for electoral reform is hollow and opportunistic. Lallands Peat Worrier makes the point that a big fat zero of Labour’s MSPs supported the idea of using proportional representation for Westminster elections when the Scottish Parliament voted on the issue just a few weeks ago.

This is a big opportunity to make electoral reform actually happen and to make the potential of a government led by the nasty party significantly less nasty. If nothing else, Lib Dem supporters should be much more open to it — if only to prove the point that coalitions can work after all. It just requires the maturity to let it happen.


  1. Stick or twist.

    Exert the influence they have now in a consensus government, or try and force major change now in case there’s not another chance for 30years… I wouldn’t like to be Mr Clegg right now.

    I think it doesn’t need a radical overhaul to make the current system fairer, it just needs some imagination. Here’s my idea: http://post.ly/fA1f 🙂

  2. Hi Pionir, thanks for the comment. Your suggestion is interesting, and I have heard similar ideas before. The problem is that it would lead to MPs having unequal power, which would just lead to different anomalies. And I think after the recent expenses scandals, I think arguments over how much MPs with different voting powers get “fairly” paid are perhaps best avoided. 🙂

  3. Duncan, I have to disagree with your comments about Dunfermline.

    Firstly, the turnout was very close to the 2005 electiion at around 65%, up from about 49% at the by-election. Compared to 2005, our vote more than doubled, Labour’s majority halved, and the SNP vote collapsed.

    Looking at it that way, what I think happened was the SNP vote came to the Lib Dems, some Lib Dem voter drifted to Labour, and the Labour supporters who’d sat on their hands in 2006 turned out.

    The Labour campaign was notable for two reasons – the heavy use of Gordon Brown, and the fact that the Labour candidate’s name didn’t appear on any of their posters. My gut feeling is that a large number of people swallowed the line of “Vote Clegg, Get Cameron” in the last week and went back to Labour. It’s probably also fair to say that the fact the Council has had to make cuts in services also helped Labour.

    The thought of a deal with the Tories still makes my stomach churn, and I think that Alex Salmond is right when he says we’ll suffer in Scotland for it. At the same time, though, I can’t see at all how a deal with Labour would work, especially with another unelected PM – unless it was only for one year with another GE next May under AV.

  4. What argument? An MP’s an MP casts one vote. It’s just that the vote has a higher score. I don’t see a problem 🙂 If they complain, well, tough.

    What could be interesting is if say the Lib Dems have 50 MPs but 25% of the votes, so each is “worth” more than a Conservative MP. If one Lib Dem MP and one Conservative MP each swap sides on a vote, the Lib Dem is worth more, so would be whipped *ahem* canvassed harder. It would mean getting the “opposition” onside would then be far more important than it is now.

    The key thing for me though is that everyone could and would vote for the candidate they want, safe in the knowledge that their vote counts towards his party (assuming the party gets one MP in office). Even if he doesn’t get elected as MP, it would be 0.001%(ish) of the party’s voting points in the Commons). Tactical voting would be redundant and we would have democracy.