As discussed in previous post, The Arithmetic of Democracy, the next government of the UK – and the future of electoral reform – depends on the deal Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, makes over the next couple of days.
The sensible thing to do is to make a coalition agreement with the Conservatives. A ConLib (or as they’re calling it on Twitter, a ConDem) coalition government has a sufficient majority over the Labour party (and a solid overall majority) that it might well last four or five years if an agreement can be forged to suit both parties. It would mean abandoning PR for the lifetime of this Parliament; it would lend weight to Labour’s campaigning that a vote for the LibDems is a vote for the Conservatives. But it would be sensible, and John Rentoul explains why in the Independent.
Or Nick Clegg can help form a rainbow coalition – Labour, LibDem, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Green – which can stand against the Conservatives. This rainbow coalition has many disadvantages and only two advantages.
A disadvantage: this rainbow coalition couldn’t hope to stay together for four or five years. It barely achieves a majority in Parliament. SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs seldom spend much time in Westminister: this coalition could fall if five MPs had the flu, four were stuck abroad due to volcanic ash, one was in Lerwick for the weekend and the tenth MP slept in. When the government fell, it would be back to the General Election madness – and while the Conservatives could afford a fullscale campaign with rich donors to back them, no other party could so quickly after the last. Nor would the public in general be happy with having this disruption occur again.
Further: there might be (and there certainly would be a media narrative to that effect) a feeling that by siding with the rainbow coalition, Nick Clegg was joining (in Janet Daley’s charming phrase) a coalition of the losers – never mind that as a group, this bunch of progressive lefties got the larger share of the vote and have more seats in Parliament. More people voted against the Tories than voted for them. But this won’t be the media narrative.
And the key disadvantage: Rupert Murdoch owns 40% of the British media. He wants a Tory government in place to gut the BBC, which competes with his properties. If Nick Clegg does not lie down with the Tories and accept what they choose to give him, the vilification he experienced during the pre-election campaign will be nothing compared to the vilification that will be piled on him post-election. A rainbow coalition government and its constituent parties would be subject to unceasing media attack.
The objective would be, if the rainbow coalition were determined to stay in government until they had got a PR system of election in place and then to call a General Election using PR, to bring down this coalition and to force a General Election by FPTP, with mass media talking up the Tories. So if Nick Clegg goes rainbow, and loses, the next General Election could well have the Tories in place with a big enough majority to form a government without partners – and every incentive to bury PR, perhaps by instituting their own “parliamentary reform”. (David Cameron came up with some cool gerrymandering ideas of “standardised constituencies” that would tend to reduce the number of Labour and SNP seats in Parliament.)
The advantages are only two, but they’re big ones.
One: If the rainbow coalition can work together (and refrain from taking holidays or falling seriously ill) then PR can be delivered. There needs to be a referendum promised in the Queen’s Speech, with a yes vote promising PR for the next General Election: there needs to be some serious work done on which form of PR the UK should adopt: and there needs to be a committment from all partners to oppose the Tories and support the Labour and LibDem policies. The LibDems have been a tail-of-the-dog third party in UK politics for decades, even though they muster 25-30% of the vote: PR should change that permanently. And it’s what a majority of the British people want. 62%, a clear majority, favour a change from FPTP. cite That won’t affect the Tories – their whole opposition to PR is that they want to be in government even though a majority oppose them – but it ought to affect the other parties.
Two: A dealbreaker. I very nearly voted LibDem this time. (I didn’t, because I did some complicated vote-calculations and concluded that the Green party needed my vote more.) I have voted LibDem in past elections, where the candidate seemed like the right person and had a better chance of winning than the Labour candidate. (It’s usually that choice.) But if Nick Clegg demonstrates that voting for the LibDems is pretty much what Labour always says it is – a vote for the Tories – then I’m certainly never voting LibDem again. If Nick Clegg gives up on PR in order to do the sensible thing and get into government, then the UK needs to have a two-party system, Labour v Conservative: we can’t afford to have the LibDems kicking around wasting votes any more.
I’ve been following 38Degrees for a while. On Friday, I e-mailed the senior LibDems via their site, letting them know how I felt. Yesterday, I went to a rally they and other organisations put together. Today, I donated to their campaign to fund full-page newspaper ads to tell Nick Clegg: Don’t sell out on PR. Fair Votes Now!
They began this fundraising campaign just over three hours ago – about 2pm. Their goal was to raise £5000. In three hours they’ve received £14,307 from 925 people. [Update: it's now 15,235, donated by 976 people, so 50 people donated an average of 18.56 in the past hour and a half. The earlier average was £15.46 per donor, so it looks like donations may be getting bigger as the total goes up... and 4 people just donated an average of £20 each in the last 4 minutes, so, yes.]
We can’t afford to let Nick Clegg do the sensible thing.