If there’s a hung parliament: the final postscript

In my previous blog post I sketched out a possible message that Gordon Brown’s emissary might usefully deliver to a representative of Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, in the event of a hung parliament.  This took the form of a statement of the Labour government’s intentions regarding its programme to be submitted to parliament, to be presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, not as the opening bid in a negotiation or even in a dialogue.  For this I have been scolded in a comment for advocating a brusque and unfriendly attitude to Labour’s potential partner in a future coalition or alliance, implicitly rejecting a more conciliatory and cooperative approach.  Here are the reasons for writing as I did.

I have no problems with a conciliatory approach by Labour to the LibDems, based on mutual (but not one-sided) respect and a genuine effort to map out common ground as a basis for a government programme enjoying the support of all the main centre-left parties (which will between them almost certainly command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons). Indeed this is the election outcome I profoundly hope for. I deliberately wrote my imaginary script for a Labour communication to the LibDems after the election produces a hung parliament (if it does!) in the form of a statement of intentions rather than a request for the launch of negotiations for several reasons.

First, I wanted to demonstrate that in this situation the Labour government will not be the demandeur, begging the LibDems for favours. Still being in office, and entitled to put forward to parliament a programme in the Queen’s Speech carefully crafted so as to be likely to win the support of the majority of MPs, Labour has the initiative and LibDem options are rather limited. They can make demands and lay down conditions if they like, but if these are ignored by the governing party, they still face the same decision: shall they defeat a government programme that gives them much of what they have been campaigning for? If they vote against it, or even if they abstain, they will be effectively obliged to sustain in office, for a considerable time, a Tory government whose policies give them nothing at all.

Secondly, I wanted to avoid the implication that at the moment when it’s clear there’s a hung parliament, “negotiations” must automatically start, between the LibDems and the Tories and between the LibDems and Labour, with the LibDems effectively auctioning their favours to the highest bidder. This would imply that the Tories and Labour have an equal chance to buy LibDem support by offering the most and biggest policy concessions. But the Tories are unlikely to have an opportunity to submit their government programme for parliamentary support unless Labour has done so beforehand and has been defeated on the floor of the House. The expectation must be that the first decision facing the LibDems will be whether to vote for or against the incumbent Labour government’s Queen’s Speech; there’ll be no way for the Tories to get theirs in first, unless of course the LibDems declare in advance that they are firmly committed to supporting a Tory government. And why on earth would they do that?

Thirdly, I wanted to show that even without bargaining and horse-trading between LibDems and Labour, there’s a very large area of potentially common ground between the two parties: all the items I included in my hypothetical communication to the LibDems would enjoy massive support among Labour Party members and supporters, even though some would require changes in current Labour government policy: and all would conform closely with LibDem policies in their manifesto. In combination they would add up to a progressive reformist programme for a centre-left government supported by both the main centre-left parties which together will have won a majority of the votes cast and the seats won in the election.

On the question (raised in another comment on my earlier post) whether the LibDems’ likely share of the national vote will entitle them to an invitation from Brown to take part in a formal Lab-LibDem coalition, with several seats in the Cabinet, I suspect that this might not be what they will want: they might well prefer the greater freedom to criticise and to hold somewhat different positions on current issues which they would enjoy if outside the government but supporting it ad hoc and conditionally, under a formal or informal pact. If their leaders are part of the government, running government departments and participating in Cabinet decisions, they will be bound by the doctrine of collective government responsibility, which would greatly limit their freedom of manoeuvre. They may also prefer not to incur the odium they might earn by being seen to sit down at the Cabinet table with the widely unpopular Gordon Brown: and going into a coalition with him would look even more provocatively like propping up and perpetuating an unpopular Labour government which on some criteria would be seen as having lost the election, even if it wins more seats than any other party. And not least, a semi-informal pact might not require the internal party formalities of meetings of the party executive and/or a special LibDem conference that would apparently be required for Clegg to enter a formal coalition.

Similarly, I’m not convinced that the Labour government would prefer a formal coalition with the LibDems to a less formal alliance or understanding with them. Reaching quick and clear-cut decisions would be more complicated if a group of LibDem Cabinet ministers had to be persuaded to acquiesce in them over every issue that might arise, and there could be considerable reluctance to hand over to them three or four (or even more) key departments of state: the current Labour ministers of those departments might not be overjoyed at having to step down from them to make way for a LibDem. Sections of the Labour Party in the country (what’s left of it) might also regard the acceptance of the LibDems into a predominantly Labour administration as a form of surrender, even betrayal. So both sides might well prefer a pact to a coalition.

I don’t however agree that the LibDems would suffer no electoral backlash if they were to deny their support in quick succession first to Labour and then to the Conservatives, thus almost certainly precipitating another election very soon after tomorrow’s.  Such a demonstration of uncompromising LibDem ideological purity might give some satisfaction to the political theologians in the Liberal Democratic Party but I think it would arouse considerable anger everywhere else. The LibDems would not be able to avoid the charge of having made it impossible for anyone to govern the country, and this at a moment of grave crisis when firm and resolute government is desperately needed. Such a charge could not be made against either Labour or the Tories, both of which would have been only too ready to carry on the Queen’s government (if you’ll pardon the expression) had they not been prevented from doing so by LibDem obstinacy. History, or at any rate the conventional wisdom and common sense, show too that the electorate doesn’t like being forced to go through another election campaign all over again so soon after the last one, when a little flexibility and willingness to compromise on the part of the LibDems would have made a second election unnecessary. It’s a fair bet that in such circumstances the electorate would punish the LibDems and that their share of the vote would drop like a bomb.

For these reasons I don’t believe that if the LibDems were to vote to defeat the existing Labour government’s programme in the Queen’s Speech, they would then realistically have the option of voting down the Conservative government that would inevitably at once take its place. They would be stuck with a Cameron government for at least a year and possibly longer, probably until Cameron himself judged that the moment had come when he could expect to win an overall majority in a fresh election and could thereupon ask for a dissolution (which would undoubtedly be granted). Thus the LibDems would find themselves forced to acquiesce, perhaps for years, in a Tory government over which they would have no leverage or influence whatever, as well as having to prop up a Tory government adamantly opposed to any change in the electoral system. In other words, if Brown can hang on for long enough to submit a LibDem-friendly Queen’s Speech to the house of commons, the LibDems will have no realistic option but to support it, thus ensuring the continuation of a Brown Labour government. To do anything else would be LibDem suicide. They would have only one shot in their locker, and if they fired it, that would be the end of them.

All this of course assumes that the LibDems will hold the balance of power in a hung parliament if that’s the result of tomorrow’s election.  This assumption may need to be qualified, or possibly reinforced, by the attitudes of the smaller parties if these succeed in materially increasing their representation in the House of Commons.  The Ulster Unionists are already in an alliance with the Conservative Party and DUP MPs would probably support the Conservatives as well, as might UKIP.  If Sinn Fein MPs continue to boycott the House of Commons, that will reduce the number of seats required for a majority.  Any Green, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Respect MPs are likelier to support a Labour than a Conservative programme for government.   So it’s not absolutely axiomatic that the LibDems’ votes in the House of Commons on their own will be decisive.  The devil will be in the arithmetical detail.  Seats in parliament, not the share of the votes cast in the election, will be the ultimate determinants, however much the Tory or LibDem press might clamour for the opposite.

It’s hard to envisage a better and more promising outcome to this election than a continuing Labour government in a formal or informal alliance with the LibDems and perhaps with other centre-left parties also.  The arithmetic of the opinion polls and the procedures that will apply if there’s a hung parliament strongly suggest that this is a perfectly feasible result.  My fears about this dream scenario are two-fold:  first, that Clegg shows signs of leaning increasingly closely towards the Conservatives (for reasons that are to me utterly baffling, even from a LibDem point of view): and secondly, that I still see a small overall majority for the Tories as somewhat likelier than a hung parliament, in spite of what the polls are saying.  Something very strange indeed is going on if the main opposition party can’t win an election outright after their opponent has been in power for 13 years, has launched at least two and probably three deeply unpopular wars (two of them also illegal), is presiding over the deepest recession for a generation, has eroded civil liberties to an extraordinary extent, and is led by an uncharismatic prime minister who, however unfairly, attracts dislike and contempt in roughly equal proportions. I know that it’s impossible to doubt which side to back when you consider Labour’s outstanding successes, Gordon Brown’s unquestionable strengths and achievements, and Labour instincts and values, compared with the lamentable record in office and reactionary instincts of the Conservatives, and their economically and socially illiterate programmes (throttling the economic recovery at birth, repealing the Human Rights Act, still further increasing our bursting prison population, cutting taxes on the rich and increasing them on the poor, recklessly privatising our basic public services under cover of a lot of waffle about the Big Society, wrecking our position in Europe, and probably attacking women’s rights by surrendering to religious bigotry over abortion).  But I also know that not everyone seems to see things that way!