Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Choice

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition may not happen, of course. But until I know for a fact it's all going to fall through, I will allow myself the chance to dream. My ideal government would be moderate, socially and economically liberal, civil-liberties friendly, not afraid of the tabloids (or of the Guardian, for that matter), able to take the country in a new direction after thirteen depressing years of over-centralisation and media micromanagement, untainted by sleaze and demonstrably new. It's a tall order, I know, but frankly a combination of the best elements of the Conservatives and Lib Dems would be more likely to achieve it than either party could alone.

Just think: Nick Clegg, as Home Secretary, introducing a great repeal of the worst of New Labour's authoritarian legislation: the terror laws, the ID cards, the DNA retention scheme rejected by the European Court of Human Rights, the secret inquests and the restrictions on trial by jury. Ken Clarke back as chancellor, restoring confidence and good sense after years of spendthrift mismanagement - and, with the widely respected, even loved, Vince Cable at his side, the public would be more easily reconciled to the necessary pain. Radical decentralising reforms in education and health - perhaps with the excellent and forward-thinking David Laws occupying one of those seats at the cabinet table (indeed, Michael Gove has publicly and most graciously offered up his own). A more equal distribution of power between Scotland, Wales and England, perhaps. Certainly Change - the banner which both parties carried into the campaign.

Above all, at a time of crisis, when (as we are so often told by pollsters) people want politicians to work together in the national interest, a Lib Dem-Conservative alliance would bring the broadest possible range of political perspective to bear on the problems the country faces. After all, both the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats are now broad and diverse coalitions. The Tories embrace modernisers almost indistinguishable from their Lib Dem counterparts, One Nation traditionalists, Thatcherite economic radicals and religiously-motivated moral conservatives, while the range of thought on the Lib Dem side runs the gamut from left-wingers unhappy with the rightward drift of New Labour to genuine economic liberals.

That may be a recipe for confusion, of course, but there is one big thing most can agree on and which differentiates them from Labour - a distrust of the big state. Other than that, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition would be a triumph of pluralism and diversity. And by doing a deal with the Conservatives Nick Clegg would prove that he represents a genuinely independent third party, not (as many suspect) an adjunct of Labour.

Compare the alternative: the "anti-Tory alliance" so much desired by self-styled "progressives", but which would really be no more than a mechanism for propping up a discredited, statist, morally and intellectually bankrupt Labour government that has been massively rejected by the voters. Especially the voters in England, which gave the Conservatives a 62-seat majority. Such a Labour-Lib Dem-nationalist-Green conjugation would have no legitimacy to govern England. And if the SNP and Plaid Cymru abstained on devolved matters, as is their practice, such an administration would be unable to introduce a single law affecting only England. The result would be permanent stalemate, while the press cried foul.

Such a shabby deal would have as its sole raison-d'etre the exclusion of the one party that has any kind of claim to have "won" the election. Rather than an inclusive government in the national interest, representing all shades of opinion, it would be a negative, highly partisan arrangement whose very existence would anger a large numbers of voters. With the barest of majorities, it would be terminally weak - at a time when strong government is essential. And for what? The Lib Dems, merely to indulge their obsession with PR, would have shackled themselves to a corpse.

What would the public conclude? That the "anti-Tory majority" is no myth but, in party terms at least, a fixture of the Westminster scene. That backroom deals, inaccessible to the public, matter more than the democratically-expressed will of the people. That tribalism matters more than the public interest. That Labour and the Liberal Democrats are, to all intents and purposes, a single party, with only the Tories offering an alternative to the status quo. That Nick Clegg's promise to respect the mandate of the party with the strongest representation was a lie. That they're all the same. The Lib Dems would have gained their greatest desire - but at the price, not only of their soul, but possibly of their very existence.

And as for voting reform - whoever forms the next government, it is now almost inevitable that there will have to be a referendum at some time about some kind of new system. The only questions are: when will it be held and, more significantly, what options will be on the ballot paper. There are multiple ironies here. One is that Nick Clegg has been more than compensated for his poor showing in terms of seats with the power he now wields. Another is that the traditional voting system, cruel as it was to the Lib Dems, produced a far less distorted result this time round. In 2005, as few people seem willing to remember (and few complained at the time), 36% of the vote (to the Tories' 34%) delivered Labour a shockingly undemocratic 60-seat majority. Today, with Labour's vote share collapsed to historically abyssal proportions, they still won almost 260 seats.

I do not say that, with 36% of the vote the Conservatives deserved to win an outright majority. They didn't. Under a properly functioning version of first past the post, with equalised constituencies drawn up without regard to extraneous factors such as county or borough boundaries and without the absurd over-representation of Scotland and Wales, no party would be able to obtain an absolute majority without winning more than around 42% of the vote. If as seems likely we have entered a time of three-party politics, with the three major parties each having a core vote of between 20 and 30%, then a fair FPTP system would deliver hung Parliaments on a regular basis. Labour rightly won in 1997 and 2001 (although not by the massive landslides they actually obtained) but the 2005 outcome was a travesty of democracy. Coalition government, the very thing desired by proponents of PR and feared by its detractors, increasingly looks like the future, whichever system is used to elect MPs to Parliament.

But by all means, put the case to the people. The Tories would, I think, be monumentally stupid to hold out on proportional representation in the sure knowledge that a Labour-Liberal-nationalist-Green alliance would immediately introduce it. There are, after all, other likely reforms that would be far less objectionable to Tories: recall of errant MPs, democratic elections to a reformed Upper House, perhaps fixed Parliamentary terms (though where a government is weak or based on shifting alliances, that could be both dangerous and radically anti-democratic). The people can be presented with several different options, ministers can be given free rein to argue their preferred system, and ultimately the decision will be made by the voters. The referendum is going to happen: the only questions are whether Conservative ministers will have any say on what choice is put before the public, and whether they will be able to argue for their favoured outcome from a position of strength.

That, then, is the choice facing Nick Clegg. If he joins a stable coalition with the Conservatives, he can exercise real power and see the implementation of many policies dear to Lib Dem hearts. He can prove himself a flexible, grown-up politician leading a party that knows its own mind. If he turns away in a gran rifiuto, he may please more of his own supporters and achieve more rapidly a referendum on voting reform. But by that stage he may have so alienated the public that the referendum is lost and the Conservatives are back with a landslide.

I think Nick Clegg knows what is in his own, his party's and the country's best interests. I just hope his MPs and supporters can extricate themselves from their backsides for long enough to realise.