Thursday, 17 May 2012

What if the Lib Dems hadn't gone into coalition

The Liberal Democrats it is rather obvious to say have not achieved great opinion poll or electoral success since agreeing to take part in the coalition Government with the Conservatives.

So with hindsight, were there better alternatives?

The most commonly heard suggestion is that had the Liberal Democrats not gone into coalition then the Conservatives would have formed a minority Government and soon called a general election on the basis that the Country needed strong government and a clear mandate to sort out the economic crisis.

Co-incidently, Labour and Lib Dems would have lacked the cash for a second general election and the Conservatives would have had enough money to win a workable majority.

The idea of a rainbow coalition of Labour, Lib Dems and all the minor parties working together was far fetched.  It would have been very unstable and short lasting.  The people most aginst it were found in the Labour Party, and they would have wrecked it. Ironically though it might have served the Lib Dems better.

The history of coalitions has not been kind to the smaller coalition parties.  They tend to get the blame for anything bad (you could have stopped it) and little cerdit for anything good (it would ahve happend anyway).  To prosper, smaller parties have to point to a number of clear and popular sucesses with electoral appeal and have clear future aims that command electoral support.

I think it is important to understand the feelings of the Lib Dems who genuinely felt they were putting the interests of the country above the interest of their party. How often voters ask for that and how little they have rewarded the Lib Dems.

The problem facing the Lib Dems in 2010 was that clearly despite sometimes high poll ratings, they polled only a slightly higher percentage of the vote than in 2005 and the actually returned fewer MPs, many in very marginal seats.
The prospect of another general election  anytime soon was not appealing.

The alternative to a coalition - apart from another general election or a minority government of some sort was a so called "confidence and supply arrangement" whereby the Liberal Democrats woudl agree to support another party - in all probability the Conservatives, in votes of no confidence and on issues of government finance. Other issues would be voted on depending on Lib Dem policy or negotiations with the Government.

The Liberal Party had failed to form a coalition with either Conservative or Labour between the two general elections in 1974. Their support declined as people concluded that firstly the Liberal could only elect a handful of MPs (13 out of 635) and secondly, given a choice between supporting Labour or Conservatives, the Liberal chose neither. In reality, neither Conseravtives or Labour were interested in a deal with the Liberals, the Liberals called for a Government of national unity, but that was never likely, and therfore compounded the view that the Liberals weren't coming up with realistic proposals.   The situation in Feb 1974 was much like 2010 - Liberal and Conservatives combined still fell short of a majority (the same as Lib Dem and Labour in 2010)

I expect most MPs expected David Cameron to do what Harold Wilson dis in 1974, form a  minority Government, introduce a few popular measures and call a new general election as soon as decently possible  arguing that the Government needed a proper majority to get the job done. Tellingly, the Conservatives co-operated with the Labour Government, allowing them to govern.

Most Liberal Democrats seemed very surprised that the Conservatives offered a coalition in 2010, I wasn't, but more of that in another post.  Basically, I think Cameron was copying the approach of Tony Blair - who saw coaltion with the Lib Dems as a way to co-op them into a 'big tent'. For Blair the balance of MPs was never right, for Cameron it was.

In 1976-78 the Lib/Lab Pact kept the unpopular Labour Government in power,  but didn't reap huge benefits for the Liberal Party at the time.

Although the idea of voting for or against the Government on an issue by issue basis seems attractive - but it is highly likley that the public would have got peeved with the Lib Dems 'will they won't they'

Of course anyone who disagrees with the Government would want the Lib dems to stop the Government doing X, even if they Lib Dems suppported x, or the Govt. didn't need Lib Dem approval as other parties supported the Government.

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