Saturday, 29 June 2013

What Do We Do With The Liberal Democrats In 2015?

I have signed up for the Conservatives' Team 2015 initiative, which has a 40/40 strategy - namely, focus on 40 seats needed to get a majority of about 40. and try to hang on to the 40 most vulnerable seats. Naturally, next door's Southampton Itchen is one of those.

And this is the Conservative aim - to secure the first Conservative overall majority since April 1992 (and by the time of the May 2015 general election, that will be nearly a quarter of a century ago). Politics was different then. The UK Independence Party, Kidderminster Hospital & Health Concern and Respect - The Unity Coalition didn't even exist, there were no Green or Alliance Party of Northern Ireland MPs. There were even Ulster Unionist Party MPs! (No, I'm not kidding, there really were).

And this raises the question - what about the Liberal Democrats?

There is a narrative favoured by papers such as the Daily Mail in which Prime Minister David Cameron would really love to introduce things but is hampered at every turn by the Liberal Democrat tail wagging the dog. Sorry to disappoint them, but if Cameron is a hostage of the Liberal Democrats then he didn't wait to be politically kidnapped by them before showing the Stockholm Syndrome, he really is a willing hostage.

Cameron supports same-sex marriage because he is a Conservative, not because the Liberal Democrats demanded it. He was an avid husky-hugger before the coalition. The "Vote Blue, Go Green" slogan dates to an era before the Lord President of the Council, Nick Clegg, was elected Liberal Democrat leader.

As I noted some time ago, House of Lords reform was in the Conservative manifesto, not an idea foisted on the Conservatives by their coalition partners.

If the Liberal Democrats are always getting their way, then why do tuition fees still exist?

Both parties have had to make sacrifices.

There are basically 3 possible outcomes to the next election.

The first is a Conservative majority. Now, it might seem logical to ditch the Liberal Democrats. But then there is the concept of loyalty, which dictates that this isn't the way. Legislation still has to get through a hung House of Lords, so even if there is no formal coalition, its passage there could be eased if the Liberal Democrats are brought onboard beforehand - whether by something along the lines of the late 1970s "Lib-Lab pact" or the late 1990s Cabinet committees (both cases would involve Liberal Democrat ex-ministers providing input on policy areas which they were once the Cabinet minister for, and making use of their experience by advising their Conservative successors). After all, a Conservative victory will rest on the party's performance in a Government in which it shared power.

In addition, even with a Conservative majority - especially a small one - there will be backbench rebeliions. In those circumstances it would be prudent for Cameron to ensure that he always had a majority. Sometimes the Conservatives would more-or-less be united around something, other times they wouldn't and he would need to reach out to the Liberal Democrats (and maybe some of the more sensible Labour MPs) to ensure that the Government gets its business through. No point making political enemies for the sake of it.

The second outcome is one where the existing Government keeps its majority in a hung Parliament. Loyalty works both ways. In this case, the Conservatives have a right to expect the Liberal Democrats to keep the coalition going - even if Labour emerges as the largest party.

The third outcome is where the existing Government loses its majority - either in a hung Parliament or by Labour winning an overall majority. In that case, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are absolved from any obligations towards each other, and the Liberal Democrats are free to form a coalition with Labour (if the Parliament is hung).

With this, I want to turn to something else. Now, in May 2011, I voted for altering the electoral system to the Alternative Vote. And one reason was that this Government could be the first since November 1935 to face re-election and get over half the vote, but instead of a landslide majority, it could lose power.

And if AV was no longer an option, what about electoral pacts? But I have been thinking about this.

Every time there is a boundary review, some areas lose seats. And if that area is dominated by one party then there will be the battle between sitting MPs for that party's nomination. We saw this when Scotland was reduced from 72 seats at the June 2001 general election to 59 at the May 2005 general election, so there were seats where more than one Labour MP had a claim, and the party had to choose between them, with the other(s) having to retire.

One thing that was not tried was running both MPs as Labour candidates in safe Labour seats and letting the voters decide.

But that is what will happen in 2015! Across the south west of England, and locally in seats like Eastleigh and Romsey & Southampton North, there are what are effectively safe Coalition seats. Rather than a deal beforehand with parties deciding who a joint Coalition candidate would be (presumably the sitting MP), the voters would be effectively asked "Do you want to keep your Coalition MP or replace him/her with this Coalition candidate?".

There could still be a place for pacts where one Coalition party is in a battle with Labour along the lines of old anti-Labour pacts from the 1950s. Or we could just assume that in those sort of seats there would be tactical voting in an attempt to keep Labour out.

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