Wednesday, 6 May 2015
"With a Heavy Heart, and in the UK's National Interest"
Much energy has been expended discussing the prospect of anything between 35 and 59 SNP Members of Parliament holding the balance of power, and what an outrage it would be to have Scottish MPs that nobody in England voted for legislating for the whole of the UK in a way that only English parties that nobody in Scotland voted for should be permitted to do. In the constitutional fog that has been visited upon us from Alba we could be excused for forgetting that the Liberal Democrats had ever existed.
And yet in spite of their low poll ratings, the Lib Dems look good for maybe 25 to 30 seats as they fight a rearguard action in their areas of strength whilst remaining content to battle it out with Bus Stop Elvis in the remainder. Thirty seats of course is less than the SNP is expected to receive, but probably enough if combined with either of the major parties to be able to outvote the other one.
It occurs to me that, with the SNP having pledged to do nothing to help put the Tories back into office, a new dynamic has been created which moves the hitherto forgotten Liberal Democrats very much centre stage.
Assuming (as we shouldn’t, but for the purposes of this article we must) an outcome tomorrow which is something akin to what we have been seeing in the opinion polls, a 30-seat Lib Dem premium added to either the Tory or the Labour total would, discarding for the moment other parties, give the beneficiary a numerical advantage over its competitor. For whatever reason the assumption would appear to be being made that the Lib Dems will line up with the Tories. But if the combined total number of seats won by Labour and the SNP was to exceed the combined total for the Tories and Lib Dems (possibly fortified by those of the DUP and/or UKIP) then both Tories and Lib Dems would suddenly find themselves powerless. And powerless is not what Nick Clegg aspires to be.
If, on the other hand, the Lib Dems were to throw their lot in with Labour in what would probably still be a minority coalition, it kind of dares the SNP to line up with the Tories or face being effectively airbrushed from the picture. Abstaining on votes would not be enough. In order to defeat the (Lab-LD) government on any vote the SNP and the Tories would have to join forces, if only on an ad hoc basis and strictly for the purpose of.
Would the Liberal Democrats abandon their present course and join with Labour instead? There are a number of catalysts which have the potential to unite to bring this about, the first being the Tories’ proposed EU referendum which is being touted as a red line issue for the Tories in any potential future negotiations. As the most Euro-friendly amongst the parties this cannot be an easy one for the Libs. Labour, taking the opposite position, may have more appeal.
And then there is the question of proportional representation. A major negotiating chip for Nick Clegg in the coalition talks of 2010, he somehow allowed David Cameron to schmooze him into accepting the half-arsed Alternative Vote option as an acceptable substitute and then suffered the indignity of watching his coalition partner rubbish it as being, well, a half-arsed alternative, at the ensuing referendum. Although Labour is, on balance, opposed to PR (and for pretty much the same self-serving reasons as the Tories), there is a substantial body of opinion within the party – including, significantly, Ed Miliband – which sees things differently, looking upon PR as having the potential to rally progressive voting support under one roof, thereby providing a near-guarantee against a conservative majority at any time in the future.
Informed opinion has it that Nick Clegg, as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, is instinctively more comfortable around the Tories than he would be with the Labour Party. This could help to explain why reports from Clegg’s constituency in Sheffield Hallam are strongly predicting widespread tactical voting for Clegg from Tory supporters as a counter to a strong electoral challenge from Labour. But were Clegg to lose his seat, or were he to be ousted through an internal coup as soon as the new Parliament is formed, his successor might well be less wedded to the Tories in any event.
Other Lib Dem “red lines” might not prove insurmountable. Clegg has thus far promised more in increased funding to the NHS than has Miliband, but then Miliband has already told us he wishes to be a Prime Minister who “under-promises and over-achieves”. More spending on the NHS is unlikely to be a cause for violent protests from traditional Labour supporters. The Lib Dems also insist upon lifting more of the lower-paid out of tax, which is a euphemism for saying that for an ever-greater number of people wages should be kept so low that their tax contributions will not be missed. As we move towards a society in which “Minimum Wage” effectively becomes the wage that almost everybody can expect to earn, Labour is already doing its bit to manage expectations by raising it to a marginally more generous level.
Which leaves Clegg’s obsession with “legitimacy”, a term which he treats as being synonymous with a party having won the largest number of seats, surely a peculiar position for an opponent of First Past The Post to take. Most of the polls seem to have the Tories slightly ahead in this regard, although unlike Ed’s promises it is far from being carved in stone. But his policy is only to speak to the largest party first, not necessary to ally himself with that party. If a better deal can be made with the second largest party we can bet our bottom euro that is where the Lib Dems will be heading.
When all is said and done the clincher could well be that by allying himself with Labour, and in so doing rescuing Ed Miliband from the indignity of having to depend on the hated SNP for support, Clegg could consider himself to be “acting in the UK’s national interest”, much indulging his penchant for striking a lofty pose. The elephant in my living room tells me that this is a prospect he will find difficult to resist.
Meantime the reaction of the Scottish voters to having been stitched up a second time is unlikely to differ very much from the first. The case for independence will become incontestable. The case for change moves ever forward.