In an election where the outcome is highly uncertain, and likely to be defined by feverish negotiations between many parties – with even the smallest possibly playing a part – ruling out options before the result is known is obviously foolish.
2010 was a success
The Liberal Democrats know this well. We have recent experience of negotiating in a balanced Westminster Parliament. In 2010, we established a clear principle – that we would talk first to the party with the largest number of seats and/or votes. This was our initial negotiating position. Crucially, we did not rule out talking to other parties.
Over the five days following the last election, Nick Clegg and his team played a blinder. They skilfully used tenuous electoral arithmetic (which only just made a deal with Labour potentially viable – and wouldn’t have in practice) to increase their leverage in conversations with the Conservatives, who were terrified that such a deal had already been done. (This is often forgotten, but the reason for Cameron’s famous “big, open and comprehensive” offer was that senior Tories believed – laughably, in hindsight – that a Lib/Lab deal had been struck.
I still believe that in 2010, the Lib Dems got a good deal in policy terms. We secured our main goals, and while there was obviously a major error (you all know the one), I still don’t believe the Tories could have been forced into a better deal on the constitution.
The reason we got a good deal was because we kept our options open. There was a clear, established principle – the largest party is the one we’ll talk to first – and our manifesto had sufficiently radical policy positions to enable a sensible trade-off or trade-down based on Hegelian-type principles.
Why not the same again?
I can only assume, though, that senior Lib Dems this time around think we got a bad deal in 2010, as the approach seems to be entirely different now. Nick Clegg has been on the news today, ruling out some sort of minority coalition with Labour. As it happens, the arrangement he describes – one where the SNP are free to come and go, nipping at our heels and creating instability – would perhaps be both unworkable and damaging to the process of government.
But the idea of ruling such deals out now – difficult though they may be – is deeply counterproductive. At best, people will ask why we haven’t specifically ruled out other deals, perhaps with parties that are no more representative (or even less representative) than the SNP; we can think immediately of the DUP. At worst, the risk is that the Lib Dems look like they are pulling only in one direction, especially when Nick has also said that a government formed by the second largest party might “lack legitimacy” – something that has no basis and actually militates against sensible coalition-building.
This is doubly baffling when one looks at the Lib Dem manifesto and realises that it is a highly cautious, measured document, designed to allow synthesis with either of the two big parties. If anything, the Lib Dems’ current policy agenda is closer to Labour’s than to the Tories. Effectively, unlike in 2010, we have pared down our expectations before even commencing negotiations, hoping to act as a tacked-on adjunct rather than as the engine of ideas. This, I believe, is a grave mistake and one we will live to regret as a party.
What’s the result?
It’s a very confused position, especially as current polling indicates that a Labour-Lib Dem-SNP match-up of some kind may be the only grouping that actually guarantees a majority.
But more damagingly than that, voters who only read headlines (and that’s probably most of us) will again get the sense that Nick Clegg only wants to do a deal with the Conservatives. I know that this is not the case: all Lib Dems are passionate about working in government in the national interest, and would certainly not be averse to working with Labour if it meant a better settlement and another opportunity to push through liberal policies. I think even Labour recognise that, which is why we are yet to hear official calls for Clegg to stand down to enable a deal; there is recognition within Labour that Clegg is a player and a believer in plural government.
All of which only brings us back to the question: why take this position publicly, less than two weeks before polling day?