What Nick Clegg and his Lib-Dems should do

by Jake Quinn

Smaller parties suffer disproportionately from any disruptive events that affect governing coalitions, they almost always lose votes at elections following ones where they have coalesced to prop up larger parties in government, and more Brits want the Labour Party out of government than in.

These facts make a Lib Dem-Labour coalition a probable nightmare scenario for the Lib Dems, despite that fact that the two parties make up 52 percent of the popular vote.  Supporting another Labour government (especially one led by Gordon Brown) would probably see the Lib Dems punished at the next election, guaranteeing a Tory landslide in five years time.

Unfortunately, that leaves one option for Nick Clegg’s troops; some kind of support arrangement with the Conservatives.

The Tories won the most seats, by some margin. Therefore, of Britain’s parties, they have the moral mandate to govern.  If they do get to govern they will be inheriting a nightmare set of finances and will be staring down the barrel of the second dip of the likely double-dip recession (thanks to Greece et al).

I think Lib Dem support of the Tories is inevitable, but it needs to be very subtly managed. A formal coalition is almost out of the question because the Lib Dems are, as a liberal centrist party, miles apart from the Tories on almost every policy position from electoral reform to European Union to public spending.

The Lib Dems will need, for the sake of both their credibility and nation, to allow someone to govern however. There are (as NZ has shown since 1996) a myriad of forms that support arrangements can take.

They can formally coalesce (i.e. executive and cabinet power sharing), they can support on confidence motions, supply votes (voting for the Tory budget) and an agreed set of policies. Or, as I suggest they do, they can go for something even less formal.

They can agree to abstain on the important votes (confidence and supply in particular) which would allow the Tories to achieve the all-important governing majority in the House of Commons.

This last option means they are less easily accused of being ‘part of the government’. Not being tarred with the government brush is politically safer.

They can tell the public that they don’t like this new Tory government (and call it that), but that governing with Labour was not the right thing to do. They can say that they are permitting the Tories to govern for the sake of stability in Great Britain. They can take the moral high-ground without getting their hands too dirty.

This may increase their chances of avoiding the stiff costs of coalition that are experienced all over the world by smaller parties that go after the baubles of office.  Those baubles might seem attractive and the lure of greater policy influence is hard to resist. But resist they must.

They should not seek policy concessions in return for their support because if they do they suddenly become part of the government (as has been observed in NZ with New Zealand First, United Future and now the Maori Party and ACT).

They should simply seek a Royal Commission on the Electoral System with a promise of a series of binding referenda after its conclusion. In exchange, they offer their abstention on a range of key votes which would allow David Cameron to govern with a minority government.

Update: Chris Trotter has a great blog up today about the extraordinary kinds of pressure that will be coming down on Nick Clegg. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee muses over the possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition (which, 4/5 of Guardian polled readers would prefer). Oh and Malcolm Tucker’s post election emails are, well, hysterical. Andrew Kirton, a Kiwi politico based in London, has his take over at the Fife Lane blog, its worth a read too.